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Ceramics Don't Have To Be Brittle

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This sequence shows how the Greer Lab's three-dimensional, ceramic nanolattices can recover after being compressed by more than 50 percent. Clockwise, from left to right, an alumina nanolattice before compression, during compression, fully compressed, and recovered following compression.Credit: Lucas Meza/Caltech

Imagine a balloon that could float without using any lighter-than-air gas. Instead, it could simply have all of its air sucked out while maintaining its filled shape. Such a vacuum balloon, which could help ease the world's current shortage of helium, can only be made if a new material existed that was strong enough to sustain the pressure generated by forcing out all that air while still being lightweight and flexible. Caltech materials scientist Julia Greer and her colleagues are on the path to developing such a material and many others that possess unheard-of combinations of properties. For example, they might create a material that is thermally insulating but also extremely lightweight, or one that is simultaneously strong, lightweight, and nonbreakable—properties that are generally thought to be mutually exclusive. Greer's team has developed a method for constructing new structural materials by taking advantage of the unusual properties that solids can have at the nanometer scale, where features are measured in billionths of meters. In a paper, the Caltech researchers explain how they used the method to produce a ceramic (e.g., a piece of chalk or a brick) that contains about 99.9 percent air yet is incredibly strong, and that can recover its original shape after being smashed by more than 50 percent.