Unlike The Titanic, Ships Made From This Metal Will Be Truly Unsinkable

Materials scientists have developed a new metallic foam that is less dense than water, meaning that ships built from this material can continue to float regardless of structural damage. Though this is not the first example of a lightweight metal composite, this is the first that is also strong and stable enough to endure the challenges of a marine environment making unsinkable ships a realistic application.

Metallic foam: by injecting this metal with hollow particles, a super strong material less dense than water is produced. Image from NYU laboratory of Dr. Nikhil Gupta.Metallic foam: by injecting this metal with hollow particles, a super strong material less dense than water is produced. Image from NYU laboratory of Dr. Nikhil Gupta.

The material was developed by researchers at the New York University Polytechnic School of Engineering and consists of a magnesium alloy matrix that has been injected with hollow silicon carbide (SiC) particles to produce a foam. The silicon carbide particles are the real breakthrough here, adding considerable strength to the material while decreasing the mass due to their hollow cores. Indeed, a single SiC particle is able to withstand 25,000 PSI of pressure before rupturing – a remarkably high value. Furthermore, by varying the quantity of particles, the properties of the material can be adjusted making this a very practical means of producing a variety of functional composites.

Considerable research in the past few years has gone into the production of such lightweight composite materials. Funding for these investigations is readily available due their application in the marine, automotive and aerospace industries as well as the strong interest of the military. Recently, polymeric (plastic) matrices have been in favor as they are naturally lightweight when compared with metals. However, the low heat resistance of plastics presents a problem when considering, for example, the production of lightweight automotive components. Therein lies the great importance of this new metallic foam which for the first time is able to couple a low mass with high heat resistance. Not only unsinkable ships, but lightweight, fuel-efficient planes and cars may soon result from this discovery.

Then of course there’s that most obvious of uses – the amphibious vehicle. Instead of the complicated engineering required currently, which limits these vehicles to esoteric applications, a lighter-than-water car could quite easily be made inherently water-safe. As the resident of an island without a bridge, I, for one, welcome this development with open arms.