Microlattice metal just sounds pretty, doesn't it? And the most popular picture demonstrating the lightweight nature of microlattice metals is of a little piece of the material perched atop a fluffy dandelion head. Cute!
And, because each hollow strand of laser-cut nickel is thinner than a human hair, the structure of the material is 99.99 percent air. Air! Imagine holding an empty Styrofoam cup in one hand and a cup made of microlattice metal in the other. The metal cup would be lighter.
The magic -- and strength -- is in the laser cutting. The structure of the material was developed by University of California-Irvine, CalTech, and HRL Laboratories for DARPA (the defense department's geekiest research arm), to absorb stress and bounce back. It can be compressed to half its volume and it'll spring right back to its original shape.
This could potentially revolutionize car manufacturing. Picture it: A car body lighter than the same design made of Styrofoam, yet able to absorb an impact and return to its proper form. Lighter cars mean less drag and better fuel efficiency, and the ability to absorb so much energy is an obvious safety plus, too. Parking lot door dings would be a thing of the past.
DARPA seems to think there are other uses for microlattice metals (besides building awesome featherweight cars), like aeronautic engineering and design, energy harvesting systems, building a better battery and even just as a damping material -- since it can absorb acoustic, shock and vibration energy.
Of course, this stuff is still pretty experimental. But someday ... just maybe, we'll all be parking our cars on the heads of dandelions.
Author's Note: Micro-lattice Metal: The future of lightweight cars?
How can something made of nickel be 99.99 percent air? I read the description of the chemical process over and over, and I think I finally understand. Sort of. It's not like I'm going to be making this stuff at my kitchen table or anything. But here's how I understand it: First a lattice of polymers is created and then placed in a nickel-phosphate solution. Once the nickel-phosphate is in place on the lattice, scientists remove the polymer, leaving behind hollow tubes of latticework nickel-phosphorus.
I had been picturing tiny lasers etching out the design, possibly run by mice in tiny clean room gear, with the slippers and hoods and everything. I'm not sure the chemical process is any easier than a tiny laser, but it is definitely less cute.
- Hadlington, Simon. "Metallic microlattice 'lightest structure ever.'" Rsc.org. Nov. 17, 2011. (Feb. 27, 2013) http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/news/2011/November/17111103.asp
- Newsy via YouTube.com. "World's Lightest Metal!" (Feb. 27, 2013) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rWEzq8m9KHQ
- Quick, Darren. "Newly developed metallic 'micro-lattice' material is world's lightest." Gizmag.com. Nov. 17, 2011. (Feb. 27, 2013) http://www.gizmag.com/ultralight-micro-lattice-material/20537/
- Shunk, Chris. "Auto applications sought for new advanced metal that's 100x lighter than Styrofoam." Autoblog.com. Dec. 30, 2011. (Feb. 27, 2013) http://www.autoblog.com/2011/12/30/auto-applications-sought-for-new-advanced-metal-thats-100x-ligh/