Julia Greer on Super-Lightweight Nano Metamaterials

This is somewhat off-topic, but something I found so interesting I thought I’d share it here. I recently came across this video presentation via NextBigFuture.com by Julia R. Greer, Professor of Materials Science at California Institute of Technology (Caltech), who gave a fascinating ‘Moonshot’ presentation as part of Google’s ‘Solve for X’ program which seeks to discover innovative ways of solving significant societal and technological problems.

Dr. Greer works and teaches in the field of nanomechanics and in this video describes processes of creating materials based on the principle of ‘smaller is stronger’ where geometric design on the nanoscale allow for the creation of materials that are far stronger and lighter than if those geometries were made on larger scales.

The video below includes some quite startling claims about how Dr. Greer envisions the future of objects (imagine literally picking your car up and placing it in your roof — yes she says that with a straight face), and shows a remarkable video clip (filmed by an electron microscope) of how an alumina matrix her team has created reacts under pressure (around the 4:40 mark).

Dr. Greer’s team is working in a lab environment, and scaling up of this technology has not yet been possible, but she thinks it is feasible.


After watching this presentation I have wondered about the possible impacts of super-lightweight materials on energy consumption. If, as Dr. Greer claims, a full sized airplane could be designed to be as light as a handheld model, energy consumption would be insignificant. On the other hand, in practical terms, how would super-lightweight materials fare under natural pressures like high winds, turbulence and rain? On the other hand, there are applications for this kind of technology within all kinds of more conventional technologies which would not seem so problematic — for example, she mentions use in batteries towards the end of the video.

This is a new field to me, and quite fascinating — but there are a lot of unanswered questions and much engineering to be done before we could be looking at these kinds of materials in the real world.

We focus mainly on energy technologies here at ECW, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that LENR development is not happening in a vacuum; there are many other technological fields where advances are taking place, and what this cumulative development leads to up could be quite different to what we currently envision.

UPDATE: I found this shorter video of Julia Greer giving a nice explanation of her overall vision behind her work:


  • Obvious

    Future news report:

    After the mild windstorm (45 mph peak gusts) thousands of people are wondering where their cars and bicycles have blown away to. An aggravated apartment building owner claims he has a few hundred of them piled up against his building. Thousands more vehicles and planes have been spotted circling in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Many people are wondering when the military version of the gravity generator will be publicly available to secure their incredilight belongings. Owners of collector automobiles are having a laugh, and have banded together to help people reunite with their vehicles, once enough liquid fuel has been allocated…

  • Rob Lewis

    “If, as Dr. Greer claims, a full sized airplane could be designed to be as light as a handheld model, energy consumption would be insignificant.”
    Um, no. It would still have to overcome air resistance, which is probably the dominant factor (that’s why jet planes fly so high: the air is thinner). And of course, the people and cargo inside the airplane would still weigh the same.

  • LENR G

    Consider a couple of nascent nanoengineering health-related efforts that could reap huge rewards:

    First, “decorated” buckyballs (mini hollow carbon ‘soccer’ balls) containing gold particles in their center. The decorated surface contains molecules tuned to detect and bind to cancerous cells, which then absorb the buckyballs. Then the body tissue is irradiated, heating the gold in the buckyballs and destroying the cancerous cells that have them. Voila, targeted cancer cell destruction with minimal side effects (aka a cure for cancer). This is being researched with some early successes. http://www.nisenet.org/a-cure-cancer

    Second, super-bacteria resistance to even our most advanced antibiotics. Perhaps the solution here is material/mechanical, with small devices that could circulate in the blood stream and physically destroy the bacteria. The bacteria would have (and could have) no evolutionary defense to a mini death star just as rabbits will never develop an evolutionary defense to crossbows. http://www.nanowerk.com/spotlight/spotid=32188.php

    The overarching point is that most health problems can be reduced to problems solvable at the nano and micro scales. Until this era humans have been unable to engineer devices at that scale. We still kind of suck at it but we’re learning. When we get good at it we should be able to engineer solutions to most health problems. It’ll be sweet. It transcends the divergence of western/eastern medical approaches, imo. It opens up a whole new world of possibilities and it’s coming in this century.

