These new 3D printable materials could form planes and cars that are super light and strong

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory researchers have created unusual structures that are light, stiff and strong–and can be made with a lab-grade 3D printer.

The structures are foam-like in that they are filled with air, but their regular pattern keeps them stiff and strong. They could be incorporated into the structure of a car, airplane or spaceship without giving way.

They can be made from metal, ceramics or plastic. One material made from lattices of a polymer coated in a ceramic is among the lightest in the world. They can hold more than 160,000 times their own weight. LLNL reported they are 100 times stiffer than similar materials created in the past.

“The key to this ultrahigh stiffness is that all the micro-structural elements in this material are designed to be over constrained and do not bend under applied load,” said LLNL engineer Xiaoyu Zheng, who is the lead author on a paper that will appear in Science Friday.

The research team created the materials with a stereolithographic printer, which uses a laser to create 3D shapes. SLA printers made for the home are not accurate enough to create the materials (yet) because their structure must be perfectly formed at a microscopic scale.