Our engineering prowess now goes far beyond just taking a hunk of metal, shaping it, and putting it in place. We now make materials that have amazing properties based on their structure, not only their composition. Case-in-point: Aeronautics giant Boeing has just unveiled what they are calling the lightest metal ever. That’s hard to argue with when a piece of it can sit on the head of a dandelion.
According to Boeing, the new material is “a nickel-phosphorus alloy that is coated onto an open polymer structure” arranged in a lattice shape. After the polymer is removed, all that is left are the super-light, 100-nanometer-thick — thinner than the width of a virus — walls of the lattice’s many interconnecting tubes. The result is a matrix of metal 99.9 percent air. And unlike another famously light material, aerogel, this new structure from Boeing is sturdy enough to squish.
What makes the metal structure so relatively strong is that it’s built like your bones. Skeletal bones look and feel solid, but cut one open and you’ll find thin walls bolstered by interconnecting webs of protein — the insides of bones are spongy, not solid.
Boeing believes that the new structure could find its way into airplanes. At this point, every single kilogram counts. Any way to make planes lighter will save fuel, and over thousands of flights and millions of miles, that can equal billions of dollars. The metal could significantly lighten airplane loads if it can handle the same stresses of traditional materials.