Lightest, strongest, most durable … material innovations stretch the capacity of the physical around us to superlatives. However, says Jens Bauer of Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, “there’s some kind of limit reached with standard materials."
Which is why the mechanical engineer has stepped forward to create something … not quite so standard. The result? A material that exceeds the strength-to-weight ratio of most engineering materials.
Researchers from the German university have been pushing the limits of how to create an incredibly strong yet lightweight material—one that could potentially slice costs by cutting down on density. Taking inspiration from natural formations found in bone and wood, Bauer's new material actually comprises a series of nanometer-sized building blocks. We're talking tiny tiny tiny building blocks—basically, micro-architecture.
Iterations of the material structure (note the scale!). Images via KIT.
Typically, materials add bulk, and therefore weight, in order to achieve strength. However, the strength in this new proposed material is found in the specific geometric patterns that brace the structure against applied forces, similar to trusses in larger-scale construction. It’s essentially stripping structure down to its bare “bones”—similar to the difference between the Great Pyramids and the Eiffel Tower.
Rather than relying on a chemical process, or on more unpredictable happenings like the random distribution of air bubbles in styrofoam, the researchers physically build the material to blueprints using 3D laser lithography, i.e. a really sophisticated 3D printer. Unfortunately, though it does save material, the technology is still pricey. But engineers for structures like planes and spacecraft can afford it, and must surely be salivating over the concept.
Hangzhou Shop Interior by SAKO Architects. Image via e-architect.
Bone Chair by Jaris Laarman Lab. Image via Jaris Laarman.
But it’s only a matter of time before this new material trickles down to the masses. (Mass-production often ends up getting hand-me-downs from space innovations, such as aerogel insulation.) Multiple designs have already been proposed for larger-celled bone-like structures in architecture; we're curious to see what new forms this new iteration will bring!