The third most abundant element in our earth, while also being the most abundant metal in the crust, aluminum has its fair share of property-based advantages, ranging from durability, malleability to corrosion resistance and conductivity (along with superconductivity). And now, one can potentially add intrinsic lightness to the list of ‘assets’, beyond the foil form of the metal. Pertaining to this incredible scope, a collaborative effort from researchers at Utah State University and Southern Federal University in Rostov-on Don, Russia, has led to the creation of a new crystalline-based model of aluminum that is even lighter than the usual magnitude of light mass associated with the metal.
This new crystalline aluminum – called the supertetrahedral aluminum, created with the help of computational design, boasts its extremely low density. To that end, when translated to figures, this aluminum variant has a density of just 0.61 grams per cubic cm. In comparison, the density of normal aluminum is 2.7 grams per cubic cm, which is four-times greater than the former (while steel is almost 13-times heavier than the supertetrahedral one). Simply put, this new crystalline structure would allow a lump of the aluminum to even float on water, as opposed to its regular counterpart. According to Alexander Boldyrev, professor in USU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry –
My colleagues’ approach to this challenge was very innovative. They started with a known crystal lattice, in this case, a diamond, and substituted every carbon atom with an aluminum tetrahedron. That means the new crystallized form will float on water, which has a density of one gram per cubic centimeter.
Now, of course, supertetrahedral aluminum has the potential to account for numerous practical benefits that go beyond just its floating capacity on water. Combining the ductility and durability of the normal aluminum, the enhanced lightness of the metal does lend itself to a variety of possible applications. As Boldyrev said –
Spaceflight, medicine, wiring and more lightweight, more fuel-efficient automotive parts are some applications that come to mind. Of course, it’s very early to speculate about how this material could be used. There are many unknowns. For one thing, we don’t know anything about its strength.
Relating to the last part of his statement, one should keep in mind that while supertetrahedral aluminum has its own computational model design, the crystalline-structured metal has still not been physically produced. To that end, the researchers have talked about their breakthrough discovery alludes to a novel way of approaching material design. Boldyrev concluded –
An amazing aspect of this research is the approach: using a known structure to design a new material. This approach paves the way for future discoveries.
The study was originally published in The Journal of Physical Chemistry C.