Scientists Make the World's First Liquid Metal Lattice

Caroline Delbert
Photo credit: Pu Zhang et al/SUNY Binghamton

From Popular Mechanics

  • A new team is making impact-tolerant, deformable liquid metal structures using Field's alloy.
  • It's not the first such "Terminator metal," but it combines rubber and metal to make a forgiving lattice.
  • The scientists say it could help cushion spaceships and make coatings for Earthbound items.

Scientists from SUNY-Binghamton are developing new Terminator-like liquefying metals made from Field’s alloy. And in a fun twist, the lead researcher behind the study—which appears in the journal Additive Manufacturinghasn't seen any films in the Terminator franchise.

"To be honest, I've never watched that movie!" Pu Zhang, a mechanical engineering professor, said in a statement. (It's safe to assume he also missed out on The Secret World of Alex Mack.)

The term “additive manufacturing” refers broadly to technology like 3D printing, where you add material in order to build an item. That contrasts with subtractive manufacturing, like using a lathe and removing metal or wood in order to sculpt a final shape. But in this case, the liquid metal is used in a more complex process where a “shell skeleton” is 3D printed from rubber and metal and then filled with liquid metal lattice.

When the lattice cools, it becomes slightly more rigid, which makes it pliable. Then when it’s heated back up to the melting point, it returns to the original shape of the shell skeleton.

“This hybrid design induces a shape memory effect by harnessing the solid-liquid phase transition of liquid metals,” the scientists explain in the paper. That shape memory is “harnessed” by the combination of the liquid metal lattice with a “doping” (colloquially) of elastomers.

The scientists say their design could extend to literally any time a current form of metal ends up bent beyond repair, including spaceships, for example, that may land off kilter and end up with irreparably damaged outer hull materials.

If these casings were made with the rubber and liquid metal lattice Zhang’s team designed, they could be repaired with an application of low heat. The scientists say coatings are one of the potential applications they’re most excited about, creating a durable buffer that could absorb shock from impact.

This could work the same way even a thin laptop or smartphone case can protect your device when you drop it, or how a thin yoga mat or professional kitchen mat protects the human body from repetitive skeletal jolts. It’s how our skin keeps our insides safe.

For use in space, scientists don’t need to contend with wind resistance or air friction, so a complex material like this could be practical and solve a lot of problems. On Earth, the uses as a shock absorber are more limited—but Zhang and his colleagues are full of ideas.

“This new class of lattice materials have promising applications in aerospace, robotics, tunable metamaterials, etc.,” the scientists say in their paper. Brace for a slightly softer impact.

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