A recent discovery by researchers at the University of Connecticut and their partners brought a new material that combines great strength and lightness, a rare combination.
This new material has the potential to improve various things like cars and body armor. What’s surprising is that they made it using two unexpected things: DNA and glass.
Seok-Woo Lee, a materials scientist at UConn, proudly states that the new material is the strongest among all known materials with the same density.
Lee, along with his fellow researchers from UConn, Columbia University, and Brookhaven National Lab, published the full details of their discovery on July 19th in Cell Reports Physical Science.
Creating material 5 times lighter and 4 times stronger
The scientists created this new sturdy and lightweight material by using a DNA scaffold. This scaffold enabled the formation of nanostructured silica, which is similar to glass.
The process involved assembling the skeleton of the structure using DNA and then coating it with glass, according to Columbia University researchers.
The choice of using glass might appear surprising since it’s known to shatter easily. However, the reason glass shatters is usually due to flaws in its structure, such as cracks, scratches, or missing atoms.
University of Connecticut (UConn) researchers and colleagues have engineered an extraordinarily strong, lightweight material using DNA and glass.
“For the given density, our material is the strongest known,” said Seok-Woo Lee, a materials scientist at UConn. pic.twitter.com/T2HxTbcKt0
— Mundus 2035 (@Mundus2035) July 28, 2023
When glass is flawless, it becomes incredibly strong. In fact, a perfect cubic centimeter of glass can withstand a tremendous amount of pressure of up to ten tons.
To put that into perspective, it’s more than three times the pressure that caused the Oceangate Titan submersible, which went near the Titanic this summer, to implode, wrote the researchers of Columbia University.
Creating a large piece of flawless glass is indeed a challenging task. However, researchers had a clever solution. They knew how to make very tiny pieces of glass without any flaws. When the thickness of the glass is less than a micrometer, it is almost always flawless.
Since the density of glass is much lower than that of metals and ceramics, any structures built using entirely unblemished nano-sized glass should be both strong and lightweight, mentioned Columbia University experts.
Using self-assembling DNA
The team used self-assembling DNA to create the structure. It’s similar to how Magna-Tiles work, where specific pieces of DNA with particular lengths and chemical properties naturally come together to form the skeleton of the material.
You can think of it as a DNA frame, much like the framework of a house or building, but on a much smaller scale.
After creating the DNA structure, Oleg Gang, professor of chemical engineering and applied physics, and Aaron Mickelson, a postdoctoral student in the Gang lab, coated the DNA with an ultra-thin layer of glass-like material. This glass-like coating was only a few hundred atoms thick.
The glass coating covered only the surface of the DNA strands, leaving a significant portion of the material as empty space, similar to the rooms within a house.
The DNA skeleton worked in harmony with the thin and flawless glass coating, resulting in a material that is exceptionally strong. The empty spaces within the material made it quite lightweight.