These 3D-printed cubes are bulletproof and as hard as diamond

These tubulane inspired cubes can stop a bullet.
Image: Rice University

Within the last decade, 3D printing has gone from something in science-fiction books to something that just about everyone can do at home with a computer and a little know-how. Even so, the technology is evolving at a painstakingly slow rate. It faces difficulties gaining traction in mainstream production despite plenty of startups using it in fascinating ways. One of the biggest issues is that 3D printed parts typically aren’t able to withstand high stress levels.

Now, a team of researchers from Rice University is hoping to change that. They have created a cube printed in a complex zig-zag pattern that makes it almost as hard as diamond. Meanwhile, the cube is also bulletproof. The team documented its findings in the journal Small.

Tubulane Inspired

In 1993, Ray Baughman, a chemist, and Douglas Galvao, a physicist, came up with an idea for a theoretical material known as tubulane. Made from a microscopic structure of crosslinked carbon nanotubes, the material was predicated to have extreme strength and compressibility.

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Even today, however, the construction of carbon nanotubes is a challenge. As such, true tubulanes never came to be. So, the researchers from Rice got creative. Using the same pattern, the team scaled it up to a size that 3D printers could handle. Then, they created several cubes with it to test their theory that non-atomic variations would retain the impressive properties.

As expected, the cubes performed very well in the team’s strength and durability tests. However, they also found that, with the power of 3D modeling, they could make other changes that gave the material even more impressive properties.

Plastic’s Stopping Power

To test the super material, researchers launched a projectile traveling at 13,000 miles per hour at the cubes. As a control, the team used a solid polymer block. That one exited the challenge with lots of damage and cracks going all the way through it. However, the tubulane-inspired cubes fared far better.

The cube stopped the projectile entirely while only sustaining damage to its first layer. This means that the rest of the structure was left unharmed. Researchers believe that the material’s porous nature allows it to compress and absorb kinetic energy despite being a rigid structure.

Should repeated tests show that the tubulane material can be printed in other shapes and thicknesses, it could have massive implications for the way we manufacture things. Industries from aerospace to defense could harness the unique properties to make groundbreaking advancements in bullet blocking technology and lightweight yet strong parts.

However, as Gizmodo’s Andrew Liszewski comically puts it, “It might take some time to convince soldiers that rolling into battle inside a plastic tank is just as safe as being surrounded by steel armor.”

Watch the tubulane-inspired cubes go through a compression test without shattering: