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Engineers Create World's Lightest Material 177

Posted by Soulskill
from the less-filling-tastes-great dept.
ackthpt writes "A team of engineers claims to have created the world's lightest material. Made from a lattice of hollow metallic tubes, the material is less dense than aerogels and metallic foams, yet retains strength due to the small size of the lattice structure (abstract). The material's density is 0.9 milligrams per cubic centimeter. Among other things, it's potentially useful for insulation, battery electrodes, and sound dampening."
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Engineers Create World's Lightest Material

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  • So... (Score:5, Funny)

    by Kaenneth (82978) on Friday November 18, 2011 @12:37PM (#38099586) Homepage Journal

    A Series of Tubes, eh?

  • Unlikely (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 18, 2011 @12:39PM (#38099608)

    0.9mg/cm^3 is 0.9kg/m^3, i.e. lighter than air (1.2kg/m^3). I call shenanigans.

    • The AC beat me to it. I was going to post that this stuff should float in a normal Earth atmosphere. If true, this would be an amazing breakthrough, but my skeptic's glasses are on right now.

      • Re:Unlikely (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Nadaka (224565) on Friday November 18, 2011 @12:47PM (#38099708)

        Some Aerogels can already float in air, but most of those are incredibly fragile.

        • Got a link? The lightest materials I can find are about 50% more dense than air. I am really curious about stuff like this, so wold like to read more...

        • by Ihmhi (1206036)

          This is great! We just solved a whole bunch of our country's problems!

          We make planes out of this lighter-than-air material, and now we don't need engines or fuel. We can just hire a dozen dudes to give the thing a really hefty push in the right direction. We cut down on foreign dependence AND create jobs! AWESOME!

          • by RockDoctor (15477)

            We make planes out of this lighter-than-air material, and now we don't need engines or fuel.

            If the payload were also lighter than air, then you wouldn't need to use engines to provide lift, but you would still need to provide thrust to overcome drag, to accelerate and decelerate the loads (vehicle load and payload), and to steer.

            Well done. You've re-invented the airship. (Which is not necessarily a bad thing!)

      • Re:Unlikely (Score:5, Informative)

        by necro81 (917438) on Friday November 18, 2011 @02:02PM (#38100796) Journal

        The AC beat me to it. I was going to post that this stuff should float in a normal Earth atmosphere. If true, this would be an amazing breakthrough, but my skeptic's glasses are on right now.

        Well, no: the material itself if still made of metal, and the metal has a density greater than atmosphere, and the atmosphere pervades through it (it's an open cell lattice). In order for it to float in air, you would need to enclose it (i.e., put a skin around it) and remove the air from the interior volume. The material needs to displace the air. The same could be said for boats: they float on water only when the hull has the water removed. Once the water gets inside the hull, you face the fact that the boat is made of metal and will sink [youtube.com]. The buoyancy in air or water is based on displacing the fluid by something of lesser density. For a floating boat, replacing water with air. For a chunk of this foam, replacing air with helium, vacuum, etc.

        • by EdIII (1114411)

          That's exactly what I was thinking. If this material still retains enough strength to resist the crushing force of air at sea level when wrapped and a vacuum inside, it has some very interesting applications. That's a pretty big accomplishment of course, and I am skeptical. The skin around this would have to be very light and strong. Easier said than done.

          If true, you could have airships that don't rely on gases lighter than air to float. Which is a good thing, since Helium is running out.

      • by Darinbob (1142669)

        Because it's porous air will occupy the gaps in this substance. But if you sealed off the surface and sucked all the air out then yes it would probably float. Ie, imagine a zeppelin without the skin.

    • Re:Unlikely (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Tatarize (682683) on Friday November 18, 2011 @12:45PM (#38099674) Homepage

      You're obviously going to have tared the measuring against air. Making it .9mg above the weight of the air. But, if there is no air, it would weight .9.

    • It's 99.99% open volume. Sounds feasible to me.
      • That would mean it's 99.99% filled with air, no? Which means it's .9 + .99*weightOfAir...
      • Re:Unlikely (Score:5, Insightful)

        by camperdave (969942) on Friday November 18, 2011 @01:42PM (#38100564) Journal
        So they aren't measuring the volume properly. They are measuring the bounding box, and not doing an Archimedes-style immerse-it-in-a-fluid-and-measure-the-displacement volume measurement. If they did that, I'm sure the density would be the same as the metal from which it is made.

