FLOAT LIKE A FEATHER

Boeing has made a metal structure light enough to sit on top of a dandelion

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Getting There

If there were a metal as light as a feather, would you fly in a plane made out of it? Airplane manufacturer Boeing announced last week that it’s working on a new type of metal structure, called a microlattice, so light that it can be displaced with a breath of air.

Responding to a curious YouTube commenter on its video of the material, 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.)

In its video, Boeing 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.

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.

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