By examining how water striders walk on water and how wood gets its lightness and great strength, researchers have created a material so buoyant that a boat made from one pound of the substance could carry 1,000 pounds.
The material's made from an aerogel composed of the tiny nano-fibrils from the cellulose in plants, and has remarkable mechanical properties flexibility, as well as lightness. It's features of aerogels that enable insects such as water striders to walk on water, they say.
"These materials have really spectacular properties that could be used in practical ways," says Olli Ikkala of the Helsinki University of Technology.
Potential applications, he says, include cleaning up oil spills.
The material is not only highly buoyant, but can absorbing huge amounts of oil. It would float on the surface, absorbing the oil without sinking. Clean-up workers could then retrieve it and recover the oil.
Other possibilities include helping create such products as sensors for detecting environmental pollution, miniaturized military robots - and even children's toys and super-buoyant beach floats.
"It can be of great potential value in helping the world shift to materials that do not require petroleum for manufacture," Ikkala says.
"The use of wood-based cellulose does not influence the food supply or prices, like corn or other crops. We are really delighted to see how cellulose is moving beyond traditional applications, such as paper and textiles, and finding new high-tech applications."