Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Watch a supercomputer design a radical new wing for airplanes

When engineers want to make an object weigh less, they literally cut corners. Using a tool called topology optimization, they enlist computers to snip as much material as possible from the inside of objects, reducing the number of spokes on a bicycle wheel, for example. But current methods can only optimize simple objects such as brackets and pipes. Now, a team of researchers says it has created a new method of paring down large-scale objects. The trick is resolution. Three-dimensional images are measured in voxels, a bit like computer images that are measured in pixels. In the past, the resolution of optimized 3D models was limited to 5 million voxels, but the new program—reported today in Naturecan optimize objects up to 1 billion voxels in size. The engineers put the system through its paces by feeding it the wing dimensions from a Boeing 777 airliner. A supercomputer crunched the numbers for 5 days and produced a new design: a wing with a radical internal structure that is kept solid through curved wing spars and diagonal ribs, instead of the gridlike internal ribbing present in standard airplane wings. The new, more hollow wing weighs 5% less than the wings currently in use on the 777, which could save 200 metric tons of fuel per year. Because of its incredibly complicated design, the wing is currently unfeasible for manufacturing. But in the future, new methods of 3D printing could allow engineers to build similar extreme wing designs.