World’s lightest material is 100 times lighter than Styrofoam

November 18, 2011
Ultra light metal

New metal, which is 99.9 percent air, is so light it can sit atop a dandelion fluff without damaging it (credit: Dan Little, HRL Laboratories LLC)

The world’s lightest material — with a density of 0.9 mg/cc — about 100 times lighter than Styrofoam — has been developed by a team of researchers from UC Irvine, HRL Laboratories, and the California Institute of Technology.

The new material, using nickel-phosphorous thin films, redefines the limits of lightweight materials because of its unique “micro-lattice” cellular architecture. The researchers were able to make a material that consists of 99.99 percent air by designing the 0.01 percent solid at the nanometer, micron and millimeter scales.

“The trick is to fabricate a lattice of interconnected hollow tubes with a wall thickness 1,000 times thinner than a human hair,” said lead author Dr. Tobias Schaedler of HRL.

The material’s architecture allows unprecedented mechanical behavior for a metal, including complete recovery from compression exceeding 50 percent strain and extraordinarily high energy absorption.

“Materials actually get stronger as the dimensions are reduced to the nanoscale,” explained UCI mechanical and aerospace engineer Lorenzo Valdevit, UCI’s principal investigator on the project. “Combine this with the possibility of tailoring the architecture of the micro-lattice and you have a unique cellular material.”

Developed for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the novel material could be used for battery electrodes and acoustic, vibration, or shock energy absorption.

Ref.: T. A. Schaedler et al., Ultralight Metallic Microlattices, Science, 2011 [DOI:10.1126/science.1211649]

Design, processing, and cellular architecture of ultralight microlattices (credit: T. A. Schaedler et al./Science)