        But if you're going to cheat, and measure the volume of the envelope, then I'm sure I've got a lighter than air tent. And what about all those air supported sports domes? Zepplins and hot air balloons? Been there. Done that.
        • by bogd (912084)
          By your standards, bread is the same density as dough, and swiss cheese the same density as... regular cheese :) Face it - sometimes the holes in the structure of the material are relevant, and will affect the overall density (and the fact that they are uniformly distributed is relevant, which excludes your tent). Even ice has a lower density than water because of "tiny holes" in its structures (actually, these "holes" are increased spaces between the atoms making up the ice).
    • by Rhaban (987410)

      the tubes are filled with air, so you must take into account the weight of the air. total should be close to 2.1kg/m.
      the material isn't really this light in itself. It's like making a 1m box with paper and claiming it weights ten g/m.

    • by mosb1000 (710161)

      Well, when it's in the atmosphere it's filled with air.

    • 0.9mg/cm^3 is 0.9kg/m^3, i.e. lighter than air (1.2kg/m^3). I call shenanigans.

      It was pointed out that the value 0.9 for density does not include the air. This makes sense because then we would need to know the exact composition of the air used so we could get an accurate measurement of the material. All that said, however, "lighter than air" has no relevance with respect to density.

    • Heck... (Score:4, Interesting)

      by srussia (884021) on Friday November 18, 2011 @01:01PM (#38099948)

      0.9mg/cm^3 is 0.9kg/m^3, i.e. lighter than air (1.2kg/m^3). I call shenanigans.

      The freaking Universe has a density of 9.9x10^-27 kg/m^3

      Make of that what you will!

    • Re:Unlikely (Score:5, Interesting)

      by sam0vi (985269) on Friday November 18, 2011 @01:17PM (#38100192)

      This is just my guess, but that is probably its density in a vacuum. When exposed to atmosphere, air goes through the cavities, filling then up, thus increasing its density. Something like calculating the density of a sponge in an underwater environment. My 2 cents.

    • Floating furniture? (Score:3, Interesting)

      by wisebabo (638845)

      Here's a repost of my post I submitted yesterday (don't know why they rejected it, probably thought I was too hair brained).

      Anyway, here are some applications for a lighter than air substance!

      wisebabo writes
      "Wow, so here's something that beats even aerogel (which I understand is 99.9% empty space; this new material made from metal, is 99.99% empty space!)!

      Anyway, in typical slashdot.fashion, knowing nothing about its mechanical properties (other than the article says it could be a good insulator or sound ab

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by fnj (64210)

        Re (1): it won't work. The material would instantly collapse from the atmospheric pressure.

        • by afidel (530433)
          Not if the surface can stand up to 1atm which isn't exactly an impossible task.
    • Re:Unlikely (Score:5, Insightful)

      by ukemike (956477) on Friday November 18, 2011 @01:44PM (#38100598) Homepage

      0.9mg/cm^3 is 0.9kg/m^3, i.e. lighter than air (1.2kg/m^3). I call shenanigans.

      Yes, and if you wrapped an impermeable skin around it and evacuated the air using the lattice material as a support for the skin then it probably would float (assuming that the skin didn't tip the balance of the stuff into being too dense and assuming the material was strong enough to resist collapse from the atmospheric pressure). BUT it is a lattice material and the spaces in between the hollow metallic tubes are typically, brace yourself... full of air! So on it's own it does not float.

      It's amazing to me that the parent got modded insightful. Sure he can google the density of air, but clearly he couldn't reason his way out of a paper bag.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Bengie (1121981)

      It could be a weight vs mass issue. Even though they're using grams, they may be making it laymen and treating it like a weight.

      So it has a "weight" of 0.9kg/m^3 when including buoyancy from our atmosphere.

      When most people put something on a scale and sees 1KG, they don't think.. "ooops, forgot to compensate for the volume of air it displaces"

      But you do bring up a good point that I would love to have answered.

      • by Bengie (1121981)

        I forgot to add that it may be permeable, allowing air to entire its structure, so even if it was weighed in a vacuum as below that of air, it may gain mass when subjected to an atmosphere, but the mass of the atmosphere would mostly cancel out leaving about the same weight.. all depending on its structure.

        • by Bengie (1121981)

          I have ADD.. sorry..

          Another thing I thought of.

          If one to place a decently large volume this stuff in a vacuum, foil wrap it and expose it to atmosphere, would it float? If it truly has a density less than our atmosphere, then enough volume to compensate for the extra mass of the seal over the surface would allow it to float.

    • Aerogels are alerady known to be lighter than air, they couldn't break the record being heavier.

      That density is estimated for the material on vaccum.

    • 0.9mg/cm^3 is 0.9kg/m^3, i.e. lighter than air (1.2kg/m^3). I call shenanigans.

