Researchers from United Arab Emirates-based Masdar Institute have developed a new approach to 3D printing to design strong, ultra-lightweight “architectured foam” structures that have the potential to make vehicle bodies much lighter and stronger and improve water production and oil and gas operations.

The value of this work, according to Dr. Thomas Webster, Professor of Chemical Engineering at Northeastern University, who was not involved in the project, is the development of computer models that can give a fairly accurate prediction of the conductivity of composite materials based on their architecture even before they are 3D-printed.

“This is elegant work which combines computational and experimental techniques to develop models that can predict the electrical properties of nano composites created by 3D printing,” Webster told Gizmag.

However, rather than creating entirely new materials, Masdar Institute Professor Rashid Abu Al-Rub and his team focused on changing the internal geometric structure of familiar plastics, metals, ceramics and composites. Changing material structure allowed Al-Rub and his team to have greater control over the materials’ control their mechanical, thermal and electrical properties.

Al-Rub believes his work could lead to a paradigm shift in how materials are being designed.

“Currently, people design materials based on a material’s existing chemistry, structure and its corresponding properties,” says Al-Rub. “Our vision for material design instead looks first at the desired properties you are targeting in a material for a product application and then applies our proprietary design methods to optimize the structure and its internal geometry so that it will give you those desired properties.”

Those properties include being both strong and light at the same time by being airy rather than solid, which derive their strength from their shape alone. This is the same principle that gives the Eiffel Tower structural strength through the arrangement of its struts, despite the structure being 90 percent air.

For more information, check out the whole study.