    • bachcole

      The gold in the buckyballs is way too complicated and expensive. A mixture of baking soda and maple syrup will do the job and cost must less. Oh, I forgot. The whole point of mainstream cancer treatments is to be expensive so that people can profit from them. (NOT sarcastic) Unfortunately, I am being as serious as a heart attack. A such a method has not been tested by the pharmaceutical companies because it is way too natural, way to simple, and will generate zero profits for them. And if anyone else tried to do such a doubleblind, crossover, randomized test, they would be arrested and put in jail. (NOT sarcastic).

  • LENR G

    Don’t worry about the engineering around lighter materials. That’s easy.

    And no technology is going to change human nature. The arms race will always be with us. On the bright side nanotech makes a robust defense entirely possible… even against nano weapons.

    As an aside it could solve our surveillance/freedom conundrum. Nanotech-based sensors, recorders and AI could basically provide a permanent record of everything that happens while enabling strict access restrictions (like warrants)… and could enable real-time situational awareness anywhere and anytime something bad is going down. Not to mention neutralize any threat on the spot.

    Could be really great actually as long as some common sense privacy and control safeguards are put in place.

    • bachcole

      I am very skeptical of technology changing human nature, but look how long it has been since we had total war. No total war has ever been waged since August 10th 1945. What a coincidence that that is one day after the bombing of Nagasaki.

      However, human nature will change, very slowly, but technology will have very little to do with it. (:->)

  • BroKeeper

    Just hope no one devises a self replicating nano-bot. (I’ve got to quit watching sci-fi)

    • LENR G

      You can reasonably expect some nations, groups and even individuals to try and do foolish and/or nefarious things with nanotech. We’ll need to develop counter-nanotech, like an immune system, to automatically discover and neutralize dangers — especially the runaway gray goo kind or blow up a city kind.

      Should keep engineers employed for infinity :).

  • Christopher Calder

    I am skeptical that this stuff will ever be cheap enough to use on a commercial airliner. Carbon fiber and foam composites have been around for a long time and they are still very expensive, but much simpler to manufacture than nano structures.

    See http://www.dragonplate.com/

    I think she is over-selling her work and product potential.

  • HHiram

    What, no anti-science posts from the usual suspects? I guess we like science and scientists as long as they’re not part of The Conspiracy to keep LENR down? Sigh….

    For anyone genuinely interested in the possibilities of what is formally known as Atomically Precise Manufacturing (APM), you should read the new book Radical Abundance by Erik Drexler, the godfather of nanotechnology. (http://www.amazon.com/Radical-Abundance-Revolution-Nanotechnology-Civilization/dp/1610391136)

    Short video of Drexler and Kurzweil here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DnMBqwk9fZ4
    Full length Drexler lecture at Oxford here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1bw6Zi17DBI

    • LENR G

      Nanotechnology is already starting to have dramatic impacts. Beyond novel and mind-blowing materials there are huge opportunities for nanoengineering to have massive positive effects on health, electronics/communication, energy transformation/storage/generation, consumer foods and other goods, transportation, the environment, defense and more.

      It’s a crime that we’re not investing more in this area. Yeah yeah deficits debt blah blah. If you can invest $10 and make $100k down the road, you do it.

    • Donk970

      Actually, I kind of wonder if there might be some application of this technique to creating better LENR substrates.

  • Allan Shura

    These materials would have to be very strong as any nano-breakaway could be absorbed by the skin and lungs. In reprocessing and disposal the same apples.

    • Pekka Janhunen

      A valid concern, I think. Although if they are not long fibres like asbestos, but more like very short truss segments, maybe it’s not so bad then for living cells. Would be important to study such issues now when everything is still in lab stage.

      • Obvious

        Normal microfibers get into my pores already.

  • robyn wyrick

    I have been following this story for a while, but the thing I don’t get is how cars will stay on the ground.

  • Bernie777

    Thanks Admin, this combined with new printing tech could be impressive. Exciting times we are living in!

  • Iggy Dalrymple

    I believe aerodynamics is affected by shape, not density.

  • Iggy Dalrymple

    I think I hear him mention lattice a couple of times.