      A lattice of metal bars can be "lighter than water" and still not float, because of water intrusion into the spaces.

      If this material's structure is fine enough to prevent, or slow, air infiltration into the spaces, it could indeed float in air. If it can't, it could still be evacuated in a vacuum chamber and then wrapped in a balloon skin.

      Party balloons that float for years... probably a bit expensive for that application.

    • by polymeris (902231)

      It wouldn't be "the world's lightest material" if it was heavier than air. OTOH, it still isn't. It is heavier than many other gases. Or do materials only include solids, now?

    • by blair1q (305137)

      Take a 5-gram balloon.

      Blow it up to 6 liters.

      Now it's 0.83 mg/cm^3.

      How hard is that?

  • by milbournosphere (1273186) on Friday November 18, 2011 @12:45PM (#38099690)
    Well, I guess Scotty and the rest of the crew finally got here. Watch the sky for Klingon warbirds and flying whales!
  • by Tastecicles (1153671) on Friday November 18, 2011 @12:46PM (#38099702)

    ...and slightly convenient, too.

    Week before it was the blackest material ever.
    Last week it was the slipperiest.
    This week it's the lightest.

    What's on for next week? Heaviest? Densest? Whitest? Most beige?

  • I understand it'll be horribly expensive right now and that production prices will drop, but cheap enough for the likes of insulation? Or are we talking space station stuff here?
    • by jandrese (485) <kensama@vt.edu> on Friday November 18, 2011 @01:06PM (#38100032) Homepage Journal
      If you want superlight insulation, you can already buy Aerogel [aerogel.com] in bulk quantities. It's not exactly cheap, but it's not completely outrageous either.
    • by Jeng (926980)

      As long as it is cheaper that aerogels then it is a significant achievement in material science.

      If it costs more than aerogels to produce then it is just another nice research project.

      Most probably we are talking space station stuff here, the question is whether it will be used on Earth.

    • by hawguy (1600213)

      I understand it'll be horribly expensive right now and that production prices will drop, but cheap enough for the likes of insulation?

      Or are we talking space station stuff here?

      They say it's a good insulator, but I don't understand why -- the picture makes it appear that there are significant holes throughout the material - seemingly enough to allow convective heat losses? I can believe that the metal is too thin for much conduction, but I don't see why convection is not an issue? Seems like Aerogel would make a better insulator.

  • I like it but (Score:4, Informative)

    by sgt scrub (869860) <saintiumNO@SPAMyahoo.com> on Friday November 18, 2011 @12:50PM (#38099762)

    Would it be feasible to replace drywall. It sounds like a better insulator than drywall, not to mention its sound dampening effects. What would be the effects of dust from it on the lungs? Will it suffer the same fate as Asbestos?

    • Re:I like it but (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Jeng (926980) on Friday November 18, 2011 @12:59PM (#38099922)

      Due to its expense I can't see this being used as a drywall replacement. Drywall is used to due to how cheap it is, not because it is the best at its job.

      If it was used in the same fashion as drywall then the actual lattice would be covered by a paper layer and then acoustic mud, just like drywall.

      • by sgt scrub (869860)

        bummer. The cost of insulation + noise dampening + assisting the stability of the structure + being the surface object for the walls + potentially eliminating the need for studs all replace by one item that is also light -- adding some relief to homes with peer and beam type foundation -- seemed like a good idea. I went off to check out some prices. Foam injected insulation is about $700/ bd ft, performs well as an insulator, noise dampener, and helps the stability of the structure but you still need stu

    • Re:I like it but (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 18, 2011 @01:07PM (#38100044)

      What?! Your comment does not compute. Thats like saying NASA just built this new rocket, I bet it would work great to heat my house with it!

      Drywall's sole purpose is to be a flat surface (ie: a wall) for painting and as a fire resistant to give occupants of buildings slightly more time to get out. Hence the reason they often use double or triple layers of drywall between shared walls. It offers virtually no insulation value whatsoever, which is why its paired with actual insulation on exterior walls.

      This material doesn't share [b]any[/b] of those properties in a practical sense. Its obviously porous and would be impractical to paint, not to mention it would probably cost thousands of times more than drywall and be much more difficult to work with.

    • by Shimbo (100005)

      No, you'ld have ninjas bursting through it all the time.

  • by squidflakes (905524) on Friday November 18, 2011 @01:01PM (#38099942) Homepage

    The problem with aerogels is that they can be very finicky during production, and unless you make them hydrophobic (or is it hydrophillic?) they can start to dissolve from as little as a single drop of sweat.

