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Scientists invent lightest material on Earth. What now?

Dandelion

Scientists have invented a new material that is so lightweight it can sit atop a fluffy dandelion without crushing the little fuzzy seeds.

It's so lightweight, styrofoam is 100 times heavier.

It is so lightweight, in fact, that the research team consisting of scientists at UC Irvine, HRL Laboratories and Caltech say in the peer-reviewed Nov. 18 issue of Science that it is the lightest material on Earth, and no one has asked them to run a correction yet.

That's light!

The material has been dubbed "ultralight metallic microlattice," and according to a news release sent out by UC Irvine, it consists of 99.99% air thanks to its "microlattice" cellular architecture.

"The trick is to fabricate a lattice of interconnected hollow tubes with a wall thickness 1,000 times thinner than a human hair," lead author Tobias Shandler of HRL said in the release.

To understand the structure of the material, think of the  Eiffel Tower or the Golden Gate Bridge -- which are both light and weight efficient -- but on a nano-scale.

The material in the picture above is made out of 90% nickel, but Bill Carter, manager of the architected materials group at HRL, said it can be made out of other materials as well -- the nickel version was just the easiest to make.

As for the uses of such a material? That's still to be determined. Lorenzo Valdevit, UCI's principal investigator on the project, brought up impact protection, uses in the aerospace industry, acoustic dampening and maybe some battery applications.

In the meantime, we asked Bill Carter what would happen if we threw this material in the air and waited for it to fall to the ground. 

"It’s sort of like a feather -- it floats down, and its terminal velocity depends on the density," he said. "It takes more than 10 seconds, for instance, for the lightest material we’ve made to fall if you drop it from shoulder height."

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-- Deborah Netburn

Photo: Ultralight metallic microlattice -- which is 99.9% air -- is so light that it can sit atop dandelion fluff without damaging it. Credit: Dan Little / HRL Laboratories

 
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