Automakers are being pinched to increase safety and improve fuel efficiency, but those two goals often work against each other. That could change thanks to a material that is 99.99-percent air.

Ward's Automotive reports that the California Institute of Technology, HRL Laboratories and the University of California-Irvine have combined to develop a micro-lattice material that is said to be 100 times lighter than Styrofoam and strong like steel. We'd call this material paper-thin, but the truth is even more impressive: the material is comprised of tiny woven tubes that are 1,000 times thinner than a human hair.

The U.S. Department of Defense is obviously interested in this material for top-secret projects like next-generation aircraft, but the micro-lattice is also of great interest to the auto industry. The material could greatly reduce weight and drag, which would in turn significantly increase efficiency. At the same time, the material can reportedly almost completely recover after stress of up to 50 percent and has impressive energy absorbing characteristics. That means the material could also be a safety asset, which is good news for automakers and consumers.

Cal Tech Professor Julia Greer adds that the material could ultimately replace any non heavy-steel component that isn't already light in weight. A material with less air would reportedly be the next step in the evolution of lightweight metals, and the scientists are working on a nano-lattice that can do just that.

We don't know much about these micro and nano materials, but we're guessing it will be a while before the materials are inexpensive enough for automotive applications. But if the U.S. government and airplane manufactures can jump aboard and bring down the manufacturing costs, we could see this type of material helping automakers achieve those 50+ mile per gallon fuel economy standards. For more information and a demonstration of the micro-lattice's properties, check out the videos after the jump.

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