The picture, above, of a metal grid sitting on the head of a dandelion without disturbing a single feathery tuft may look Photoshopped. But it’s not. It’s a real photograph of one of the more interesting developments in recent materials science—a metal “microlattice” that’s 100 times lighter than Styrofoam.
“It’s basically 99.9 percent air,” says Sophia Yang, a researcher at HRL Laboratories, where the microlattice was invented.
To make the metal microlattice, scientists begin with a polymer structure. This structure is created by shining ultraviolet (UV) light through a filter onto liquid polymer. The process forms a hardened 3D structure almost instantly. Depending on the chemical makeup of the polymer, the resulting structure could be soft or rigid, light or heavy. These microlattice structures have a variety of potential uses themselves—a soft polymer microlattice might be useful for creating comfortable but extremely protective bike helmets, for example.