HRL Laboratories, a research company which is owned jointly by Boeing and General Motors, has developed what it is calling "the world's lightest material," and you might ride inside of it, soon.
The material is a microlattice structure made up of hollow tubes that are one-thousandth the thickness of a human hair. The researchers who developed the material compare it to the inside of our bones, which are surprisingly light for being so durable; in fact, they are mostly hollow. The trick to keeping our bones so strong is similar to the way a bridge is built—give it enough internal structure (through a network of supportive tissue), and they can bear surprisingly heavy loads.
"Modern buildings, exemplified by the Eiffel Tower or the Golden Gate Bridge, are incredibly light and weight-efficient by virtue of their architectures," explains Dr. Bill Carter of HRL, referring to the supportive beams and arches that hold up the incredibly heavy structures through creative engineering to maximize tensile strength.
Similarly, the microlattice is incredibly thin and open-weave (it is 99.99 percent air), yet the interwoven tubes create the strength needed to support heavy metals and plastics inside an airplane. The resulting material is 100 times as light as Styrofoam.
The previous title-holder of "world's lightest material" was the inspiringly named "graphene aerogel," which Chinese researchers used to wow the world by balancing it on a delicate flower. Not to be outdone, the HRL researchers one-upped them by balancing their own microlattice on a dandelion. Take that, flower freaks!
"We are revolutionizing lightweight materials by bringing this concept to the materials level and designing their architectures at the nano- and micro-scales," says Carter.
The material also is incredibly impact-resistant, because it naturally bounces back into shape even after it's been compressed. That means it's great for absorbing energy or shock, just like the shocks on your car, but on a much larger scale.
In a video released by Boeing, Sophia Yang, a research scientist for HRL, says it could be used to make airplanes lighter and more fuel efficient, by replacing the denser materials that currently make up things like the interior walls, floor or overhead bins in a typical aircraft.
HRL's research was published in the current issue of Science Magazine.