Friday, January 20, 2012

Light as a (Synthetic Micro-Latticed Metal) Feather

Researchers have developed a metal that is strong yet as light as styrofoam
 Southern California's “light and airy” reputation may give the perception it isn't the most industrious region in America. Of course, the perception of “light and airy” as non-industrious may have just been proven wrong altogether.

Researchers at UC Irvine, along with help from HTL Laboratories and the California Technology Institute of Technology recently announced the development of a metal (ish) material 99.9 percent composed of air and 100 times lighter than styrofoam. The project was funded by the government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

You can read the rest of the details in Product Design and Development's article. It goes onto delve into the secret of the material's light weight (a “micro-lattice” cellular makeup) as well as its intended use (battery electrodes, shock absorption).

William Carter of HTL is also quoted as saying this:
Modern buildings, exemplified by the Eiffel Tower or the Golden Gate Bridge, are incredibly light and weight- efficient by virtue of their architecture. We are revolutionizing lightweight materials by bringing this concept to the nano and micro scales.” -William Carter, manager, HTL Labs

I'm under the suspicion this quote in particular was a juicy one to cite because of the inference that a synthetic material like this may one day be used to build future generations of skyscrapers and bridges. While the thought of how many resources a nearly-lighter-than-air building material could save global supplies, it's probably wise to keep a few things in mind:

PC World released its own take on the new material; highlighting, for one, the material's incredible compressive strength and noting that “[if] you were to squash the material more than halfway it would just rebound back into its original shape.” Okay that may be true and it's an excellent quality if we're thinking along the lines of software protection or more durable electronics. Certainly, I'd sleep safer at night knowing my smartphone had some sort of synthetic material in it to prevent my clumsy self from dropping it into permanent slumber mode. Shock absorption, however, does not translate into tensile strength, which is what we're really after here.

Yes, this stuff is lighter than carbon nanotubes, which you can read about here. But while being able to recover from high energy impact of over 50 percent is very noteworthy, nobody speaks of how this material holds up if you pull it apart with an equal amount of force (although to be fair, carbon nanotubes have the opposite problem in that they have tremendous tensile strength but buckle easily under compression). And what about its toughness? Does its strength on the nano level translate into durability with the right amount of flexibility on the macro? Moreover, just how expensive was it to make that tiny amount and is there a prayer of mass-producing it cost-efficiently?

I don't mean to rain on the ridiculously tiny, super-dense parade over here. It's just that I'd like news like this- that gets coverage from the internet to NPR to MSNBC- to come with details that bridge the gap between our ambitions and the real world just a liiiiitle more.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.

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