Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed chain-mail style composite building components which can be fitted together like blocks of Lego in a development that has the potential to revolutionize civil engineering projects such as levees and dykes.

MIT postdoctoral student Kenneth Cheung and Neil Gershenfeld, director of the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT, jointly devised an innovative geometry for the composite structures which they claim makes it 10 times stiffer at a given weight than existing ultralight materials.

The individual components consist of flat, cross-shaped metal pieces which can be fitted together to produce an interlocking structure comparable to that of Medieval chain mail.

This interlocking structure is comprised of cubic lattices of octahedral cells called  “cubocts,” which are similar to the crystalline structure of the mineral perovskite and confer the structure with a unique resilience and integrity.

The modular nature of the composite structures means that when they are subjected to excessive force they will only break apart locally or incrementally, making them much more secure than conventional composite materials, which when stressed to breaking point tend to fall apart suddenly and throughout the full extent of their structure.

This modularity also means structures can be disassembled in specific areas for the purposes of maintenance or repair, without any risk of them collapsing on their own.

According to the MIT researchers, the structures function in a manner which is highly similar to the buckle of a seat belt. They possess resilience in the direction of forces which are likely be applied during regular operation, and can only be released when pressure is applied from a disparate orientation.

The individual components themselves can then be recycled or reused in variety of configurations following disassembly, and given their identical nature lend themselves to mass production.

Gershenfeld and Cheung are now working on a robotic system which can assemble the components into a variety of structures, including wings and rockets in the sphere of aeronautical engineering, and bridges or levees in the field of civil engineering.

The assembly robot will build structures incrementally by crawling around them and adding individual pieces one by one, in order to eventually produce the modular, composite framework.