  • MasterBlaster7

    I didn’t read anyone linking this to LENR. What if….you take the nickle nano-powder and form it into one of these structures? You would still have a similar surface area profile of the nano-structure but formed into a Macro lattice. So, you have the micro lattice of nickle and you form that into a macro lattice structure. That might allow for better Helium escape from the reaction….as to not clog the reaction sights. Interesting stuff here.

    • Barry8

      Interesting MB. Seems to offer a lot in the way of surface area. One of the successes of the NANORs was the distance between the palladium spaced in the zirconium, like chocolate chips in a cookie. I wonder if this could be controlled and measured in such a nano structure.

      • MasterBlaster7

        right!…I see you suffered through the 15 hour MIT Cold Fusion lecture too. Or, maybe someone more closely related with Swartz? I remember the chocolate chips in a cookie….but I didnt pick up that he was testing palladium spacing. Swartz goes a million miles an hour through a million experiments….I wasn’t always keeping up…broad strokes.

    • Allan Shura

      Same with palladium. This to me is the easiest to understand and so far the most reliable method for entry level
      domestic applications at least to provide heat.

    • Donk970

      Or vapor deposit very thin films of nickel or some alloy a few atoms thick onto the scaffold.

      • MasterBlaster7

        great thought….and…I just had another great thought….what if that scaffold was made of a material you wanted to transmute?

  • BroKeeper

    I envision a major shift in architectural design with nano-structured building. Majority of base weight of current buildings is to support like heavy cascading structures above that limits size, height and style. With super strong nano-materials the only limits would be one’s imagination. How about prefabricated spring loaded multiple story nano-lattice homes with extremely light, nano-scale thermal/radiation aerogel insulation. Loaded, dropped and assembled homes anywhere in desolate environments like strong earthquake and blizzard conditions. Oh, and don’t forget nano printed NI catalyzed E-Cat for heat and electricity to supply 3D printed tools, food, medical, and home goods; recycled water and air. Did I mention Mars?

  • bitplayer

    Re comparing solar and LENR (for distributed electrical availability):
    > Power Controls
    —> Both are going to need some kind of power controls to make useful electric power
    > Storage
    —> LENR will hopefully lead to something equivalent to a long lasting battery
    —> Solar needs storage; but there is an arc of progress in batteries along with solar
    > Maintenance
    —> Solar needs less maintenance? i.e. won’t need to be replaced or “recharged” as often as LENR?
    ——> e.g. those remote road phones, solar powered
    > Cost
    —> With nano-technology solar may become very inexpensive and flexible to use, i.e. slap it up anywhere
    —> When will LENR become commoditized like the Energizer Bunny?
    > Safety
    —> Solar is intrinsically safer? i.e. less weird materials? (we don’t know yet)
    > Recycling
    —> Solar needs less re-cycling? (we don’t know yet)

  • Jimr

    Somewhat off topic, but I have always felt the developement of a ultra sensitive odor detector would be a great project. Many if not most diseases , they are finding have specific odors (ex. Cancer dogs). Also I have seen a program where a young girl was kidnapped. A bloodhound led the police to an interstate hwy, after walking down the interstate passing two turn offs, they placed the dog in a car and would drive to the next turnoff. If the dog passed that turn they loaded him back in the car and repeated the process. After several occurrences the dog turned up one of the exits. The little was later found dead on that road. I’m certain there would be many uses for such a sensor. I know there are some companies researching this, however very little money bing put into the project.

    • Warthog

      Not true. HUGE amounts of grant funds have been expended on this notion for years with zip significant results. (Note..I’m an analytical chemist, and sensor design and development was/is one of my areas of expertise). The individual elements that comprise the “multi-sensor array” are simply not sensitive enough. They’ve tried everything from surface plasmons, to nanofabricated resonating nanobalances, to pretty much every other possible approach. Thus far, nothing has worked adequately.

  • Veblin

    What is ultrasonics by RUBIIT that you keep posting about? Searching for this only brings me to your posts and the Google question. Did you mean: ultrasonics by RABBIT?

  • Christopher Calder

    I sent Ms. Greer an email saying that nano-structure technology has great potential, but nothing, not even nano technology, can save the solar cell industry. You can turn a LENR reactor on and off at will, a trick you cannot do with the Sun.

