|Photo via HRL Laboratories: Nickel Microtube Structure|
The Worlds Lightest Material 2012
Using lasers, photosensitive polymers and chemical vapor deposition: hollow nickle tubes 1000x smaller than a human hair are assembled into a complex repeating lattice fiber structure that creates a material 100x lighter than styrofoam that is extremely strong for its mass.
See, the nickel recovered from recycled Prius Batteries can be used to produce really interesting things!
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Materials science innovations play a critical roll in allowing other technologies to move from theory to prototypes in a laboratory and then commercialization into real world products.
Many great ideas like the "Space Elevator" cannot be translated yet into reality yet because we lack the materials or methods to make the materials at the correct scale for a reasonable price.
Ultralight ultrastrong materials like the Nickel microtube in this article have a great number of potential applications. Transportation, Motorsports, Sporting Goods, and Aerospace. High strength to weight materials like carbon fiber have not penetrated certain marketplaces where lower cost heavier materials dominate. The automotive sector for example is heavily invested in steel as a construction material for vehicles.
Unfortunately, steel is a really heavy strong material. The extensive use of steel in vehicles makes vehicles perform poorly (slower, less safe, less efficient) and this is exactly why carbon fiber has been used extensively in high performance custom built racing vehicles.
The cool part about steel is that is cheap, strong and completely recyclable. What we really need with steel is something like this material above: highly structured materials. Steel for example when it is arranged in intelligently designed architectural works is actually a very strong and light building material. Think of a modern office building (glass and steel) compared with a brick building from the past. The steel building has much greater mechanical performance per unit of mass and thus more usable space can be rendered in a give building footprint when steel is used.
Nickel is also a highly recyclable metal. Nickel is used in the production of high performance metal alloys. The turbine engine blades for example on aircraft are made with exotic nickel metal alloys that are mechanically robust as very high temperatures. This is actually one of the reasons that turbine engines are so expensive; nickel is expensive. By using tiny amounts of Nickel in a highly organized precisely engineer structure like the one picture above, we see the performance benefits of nickel without wasting it.
In new vehicle designs, new generations of ultra-high strength steel are being used. These high performance steel alloys use more nickel. With stronger steel alloys automakers are able to build safer stronger and more efficient vehicles with more interior room. Computer aided design and advanced fabrication technology allows for the use of less steel while still gaining mechanical strength and better overall performance.
When lighter stronger materials are used in the production of a car, its power to weight ratio improves resulting in better performance, less strain and wear on the engine and transmission, better fuel economy, improved braking performance and better handling. Unfortunately high performance steel alloys cost more. This increased materials cost can be offset by the decreasing amount of material used in very well designed vehicles. Other materials like aluminum can also be used to make a vehicle stronger and lighter.
Many high performance luxury sedans have aluminum engines and bodies. Other materials like Titanium can be used for pistons and valves to make the engine more efficient. Still other material science innovations like micro-texturing can reduce friction and prolong the endurance of bearings. Smooth running more robust engines result from the use of high performance metal alloys in engine construction, unfortunately they also cost more.
The fiscal performance of a better engine improves when fuel prices are higher. For example, if the use of advanced metal alloys raises the cost of an engine by $1000, but results in saving the vehicle owner several thousand dollars in fuel over the first 100,000 miles, then the added cost of the better more efficient engine makes fiscal sense to invest in.
For decades in Europe high cost diesel engines of very small displacement were chosen over low cost gasoline engines, even though the diesel vehicles cost more upfront. Europeans have had to pay very high relative fuel prices, and thus the more fuel efficient diesel engine makes fiscal sense to European car buyers because they save much more then the cost of the engine upgrade on fuel savings.
Nickel is a really interesting metal, and here again we see yet another high performance application thereof. It also used in Plating in very thin layers to protect other metals. Here in this material they in essence "plated" tiny laser created photo polymer wires with nickle and then used special solvents to dissolve away the polymer: leaving behind tiny hollow nickle tubes. Here again we see in engineering that it was not one, but many overlapping innovations that enabled the creation of this new benchmark setting material.
If you want to know more about Nickel, check this out:
A interesting look at Steel vs Aluminum in automotive construction can be found at: