If there’s an awards ceremony for material of the year, you might expect graphene would sweep it for 2011. But researchers at a Californian lab are making a late bid with what they are billing as the world’s lightest material.
The as-yet unnamed material has a density of 0.9 milligrams per cubic centimetre, which is said to be around a hundred time lighter than Styrofoam.
Perhaps surprisingly the material is primarily made of nickel. The key is that this is arranged in a series of tiny hollow tubes with the walls being just 100 nanonmeters thick. As a result, 99.99% of the material’s volume is simply air.
The production of the material involves creating a framework and coating it with nickel plating, then removing the framework.
HRL Laboratories, which made the material, says its structure gives it some other unusual qualities for a metal. It can be compressed by up to 50 percent to then regain its original shape perfectly. It’s also got an uncharacteristically high ability to absorb energy.
Dr Bill Carter, who manages the HRL department responsible for the work, likened the concept to the designs of the Eiffel Tower and Golden Gate Bridge, which are relatively light given their scale.
The project was carried out with the assistance of the California Institute of Technology and the University of California at Irvine. The material was developed for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (America’s geekiest government department) with the idea that it could be used for battery electrodes or for shock and vibration damping.