Summary:

Researchers found that x-shaped pieces of carbon fiber composite can form structures that are 10 times stiffer than existing ultralight materials.

Cellular composite material
photo: Kenneth Cheung

When manufacturers build a structure like a plane out of ultralight glued-together carbon fibers known as composites, the common technique is to build it with as few parts as possible. That cuts down on the number of joints where cracks and structural failures can start, but also calls for large specialized manufacturing facilities.

A new structure (subscription required) out of MIT takes a different approach. Researchers found that small X-shaped pieces of carbon fiber composite locked together into K’NEX-like lattice structures are 10 times stiffer than existing ultralight materials. Building something with them requires less material to support the same weight, potentially leading to lighter vehicles and lower fuel costs.

Researchers prepare to test the strength of the cellular composite material in an MIT lab. Photo courtesy of Kenneth Cheung

Researchers prepare to test the strength of the cellular composite material in an MIT lab. Photo courtesy of Kenneth Cheung

Though each of the pieces are the same, they can be combined to build highly customized designs. The researchers are currently looking into using them to build objects like wings, rockets, bridges and airplane fuselages. They could eventually make up even larger structures, such as dikes and levees.

One benefit to working with lots of little pieces is that if they fail, they fail on a smaller scale. Large, solid structures tend to fail all at once, but the pieces break down incrementally. You can just swap in new pieces where they are needed. Entire structures can also be recycled by disassembling the pieces and then using them to build something new.

The MIT researchers are now developing a robot that can assemble structures from the pieces.

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