Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, and the University of Cambridge have created a material that they call “metallic wood.” It’s said to be as strong as titanium while being light enough that it can float in water. Only a small amount of this material can be produced at a time right now but if the manufacturing process is capable of being scaled up, it would result in highly durable products ranging from smartphones to cars that are super-light.
The researchers’ study was recently published in Scientific Reports. They were able to create this material by suspending tiny plastic spheres of a few hundred nanometers wide in water. The water was then evaporated which caused the spheres to stack in an orderly pattern. Electroplating was then used to coat the spheres in nickel. A solvent was then used to dissolve the plastic spheres and leave just the nickel lattice behind.
The low density is a result of at almost 70 percent of the material being empty space. That’s not the only thing that’s common with wood, though. Researcher James Pikul says that the reason this material is called metallic wood is because of its cellular nature as well.
“Cellular materials are porous; if you look at wood grain, that’s what you’re seeing — parts that are thick and dense and made to hold the structure, and parts that are porous and made to support biological functions, like transport to and from cells,” he explained. The researchers can currently produce a postage stamp-sized piece of metallic wood in about a day. The potential for this material can be enormous if the production process can be scaled up effectively.