Imagine a metal structure 100 time lighter than Styrofoam yet retaining immense, inherent strength. It’s real and it was developed by researchers at HRL Laboratories, a joint venture between Boeing and GM, back in 2011. Boeing has now released a promotional video showing the incredible versatility of the product that they have named Microlattice so we assume it is close to a commercial reality as well.

Microlattice - 100 times lighter than Styrofoam
Microlattice – 100 times lighter than Styrofoam

As is so often the case, the innovation was based on nature… the structure of bones. Bones have a dense, strong exterior but are mostly air cavities internally. If our bones were solid, we’d be much heavier and would require a significantly larger musculature to carry ourselves around. Birds have an even lighter bone density than other animals yet those bones are strong enough to handle wind buffeting and ‘crash landings’. Microlattice mimics nature by having a rigid metal exterior while being 99.9% air by volume.

A cross-section showing the structure of bones.
A cross-section showing the structure of bones.

The microlattice is built up of masses of interconnected nickel tubes with a wall thickness of just 100 nanometres. That’s about 1,000th the thickness of a human hair! These open cells allow the structure to have a massive compression potential meaning that it can absorb significant force without breaking.

It’s obvious to see how microlattice could be used in future air and spacecraft to make them lighter, stronger and more fuel efficient but the same technology will offer the same benefits to the automotive industry.

The following video gives more detail.

You can read the original press release here…

As always, we live in interesting times! What’s your take? Where can you see microlattice being used? Share your thoughts via the comments box below!

 

  • Leonard Smit

    Hmm … the lightest (ie lowest density) metal that I’m aware of is Lithium (around 534 kg/m³). This is a the ‘lightest’ metal structure using Nickel. Very different things indeed.

    The research scientist in the video more accurately refers to it as the “lightest material”. Solid Nickel has a density of 8908 2.1 kg/m³, but the density of this material is 2.1 kg/m³ including air, or 0.9 kg/m³ without (which is the way these things are conventionally measured). What is astounding is that this is slightly under the density of silica aerogel, so this is a very significant achievement.
    http://www.sciencemag.org/content/334/6058/962.full

    • now4dw

      Yes Leonard, we stand corrected. We have changed the heading accordingly.