    Some friends and I got some lab equipment during a "Lost Our Grant" sale, which included a high-pressure autoclave. We thought making aerogel would be a hoot, but damn is that stuff difficult to produce. It is relatively cheap, but during the supercritical drying phase, you'd best not bump the autoclave, and you better have mixed everything right. That stuff is like the comedy souffle of the future.

    Anyway, the novelty wears off after you've played with the stuff for 20 minutes. The novelty of watching the cat bat it around takes about an hour.

    • by Jeng (926980) on Friday November 18, 2011 @01:29PM (#38100348)

      Someone linked a cnet article with more information including how it is produced.

      From reading it it sounds like it will be easier to produce, but I really don't know a damn thing on this subject.

      What's your take?
      http://news.cnet.com/8301-30685_3-57327382-264/breakthrough-material-is-barely-more-than-air/?part=rss&subj=crave&tag=title [cnet.com]

      The lattice is constructed through several steps, Carter said. First, lasers beam ultraviolet light into a reservoir of a resin that forms polymer fibers when the light hits it. The fibers follow the path the light takes, and using multiple beams creates multiple interconnected fibers.

      Next, the rest of the resin is washed away, the polymer fibers are coated with a very thin layer of nickel, and the polymer fibers are then dissolved, leaving only the metal lattice.

      The dimensions of the lattice can be adjusted by changing the properties of a perforated mask through which the ultraviolet line is beamed, the paper said.

      • Humm... as has already been mentioned below, they use the volumetric printers that do everything with lasers and polyester resin then vapor deposit the nickel.

        I don't have one of those printers but I know where I could rent time on one. I don't have the skills in Maya or AUTOCAD to make the shape they describe, but I imagine someone proficient in that software could hack something together. The vapor depositing of the nickel would be a pain. The only metal deposit work I've done has been with gold on sample

      • Someone linked a cnet article with more information including how it is produced.

        From reading it it sounds like it will be easier to produce, but I really don't know a damn thing on this subject.

        What's your take?
        http://news.cnet.com/8301-30685_3-57327382-264/breakthrough-material-is-barely-more-than-air/?part=rss&subj=crave&tag=title [cnet.com]

        The lattice is constructed through several steps, Carter said. First, lasers beam ultraviolet light into a reservoir of a resin that forms polymer fibers when the light hits it. The fibers follow the path the light takes, and using multiple beams creates multiple interconnected fibers.

        Next, the rest of the resin is washed away, the polymer fibers are coated with a very thin layer of nickel, and the polymer fibers are then dissolved, leaving only the metal lattice.

        The dimensions of the lattice can be adjusted by changing the properties of a perforated mask through which the ultraviolet line is beamed, the paper said.

        That's difficult. UV lasers are a pain because air absorbs UV somewhat well, and UV-transparent lenses aren't cheap. (A lot of intermolecular bonds have energies in the same range as UV photons, so they're not only opaque but also break apart when hit by UV -- hence DNA damage, for instance.) All the UV lasers I've worked with used fluorine gas, which was always exciting to work with, although there are some very fussy, expensive, low-efficiency frequency-doubling systems that can produce UV.

        The other dr

  • by wisebabo (638845) on Friday November 18, 2011 @01:21PM (#38100252) Journal

    I guess the editors didn't appreciate my flights of fancy!

    wisebabo writes
    "Wow, so here's something that beats even aerogel (which I understand is 99.9% empty space; this new material made from metal, is 99.99% empty space!)!

    Anyway, in typical slashdot.fashion, knowing nothing about its mechanical properties (other than the article says it could be a good insulator or sound absorber) not to mention knowing nothing about how it is made or what it costs, let me propose two applications:

    1) take a large slab and wrap it in an airtight non-gas permeable membrane. Pump out the air. Voila! You now have a lighter than air structure that doesn't use expensive helium or flammable hydrogen. Let the new age of dirigibles (and floating in mid-air furniture) begin!

    2) Find a way to make this from its raw materials in a vacuum and in zero-g (hopefully it won't require a large amount of super-critical fluids like liquid CO2 that aerogels do). Launch a not-too-heavy manufacturing plant into LEO and make a (VERY) big cube or sphere of this stuff. Voila! Just like aerogels, you'll have a material that'll be perfect for capturing or at least slowing down all the hypervelocity space junk just like the "Stardust" and "Genesis" probes did. This'll be perfect for getting all the tiny particles and "flakes" that are too small to chase down, zap with a laser or perhaps even track via telescope or radar. Because it's very light, it'll be economical to launch something very big. (Best to attach an ion engine or some low thrust, high efficiency engine to change/maintain orbit).

