Thursday, November 24, 2011

HRL Laboratories announced it has created the world's lightest solid substance, seen here sitting atop a dandelion - 23rd Nov 2011

"Check out the world's lightest material: 0.85 mg/cc!!" scientist Toby Schaedler wrote to his teammates at HRL Laboratories in Malibu, California. "It is holding up fine even after I squeezed it a little."

Six months later, HRL is announcing its discovery for the first time in a study published in November's Science magazine. When Light Years talked to physicist Bill Carter and project manager Leslie Momoda, the giddiness of inventing the lightest solid substance hadn't yet worn off. They were, well, practically floating on air.

"About a year ago, we were looking to create a competitive edge for our owners General Motors and Boeing," Carter said Monday. "Leslie threw down this challenge: If, in the future, fuel efficiency is everything, is there something we can do that's really new in the area of lightweight materials?"

The result was something informally named metallic microlattice - because the tiny hollow tubes are interconnected in a crisscross mesh or grid pattern, like a lattice window screen or garden trellis.

Exactly what is this stuff?

Well, for one, it's airy - 99.99% air. The rest of it is made mostly of nickel alloy. It weighs in at 100 times lighter than Styrofoam. It can sit atop a dandelion without crushing it. Also, the stuff is really, really thin - made of teeny-tiny interconnected hollow tubes - so small that the walls of the tubes are only a few hundred atoms thick, at 1,000 times thinner than a human hair.

What does it do?

Metallic microlattice absorbs energy. When it's compressed, it bounces back to its original shape, its inventors say. Developed for the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the stuff might one day be used in the manufacture of battery electrodes, according to HRL. Read More