    BTW As a former amateur loudspeaker designer, I can say that the nano structure technology Greer is working on would make great flat panel midrange drivers and very rigid dome tweeters.

    OFF TOPIC – I have no idea if BlackLight Power’s hydrino theory of how their reactors work is true or not. I did write several science fiction movie scripts when I was young, and the concept of a Dark Energy Power Generator would make a great addition to a script. Mills thinks hydrinos are the Dark Matter that scientists are looking for, and that idea makes sense. If his theory is true, he is unleashing energy by producing more Dark Matter, so the Dark Matter Generator label would be both accurate and very spooky.

    Again, I have no real opinion if his theory is true or not. I just like the concept from a potential Si-Fi point of view.

    • Private Citizen

      >but nothing, not even nano technology can save the solar cell industry

      Cheap offline storage can, which tech is coming along very nicely

  • Bento
  • Iggy Dalrymple

    Aircraft that light could land vertically. No crosswind.

  • Iggy Dalrymple

    Would make a good rigid airship. If translucent, would get lift from solar heat. Floating cities out of reach from socialists.

    • Fortyniner

      As a first step towards floating cities, a combination of this technology and LENR would make large ‘thermal airships’ a very viable proposition. Solar heating probably wouldn’t be necessary, but a skin of nanoengineered PVs would be useful.


      Safe, beautiful, cheap to run – what’s not to like..

      • Iggy Dalrymple

        Cloud Nine (tensegrity sphere)

        From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

        Cloud Nine is the name Buckminster Fuller gave to his proposed airborne habitats created from giant geodesic spheres, which might be made to levitate by slightly heating the air inside above the ambient temperature.[1]

        Geodesic spheres (structures of triangular components arranged to make a sphere) become stronger as they become bigger, due to how they distribute stress over their surfaces. As a sphere gets bigger, the volume it encloses grows much faster than the mass of the enclosing structure itself. Fuller suggested that the mass of a mile-wide geodesic sphere would be negligible compared to the mass of the air trapped within it. He suggested that if the air inside such a sphere were heated even by one degree higher than the ambient temperature of its surroundings, the sphere could become airborne. He calculated that such a balloon could lift a considerable mass, and hence that ‘mini-cities’ or airborne towns of thousands of people could be built in this way.

        A Cloud Nine could be tethered, or free-floating, or maneuverable so that it could migrate in response to climatic and environmental conditions, such as providing emergency shelters.[2]

  • Job001

    Not so tough, add batteries and fat folks until stable weight is attained.

  • Charles

    In process: 1. Energy (Rossi’s E-Cat), 2. Ultracapacitors (EESTOR), 3. 3-D Printing (Puget, DDD, Etal) , Nano-materials (Graphene). These alone will turn the world upside down.

    Future wannabes: 1. Molecular assembly of filet mignon from dirt and water.

    Future scaries: !. DNA gene alterations, 2. Brain didling

    • Pekka Janhunen

      Nothing new on the scary front, then 🙂

  • Pekka Janhunen

    This is something that I’ve long thought that should be done much more. The general ideas a compelling and easy to understand. A solid bar is the most primitive structural beam. Then one realises that one can make it hollow without much losing strength: most of the mass was unnecessary. One can thin the walls down to the buckling limit. To fight against buckling, one needs to add some internal supports which can again be made hollow. Continuing the idea, one ends up with a 3-D truss. The new thing is to continue the truss idea recursively down to atomic scale. Then one gets also the extra benefit that nanoscale walls are stronger than normal ones, plus the bonus that the structure is inherently safe because the voids between the walls stop crack propagation. Combining all three benefits (recursive truss, nanowall strength, no-crack behaviour) one may indeed obtain rather miraculously strong structural parts. There is a natural and close connection to 3-D printing also.

    The challenge is to find scalable and cost-effective production methods. I would expect spacecraft and launch vehicles to be among the first applications (if not, space industry has neglected its homework, I’d say).

  • Curbina

    These things are fascinating, thanks Frank. I know that our capacity of solving technical problems far exceeds our capacity of making the solutions available to everyone. The surface reason to this is our great economic system, but the real reason is that we collectively aren’t capable of overcoming our own mental matrix.