Weight savings are crucially important in aircraft manufacturing, since a lighter aircraft requires less fuel, which is airlines' largest operating expense.
Credit: Dan Little/HRL Laboratories
Microlattice was inspired by the structure of our bones, which are very rigid on the outside but mostly hollow on the inside, which means they can't be easily crushed, but are lightweight enough for us to carry around all day. The new Boeing metal mimics this, and despite its rigid exterior, it has a 3D open-cellular polymer structure, which means its structure is 99.99 percent air.
The lattice in the metal is made up of interconnected hollow metal tubes - constructed from nickel, in the case of the prototype. Each of these tubes has a wall thickness of just 100 nanometres, which is 1,000 times thinner than human hair. These open cells in the structure give microlattice huge compression potential, which means it can absorb a whole lot of energy.
Video: Boeing: Lightest. Metal. Ever.
In the new film released by Boeing earlier this month, HRL research scientist Sophia Yang describes the metal as "the world's lightest material", and compares its 99.9 per cent air structure to the composition of human bones – rigid on the outside, but with an open cellular composition inside that keeps them lightweight.
The clip provides a close-up of the structures, and demonstrates its properties by showing compression tests and reactions to air movement.