In 2011, there was an article published in Science about a revolutionary new structure known as microlattice. Despite being made entirely from metal, this stuff is 100 times lighter than styrofoam — so light, in fact, that it can rest on top of a dandelion blossom without destroying it. Back then, the material was still in the experimental phases, but now Boeing has put together a short film explaining how it’s possible to build such a mind-bogglingly lightweight structure out of metal.
According to the researchers at HRL Laboratories — the lab that developed the structure over four years ago– microlattice gets its strength from its nanoscale “open cell” structure. Similar to how your bones are solid on the outside and mostly hollow on the inside, the lattice consists of a solid outer layer filled with a sparse network of interconnected tubes — each of which is a thousandth the width of a human hair. The only difference is that while the open cell structure in your bones is random, the cell structure of metallic microlattice is ordered. This allows it to be incredibly stiff and strong, despite being composed of roughly 99.9 percent air.
Obviously, a material with these properties has a laundry list of potential uses. Direct applications haven’t been settled on quite yet, but Boeing is currently exploring the use of microlattice in structural reinforcement for airplanes — something that could drastically reduce weight and boost fuel efficiency. “When I get on a plane and I’m leaning against the sidewall panel and putting my luggage in the stow bin or I’m walking along the floor panels, I think the microlattice could be used in one of these situations,” says Sophia Yang, research scientist for HRL.
And the aerospace industry is just the tip of the ultra-lightweight iceberg. As it turns out, HRL Laboratories is jointly owned by General Motors, so there’s a fairly good chance that GM has a team of engineers dreaming up ways to build this technology into its next generation of cars. Microlattice could be used for thermal insulation; battery electrodes; and even dampening sound, vibration, and shock energy — so it’s got tons of potential in the automotive industry as well.