Ultralight ‘super-material’ is 10 times stronger than steel

A new material is very light and yet stronger than steel. The new material is its great strength from its unique geometric configuration.

(Melanie Gonick/MIT)

A spongy new super-material can be lighter than the flimsiest plastic is 10 times stronger than steel.

The new super-material is made of patches of graphene, crushed and fused together to a large, cobwebby network. The soft texture, which seems like a bit of a psychedelic sea creature, is almost fully hollow; the density is only 5 percent of the ordinary graphene, one of the researchers said.

What’s more, although the researchers have made use of graphene, the seemingly magical properties of the material is not completely dependent on the atoms used: The secret ingredient is the way in which atoms are aligned, the scientists said.

“You can replace the material with something,” Markus J. Buehler, a materials scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) said in a statement. “The geometry is the dominant factor. It is something that has the potential to contribute to many things.”

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Graphene, a material made of flaky sheets of carbon atoms, is the strongest material on Earth — at least in 2D sheets. On paper, the ultra-thin sheets of graphene that are only one atom thick, have unique electrical properties, and indomitable strength. Unfortunately, these properties do not easily translate to 3D-shapes that are used to build things. [7 Technologies That Transformed Warfare]

Recent simulations suggested that the orientation of the graphene atoms a certain way, the force in three dimensions. However, when the researchers tried to create these materials in the lab, the results were often hundreds or thousands of times weaker than predicted, the researchers said in the statement.

Stronger than steel

To meet this challenge, the team went down to the basics: analyzing the structure on atomic level. From there, the researchers created a mathematical model that can accurately predict how to make remarkably strong super-materials. The researchers then used precise amounts of heat and pressure to produce in the resulting winding, a maze of structures, known as gyroids, which were first mathematically described by a NASA scientist in 1970 .

“Actually, they make use of the conventional production methods is probably impossible,” Buehler said.

The material of the power comes from the huge surface-area-to-volume ratio, the researchers reported in a study published Jan. 6 in the journal Science Advances. In the nature, the sea creatures such as coral and diatoms also use of a large surface-area-to-volume ratio to achieve incredible power on small scales.

“Once we have these 3D structures, we wanted to look what is the boundary — what is the strongest material that we can produce,” study co-author, Zhao Qin, a civil and environmental engineering researcher at MIT, said in the statement.

The scientists created a series of models, built, and subjected them to tension and compression. The strongest material that the researchers created was about as close as the lightest plastic bag, yet stronger than steel.

An obstacle for the creation of these strong materials is the lack of industrial manufacturing capacity for the production of the researchers said. However, there are ways to make the material be produced on the larger scale, the scientists said

For example, the actual particles can be used as templates that are coated with graphene by chemical vapor deposition; the underlying template can then be eaten or peeled, the use of chemical or physical techniques, making the graphene gyroid behind the researchers said.

In the future, huge bridges could be made of gyroid concrete, that would be ultrastrong, lightweight, and insulated against heat and cold because of the numerous air bubbles in the material, the researchers said.

Originally published on Live Science .

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