Boeing’s New Microlattice, Now the Lightest “Metal” Ever

Mr McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr McGuire: Plastics.

You may recognize the above dialog from the movie “The Graduate” starring a young [Dustin Hoffman], whose character is getting advice about what line of work he should get into after university. Maybe┬áMr McGuire’s advice should have been “Microlattice.”

If you take a step back for a moment and survey the state of materials, you’ll see that not much has changed in the last 50 years. We’re still building homes out of dead trees, and most cars are still made out of iron(although that is starting to change.) It’s only been just recently has there been advances in batteries technology – and that only came about with the force of a trillion-dollar mobile phone industry behind it. So we’re excited by any new advance we see, and Boeing’s new “Microlattice” tickles our fancy.

Boeing isn’t giving away the recipe just yet, but here is what we know: it’s 99.99% empty space, making it extremely light. It’s so light, that if you drop it, it floats to the ground. It’s also compressible, giving it the ability to absorb energy and spring back (you can see it in action in the after the break.) It’s made by creating a sacrificial skeletal structure the shape of the final lattice, then coating that template with nickel-phosphorus alloy. The temporary inner structure is then etched away, leaving a “microlattice” of tiny interconnected hollow rods with wall thickness of about 100 nanometers. Of course it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to figure out why Boeing is interested in such materials, they are eye it as an extremely lightweight building material for planes and spacecraft.

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Making aerogel at home

[Ben] outdid himself. He successfully made monoliths of silica aerogel in his garage. Aerogel, the light-weight solid that has been referred to as ‘hard air’ is really freaking expensive especially in non-granulated form.

The techniques behind producing aerogels have been on the Internet for a fairly long time. A few uncommon chemicals and a supercritical drying chamber are required for production, meaning it takes a lot of know-how to make hard air at home. Somehow, [Ben] got ahold of some tetramethoxysilane, the hard to come by ingredient and made a supercritical drying chamber out of pipe fittings and liquid Carbon Dioxide.

In the end, [Ben] was able to make a few small pieces of aerogel. The size of his pieces were constrained by his “mold” (actually a syringe) and the size of his drying chamber. It’s very possible [Ben] could build a larger supercritical drying chamber and make larger pieces of aerogel that would be sold commercially for hundreds of dollars.

Check out the very informative walkthrough of [Ben]’s process after the break. It’s 10 minutes long and makes for a great lunch break video.

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