Boeing has made a metal structure light enough to sit on top of a dandelion in aerospace engineering.
Every pound matters when flying. The heavier the load, the more fuel that gets burned, and the more money an airline is forced to spend. And while your overpacked carry-on definitely adds some extra pounds to the plane, it’s nothing compared to the weight of the jet itself. That’s why aeronautical engineers are constantly working to lighten a plane’s load while maintaining its strength and durability. With that said, Boeing Innovations is proud to announce that it has invented the lightest metal ever:microlattice.
Ultra-lightweight materials are an incredibly cool area of materials science, bringing us crazy substances like aerogel. And now, for the first time, scientists have produced a metal that’s so light it can balance on the fluff of a dandelion. Here’s why this material is revolutioUltralinary — and how it’s made.
These materials are usually made up of chaotic structures, like the bubbles in aerogel. But this metal is created out of a solid, repeating structure. It’s called an ultralight metallic microlattice, and it’s produced in an intriguing way. The method involves using a liquid photo-polymer which solidifies when hit by ultraviolet radiation. Scientists shine light on the liquid through a pattern. Only the exposed bits of the liquid become solid, creating a lattice-work scaffold, which is then coated with nickel-phosphorous. Once the photopolymer is etched away, all that is left is a 3D, hollow lattice of metal which is more air than anything else.
We’re talking light enough to balance on top of a dried, puffed out dandelion perfectly poised for wish-making. Made of 99.9% air, microlattice structure, not density, is what gives it strength to aircraft structures in aerospace engineering.
The futurists at Boeing are already busy envisioning new uses for their breakthrough material. The overhead bins and even the cylinder of the jet itself are being considered as suitable places to begin incorporating micro lattice in aerospace engineering.
Boeing said that the microlattice is made with a nickel-phosphorus alloy, which is coated onto a polymer structure, then removed. The end result is a material that has walls just 100 nanometers thick—one thousand times thinner than a human hair. Even a 2.5-inch piece of microlattice is light enough to balance comfortably on top of dandelion without disturbing it.
Boeing says the microlattice is 99.99% air and can be compressed without damaging its structure. (It’s worth noting that while its thinness makes the material one of the lightest metal structures on earth, the metals involved are still just as heavy as they would be in any other application.)
It also says it’s working on figuring out how to use microlattices in airplane components, such as the walls or overhead bins. In the future, the metal’s durability and weight could help Boeing make lighter, more fuel efficient planes in aerospace engineering.
The microlattice structure was first announced in 2011, with the research coming out of a join partnership between the University of California Irvine, the California Institute of Technology, and HRL—a research lab jointly owned by Boeing and General Motors. Back then, the research team said their metallic structure was 100 times lighter than styrofoam.
HRL told Quartz that the lab has been working on the material since 2007, and its work is ongoing. The lab hopes to be able to use its materials on NASA’s spaceships to Mars, as well as future Boeing planes. It’ll be interesting to see how the Boeing and HRL plan to get this technology off the ground in aerospace engineering.
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