    2b) Oh well, as long as we're dreaming; if you can make this in space, it'd be perfect for making heat shields that weigh almost nothing (and are very very compact to launch because you're just launching the raw materials right?). Could be useful for any probe that's heading to any planet with an atmosphere or reentry to earth. Good for BIG solar shields (a la the movie "Sunshine") also.

    2c) Okay, last one, I promise. If it deforms in a predictable manner, how about using it as an "airbag" replacement? After the (huge) heat shield has done it's work, the space probe could be cushioned upon impact with something stronger than an airbag without being prohibitively heavy. (Won't have to use that crazy "sky crane" like they're going to try with the MSL).

    Anyway, here's to totally uninformed speculation!"

    • 1) take a large slab and wrap it in an airtight non-gas permeable membrane. Pump out the air. Voila! You now have a lighter than air structure that doesn't use expensive helium or flammable hydrogen. Let the new age of dirigibles (and floating in mid-air furniture) begin!

      U jelly, groundfags? *trollface*

    • 1) take a large slab and wrap it in an airtight non-gas permeable membrane. Pump out the air. Voila! You now have a lighter than air structure that doesn't use expensive helium or flammable hydrogen. Let the new age of dirigibles (and floating in mid-air furniture) begin!

      While I love the idea, I don't think this stuff will work for that. People have been talking about making vacuum-filled structures for years, and all the numbers I've seen (and I've done these calculations myself) say that using a skin made of the material with the best strength-to-weight ratio we have, no matter how large the internal enclosure (up to at least a couple of kilometers in diameter) the material's tensile strength will be exceeded well before you get the entire structure's density below that

      • by wisebabo (638845)

        Thanks for the info; not knowing where to look (and not having a background in structural engineering) I was wondering if you calculated the feasibility of using aerogels or this new substance? I mean if you think about it, isn't this structure just like a kilometers large structure but reduced in every dimension by a thousand or so? (The metal "beams" are just nanometers thick).

        But I know I'm being very optimistic. I, in fact, just saw a video where this substance was easily deformed so maybe its streng

        • We don't know its strength per unit weight: a house is easily deformed if you moosh it with a bulldozer, after all. If stuff that only weighs a milligram can support a gram of weight, that's pretty good. That's why mechanical engineers talk about specific strength: the strength (in this case how much stress you can put on it before it permanently deforms) divided by its density.

          Add to that, that the geometry of an item has a lot to do with how it reacts to stress. An I-beam holds weight almost as well as

  • "The resulting material has a density of 0.9 milligrams per cubic centimetre. By comparison the density of silica aerogels - the world's lightest solid materials - is only as low as 1.0mg per cubic cm. The metallic micro-lattices have the edge because they consist of 99.99% air and of 0.01% solids."

    1 mg/cm3
    1 g/dm3
    1 kg/m3

    Wikipedia: "Seawise Giant, later Happy Giant, Jahre Viking, and Knock Nevis, was a ULCC supertanker and the longest ship ever built, and possessed the greatest deadweight tonnage ever record

  • it's potentially useful for insulation, battery electrodes

    Sounds like a neat trick if you can do it.

  • It's not the "lightest substance". It might be the least dense (important distinction). And it might not be, because I would have thought that gaseous helium would be less dense. Perhaps they mean "least dense solid"?
    • by Kaz Kylheku (1484)

      You must have Asperger's syndrome? When normal human beings with ordinary cognitive capabilities say "light" about some indefinitely quantified material, they are in fact referring to density. For instance "air is lighter than water". Of course they don't mean that the entire Earth's atmosphere is lighter than a drop of water.

      We now return you to your regularly scheduled rhythmical pounding of your back against the chair and whimpering.

  • Call Rocky and Bullwinkle. We must protect this precious resource from Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale, lest they steal it.

    On a more serious note, what's the mass of this stuff needed to fill a Volkswagen?

  • Among other things, it's potentially useful for insulation, battery electrodes, and sound dampening

    Super-low-density materials don't generally lend themselves well to this - this would be a truly exceptional material if it makes a good acoustic absorber.

    • by Jeng (926980)

      It makes sense due to its high porosity. The lattice should break up the sound waves really well while also not supplying a surface that the sound waves could reflect off of.

  • by PPH (736903) on Friday November 18, 2011 @03:57PM (#38102266)

    You can make Slashdot articles out of it.

  • by Khyber (864651)

    I was hoping it had great thermal conductivity.

    But noooo. It has to be light and insulating.

  • What, more than "Carrie" from Europe's "Final Countdown" album?

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