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Newly developed metallic "micro-lattice" material is world's lightest


November 17, 2011

The new micro-lattice material is so light that it can sit atop dandelion fluff without damaging it (Image: Dan Little, HRL Laboratories, LLC)

The new micro-lattice material is so light that it can sit atop dandelion fluff without damaging it (Image: Dan Little, HRL Laboratories, LLC)

Researchers have created a new metallic material that they claim is the world's lightest solid material. With a density of just 0.9 mg/cm3 the material is around 100 times lighter than Styrofoam and lighter than the "multiwalled carbon nanotube (MCNT) aerogel" - also dubbed "frozen smoke" - with a density of 4 mg/cm3 that we looked at earlier this year. Despite being 99.99 percent open volume, the new material boasts impressive strength and energy absorption, making it potentially useful for a range of applications.

The 0.01 percent of the material that isn't air consists of a micro-lattice of interconnected hollow nickel-phosphorous tubes with a wall thickness of 100 nanometers - or 1,000 times thinner than a human hair. These tubes are angled to connect at nodes to form repeating, three-dimensional asterisk-like cells.

The new material draws parallels with large structures, such as the Eiffel Tower, which is incredibly light and weight-efficient thanks to its hierarchical lattice design. As an illustration of just how efficient such a design is, if the 7,300 tonnes of metal used in the Eiffel Tower were melted down it would fill just six centimeters (2.4 in) of the structure's 125 m2 (1,345 square ft) base.

The ultralight micro-lattice material shows the same concept can also reap benefits on a much smaller scale. The wall thickness of the hollow tubes can be measured in nanometers, the diameter of each tube in microns, each tube length in millimeters, and the entire micro-lattice in centimeters - or even one day, meters, claim the researchers.

In addition to its ultra-low density, the researchers say the new material's micro-lattice architecture gives it extraordinarily high energy absorption with the ability to completely recover from compression exceeding 50 percent strain. This is due to the fact that the extremely small wall thickness-to-diameter ratio of the material makes the individual tubes flexible. Its impressive properties could see it used for battery electrodes, catalyst supports, and acoustic, vibration or shock energy damping.

The novel material was developed by a team of researchers from the University of California, Irvine (UC Irvine), the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and California-based company, HRL Laboratories. for DARPA.

The research team's paper, "Ultralight Metallic Microlattices," appears in the November 18 issue of Science.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

Could someone reveal the disadvantages of this material, and aerogel? All I\'ve ever seen are the breathless descriptons.


I\'d like to hear the description of the manufacturing process. One would consider that for all the advantages of these types of material that the expense of producing them should be factored in to the overall equation.

It\'s great to hear how strong this stuff is, but is it priced like platinum or like gold or more like unobtanium?


Pontz, Yes, the disadvantage is the cost.


Once they get the production process and costs down, this stuff would be great in lightweight helmets (or any other application requiring a crumple zone).

Suman Subramanian

What would a car body weigh? Cost? If it\'s too expensive (at first) maybe it could be used for planes. I would like to know the % weight savings over current ultralight construction.

Can it be touched? How delicate is it?


Wrap it in foil, pump out the air and voila, real unobtanium, lighter than air , if it can withstand a pressure of at least 1kg/cm2.

Andrej RadoŇ°

it will be the ultimate building material *crosses fingers :)

Paul Adams

if you read the supplimentary data for the published paper they state that all the structures under 4.5mg/cc (well they said 150nm wall thickness) were unrecoverable because the capillary forces deformed the lattice structure. so the picture up there is most probably 4.5mg+ @pontz its relatively cheap 2 make, just photo-directed polymerizable monomers + tin/palladium activator/catalyst + electroless nickel bath followed by base etching, the strength n everything is amazing but at a smaller scale. the structure is able to compress to half of its original height but forms microcracks which causes it to lose function as an electrode due to the associated increase in resistance but all in all this is amazing. and one of the best papers i read last year :-]

Keon Park

Voluntaryist makes a very good point. True Zeppelins could be made, and depending on how many cells you could add it would be puncture proof unless over x% of the cells ruptured.

like others also pointed out, if the manufacturing process could be macro sized, all kinds of new material could be made.

Wonder if di-electrics could also be used if you refilled the space with a non conductor. 3d circuits?

Michael Rowley
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