HRL Laboratories, a research institute that does R&D for Boeing, made a breakthrough in materials science last year by developing Microlattice – which they are calling “the world’s lightest material.”
The prototype of Microlattice is made of small, interconnected hollow nickel tubes with a wall thickness of just 100 nanometers. These hollow tubes and 3D open-cellular polymer structure result in a material that is 99.99% air and 100 times lighter than Styrofoam – but with the rigidity of metal and a high capacity for compression and impact absorption. Plus, replicating the Microlattice design using a material other than nickel could improve these properties further.
Sophia Yang, a research scientist at HRL Laboratories, described the structure of bones as inspiration for the material. Bones are rigid on the outside, but mostly hollow on the inside, making them tough and lightweight at the same time.
Research on Microlattice is still ongoing, but there is incredible application potential. Boeing could build airplanes that are lighter and tougher than current models. Other industries could also benefit from applying Microlattice toward structural reinforcement, shock absorption, and/or heat transfer applications.