Feature

'Microlattice': The world's lightest material?

An ultra-lightweight material that can rest atop a feathery dandelion has scientists walking on air

A team of researchers from UC Irvine, HRL Laboratories, and the California Institute of Technology claim to have created the "world's lightest" material. The findings, published in the Nov. 18 issue of the journal Science, say that the material is 100 times lighter than styrofoam, and capable of sitting atop a feathery dandelion without dispersing its seeds. Here's how it works:

First off, what is it?
Researchers call the material "ultralight metallic microlattice." (Watch a video demo below.) It consists of a series of interlocking hollow tubes made of nickel, each 1,000 times thinner than a human hair. The other 99.99 percent of microlattice is nothing but air, says Deborah Netburn at the Los Angeles Times. When dropped from shoulder height, the microlattice floats like a feather, taking upwards of 10 seconds to reach the ground. 

But why exactly is it so light?
To grasp the anatomy of microlattice, think of the Eiffel Tower or the Golden Gate Bridge. Both structures use relatively small amounts of cleverly-arranged metal to hold a lot of weight. Microlattice has a similar structure. And because it uses such tiny amounts of metal, its density is "less than one-thousandth that of water," says Damon Poeter at PC Mag. Microlattice is still "pretty resilient," though. "When squashed to half its height, the material rebounds 98 percent of the way back." 

What could microlattice be used for?
Such an ultra-lightweight, spongy material could have applications in a number of industries. It could, for instance, dampen accoustics to help soundproof walls, or be used for impact protection in the aerospace industry.

Watch how it works:

Sources: LA TimesPC MagUnited Press International

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