Gyroid Shape Provides High Strength at Light Weight
Researchers Design One of the Strongest, Lightest Materials Known
Two-dimensional materials — basically flat sheets that are just one atom in thickness but can be indefinitely large in the other dimensions — have exceptional strength as well as unique electrical properties. But because of their extraordinary thinness, they are not very useful for making 3D materials that could be used in vehicles, buildings, or devices. In its two-dimensional form, graphene is thought to be the strongest of all known materials. But researchers until now have had a hard time translating that two-dimensional strength into useful three-dimensional materials.
A team of researchers at MIT has designed one of the strongest lightweight materials known, by compressing and fusing flakes of graphene, a two-dimensional form of carbon. The new material, a sponge-like configuration with a density of just 5 percent, can have a strength 10 times that of steel.
The new findings show that the crucial aspect of the new 3D forms has more to do with their unusual geometrical configuration than with the material itself, which suggests that similar strong, lightweight materials could be made from a variety of materials by creating similar geometric features. Other groups had suggested the possibility of such lightweight structures, but lab experiments so far had failed to match predictions, with some results exhibiting several orders of magnitude less strength than expected. The MIT team decided to solve the mystery by analyzing the material’s behavior down to the level of individual atoms within the structure. They were able to produce a mathematical framework that very closely matches experimental observations.
The team was able to compress small flakes of graphene using a combination of heat and pressure (see YouTube video ). This process produced a strong, stable structure whose form resembles that of some corals and microscopic creatures called diatoms. These shapes, which have an enormous surface area in proportion to their volume, proved to be remarkably strong. The researchers created a variety of 3D models and then subjected them to various tests. In computational simulations, which mimic the loading conditions in the tensile and compression tests performed in a tensile loading machine, one of the samples has 5 percent the density of steel, but 10 times the strength.
The new configurations have been made in the lab using a high-resolution, multimaterial 3D printer. They were mechanically tested for their tensile and compressive properties, and their mechanical response under loading was simulated using the team’s theoretical models. The results from the experiments and simulations matched accurately.
Potential for Future Structural Plastics
The unusual geometric shapes that graphene naturally forms under heat and pressure look something like a Nerf ball — round, but full of holes. These shapes, known as gyroids, are so complex that “actually making them using conventional manufacturing methods is probably impossible,” Buehler says. The team used 3D-printed models of the structure, enlarged to thousands of times their natural size, for testing purposes.
The findings are being reported in the journal Science Advances, in a paper by Markus Buehler, the head of MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) and the McAfee Professor of Engineering; Zhao Qin, a CEE research scientist; Gang Seob Jung, a graduate student; and Min Jeong Kang, MEng ’16, a recent graduate.
Many possible applications of the material could eventually be feasible, the researchers say, for uses that require a combination of extreme strength and light weight. “You could either use the real graphene material or use the geometry we discovered with other materials, like polymers or metals,” Buehler says, to gain similar advantages of strength combined with advantages in cost, processing methods, or other material properties (such as transparency or electrical conductivity).