Aerogels: The Materials Science of Empty Space

It looks like frozen smoke. And it’s the lightest solid material on the planet. Aerogel insulates space suits, makes tennis rackets stronger and could be used one day to clean up oil spills

Aerogel is a truly amazing material. It is the lightest solid on the planet – up to 99% air. It is strong NASA-aerogel-640x641enough to support up to 4,000 times it’s own weight. It looks like solid smoke, and can absorb water better than a sponge, yet a thin piece can also shield and protect your skin from a blowtorch flame. Surely everything should be made of this – why haven’t we heard of it?!

Like the theremin we featured a few weeks ago, aerogel is proof that not all amazing stuff is well known. In fact, it was invented by American scientist Steven Kistler way back in 1931, in response to a bet with a friend over who could replace the liquid in ‘jellies’ with gas, without causing shrinkage. Apparently chemical engineers don’t take a wager lightly!

Aerogel is in fact the name for a family of materials, the most common being silica aerogel, chemically identical to glass. They are all produced using costly lab equipment, which partly explains why it has gone so long under the radar. (A 220cc piece sells oneBay for GBP 395! (Remember that’s 99% air you’re paying for.))

Despite this, it has found a variety of applications, including building insulation, and collecting stardust travelling at six kilometres per second through space. That was NASA. Of course, it is also used in Dunlop’s squash racquets.

Expect to see more of these amazing materials in the future, as the production costs come down and more applications are developed. Its super-absorptive properties could make it suitable for cleaning up oil-spills.

 Aerogel is driest material in the world. Here a 10x10x5 mm aerogel sample pushed into droplet of water. The water is consumed in less than a second. The aerogel is destroyed in the process. You’ll probably be convinced by this video of what happens when it comes into contact with water:

Aerogels: The Materials Science of Empty Space. In this lecture Dr. Gash and Mr. Dean Reese will describe and demonstrate the structure, properties, and advanced applications of aerogels, and even synthesize one.

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