Sponge-Like Metal Is Lighter than Styrofoam

The airy metal has an open cellular structure, which makes it durable and lightweight. Continue reading →

A new metal that's 99.99 percent air is durable enough to be used as a building component in aircraft and rockets.

The so-called microlattice was invented by Boeing and this week, the aerospace engineering firm released a video showing just how light the material is.

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In it, Sophia Yang, research scientist of architected materials at HRL Labs, who worked with Boeing on the project, holds a smalls square in the palm of her hand and then blows on it.

The metal floats to floor lazy as a feather.

Yang says that in addition to being lightweight, the material absorbs energy. A small package of it wrapped around an egg could absorb the impact of a 25-story drop.

The structure of the microlattice can be compared to that of bone. Although the airy metal is lighter than bone, it does have a similar open cellular structure, which is part of what gives it the double characteristics of being durable and lightweight.

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Such a material could be used as a structural component in airplanes, which would create more room inside the fuselage, while also making the plane lighter in weight, which saves on fuel.

Watch the video below for more details.

click to play video

Technology moves faster every day. But commercial air travel hasn't changed as quickly as some industries in recent years. Experts project big changes in the next few decades, though, especially as aviation companies deploy significant innovations in design, material sciences and alternative energy sources. Here we take a look at some of changes on the horizon for commercial, cargo and experimental aircraft.

The N3-X concept aircraft, from Boeing and NASA, is based on a blended wing body (BWB) design intended to improve aerodynamics, fuel efficiency and noise emissions. The ultra-wide fuselage would greatly expand carrying capacity for commercial flights.

Developed by a research team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the D8 "Double Bubble" aircraft would be used for domestic flights and is designed to fly at Mach 0.74 carrying 180 passengers in a coach cabin roomier than that of a Boeing 737-800. The D8 could enter service as soon as 2030, NASA says.

From Lockheed Martin, this concept design for a future supersonic aircraft is focused on reducing emissions and creating a quieter boom. A quieter craft would allow supersonic flights over land, where they are currently prohibited.

Meanwhile, over on the cargo plane tarmac, the GIGAbay concept envisions a ginormous aircraft powered by four hybrid fuel/electric engines, with supplemental energy provided by hydrogen fuel cells, wind generators and solar panels. The cargo area of the GIGAbay design is so large it could carry other jumbo aircraft, or even mobile field hospitals.

Powered by two superconducting electric motors, the concept plane known as the VoltAir (get it?) is a proposed all-electric airliner out of Europe. The engines would draw from next-generation lithium ion batteries -- really big ones -- that would be simply swapped out between flights.

Some cutting-edge technologies on the horizon are actually modifications of existing designs that have been around for more than a century. To wit, the illustration above imagines the closed-wing "PrandtlPlane" design applied to commercial passenger aircraft. Closed-wing planes have smaller wingspans than traditional aircraft, relative to fuselage size, allowing larger planes to operate out of smaller airports.

Another sort of hybrid, the E-Thrust design -- from Rolls-Royce and several European partners -- uses a combination of gas-turbine engines and battery-powered fans. The jet engines would only kick in when needed, similar to gas/electric hybrid cars. The fans would also be used, on descent, as built-in windmills to recharge the onboard batteries.

And from the ultralight division, we have the Solar Impulse 2, the latest iteration of the world's most advanced solar-powered, single-seat aircraft. The Swiss team behind the project plans to circumnavigate the planet in 2015, using a team of pilots flying in shifts over the course of about five months.

Finally, from the designer who brought us the GIGAbay cargo plane, the mighty Sky Whale also subscribes to the concept that bigger equals better -- and greener. The Sky Whale is a largely theoretical vision for a passenger plane that could seat 755 passengers on three floors, using a combination of alternative power sources. The upshot? More passengers per flight means fewer flights, and fewer emissions.