Researchers have created a material that's so light it can rest comfortably on a dandelion seed head without disturbing the fluffy, delicate structure of the plant. The "ultralight metallic microlattice" invented by scientists at UC Irvine, HRL Laboratories, and Caltech is described in the Nov. 18 issue of Science.
The new material is 100 times lighter than styrofoam, according to reports. The secret to its lightness is a cellular architecture fabricated from hollow tubes that supports a material structure that is in reality 99.99 percent air, according to the research team that built it.
That means the material's density is less than one-thousandth that of water. And the stuff is pretty resilient as well—researchers said that when squashed to half its height, the material rebounds 98 percent of the way back.
"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, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The material seen resting on a dandelion seed head in the picture above is 90 percent nickel, according to the Times, but Bill Carter, manager of the architected materials group at HRL, told the newspaper that it can be made out of other materials as well.
One UC Irvine researcher involved with the project suggested the ultra-lightweight material might be used for impact protection, and might have applications "in the aerospace industry, acoustic dampening, and maybe some battery applications," according to the Times.
The material behaves somewhat like a feather when dropped, floating to the ground, Carter told the paper.
"It takes more than 10 seconds, for instance, for the lightest material we've made to fall if you drop it from shoulder height," he said.