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Nitinol is one of the most extraordinary metals to be discovered this century: A simple alloy of nickel and titanium, nitinol has some perplexing properties. A metal with a memory, it can be made to remember any shape into which it is fashioned, returning to that shape whenever it is heated.

For example, a piece of nitinol wire bent to form a circle that is then heated and quenched will remember this shape. It may then be bent or crumpled, but on reheating, will violently untwist, reforming its original shape. This remarkable ability is called Shape Memory Effect (SME); other alloys, such as brasses, are known to possess it to a limited extent. No one fully understands SME, and nitinol remains particularly perplexing, for, whenever it performs this peculiar feat, it appears to be breaking the laws of thermodynamics by springing back into shape with greater force than was used to deform it in the first place.

But not only is nitinol capable of remembering, it also has the ability to "learn". If the heating-cooling-crumpling-reheating process is carried out sufficiently often, and the metal is always crumpled in exactly the same way, the nitinol will not only remember its original shape, but gradually it learns to remember its crumpled form as well, and will begin to return to the same crumpled shape every time it is cooled. Eventually, the metal will crumple and uncrumple, totally unaided, in response to changes in temperature and without any sign of metal fatigue.

Engineers have produced prototype engines that are driven by the force of nitinol springing from one shape to another as it alternately encounters hot and cold water. The energy from these remarkable engines is, however, not entirely free: heat energy is required to produce the temperature differences needed to run the engine. But the optimum temperatures at which the metal reacts can be controlled by altering the proportions of nickel to titanium; some alloys will even perform at room temperature. The necessary temperature range between the warm and the cold can be as little as twelve degrees centigrade.