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Aerogel is Lightest Man-made Material – weird stuff
What do you get when you dehydrate ultralight material made of gel and gas, leaving only 99% air? You get really weird stuff called Aerogel! Nicknamed “frozen smoke” or “solid cloud,” this ethereal material has been creeping its way into products since 1931. Aerogel is the lightest solid ever to be created. It is durable enough to support a thousand bricks’ weight and endure the vacuum of space but is as fragile as a snowflake.
What is Aerogel?
The synthetic ultralight material is derived from silica gel, that is substituted with gas. The result is a stable gas with very low density and remarkably low thermal conductivity. Aerogels have been in existence for more than 80 years, invented in 1931 by Dr. Samuel Kistler at the College of the Pacific in California over a bet. In 1931 Samuel Stephen Kistler bet Charles Learned to see who could replace the liquid inside of a jelly jar with gas without causing shrinkage. Dr. Samual Kistler won by inventing Aerogel.
When Aerogel is made, it starts as a gel, specifically called alcogel. This silica gel has alcohol in its pores, and in the process of making Aerogel, the alcohol simply evaporates out of the structure. Imagine a sponge sitting out on the counter and drying out. That’s a simple illustration of the process, but you get the idea. Futuristic Aerogel looks like the slice of a cloud but with some pretty remarkable properties. It adds a shielding screen because air is a terrible conductor of heat. It offers an ultra sheer layer of protection between a heat source and the object.
Aerogel is made up of various substances, and scientists have come up with over thirty different recipes depending on how the material will be used. Aerogel’s main ingredient is silica, one of Earth’s most abundant minerals. The scientists cycle the wet Aerogel through many phases of heating and cooling. The resulting Aerogel is almost entirely air, making it the most lightweight solid we know to man. Due to the air’s inability to conduct much heat, it is an excellent insulator. Applications such as providing insulation for the Mars Rover is just one of the commercial products using Aerogel.
Three Steps to Making Aerogel
Above, we mentioned that Aerogel’s alcohol evaporates out to help create this lightweight material. The evaporation process has three distinct steps until it is actually Aerogel. Instead of relying on random evaporation, the substance is Super-critically dried.
Here’s what it takes to make the worlds lightest material:
- The gel is heated and pressurized past the critical point. The critical point is the point in which there is no distinction between gas and liquid.
- While it remains above the critical temperature, the gel is depressurized. As the pressure decreases, the molecules release as a gas becoming less dense.
- After the gel cools, there is not enough alcohol to re-condense back into a liquid and to revert to a gas, but that’s not all. Silica still fills the gas where the liquid once was forming a solid vapor.
When the supercritical drying occurs, the alcohol is removed, and the gas’s nanopores are still within the structure, helping it stay stable and not collapse. The material now has only 50 to 99 percent of the original material’s volume. The range in percentages allows this lightweight material to be useful in many applications.
Applications for this Super Lightweight Material
You can find Aerogel in applications such as modern cosmetics, paints, wetsuits, roofing materials, and carpets, to name a few. It is even making its way into the fashion industry by being incorporated into incredibly thin, warm, yet very fashionable winter wear. It’s the most useful application to date in the area of oil spill-cleanup. Aerogel’s non-toxic, highly porous nature, the potential for a large surface area, and the fact it can hold up to seven times its weight make it one of the most valuable cleanup tools.
Not all Aerogel can be easily broken, but many applications of this material have limitations due to the substance’s instability. “The first thing most people do when they touch a piece of silica aerogel for the first time is to shatter it into a million pieces,” says the E.O. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory website on silica aerogels.
Classic Aerogel can hold a brick a thousand times its weight by volume. The catch is the block must be placed feather-light and very smooth. There must not be any cracks in the Aerogel itself, or it will shatter. Despite its brittleness, Aerogel is very strong. It can support up to 4,000 times its weight making this ultralight material ten times stronger than steel.
What Aerogel Can Do
With seemingly magical qualities, scientists are looking at future applications for Aerogel in such products as capacitors, lasers, and spacecraft. There is an excellent potential for fuel cells for energy-efficient automobiles. However, we have a long way before we see the unstable Aerogel in significant product production. More research needs to be conducted to make this ultra-light material affordable for large scale operations.
Some Produces Specifically use Aerogel are:
- Firefighter suits
- Nuclear weapons
Aerogel is a unique structure, to say the least, the super-insulating properties, lightweight formation, make it almost perfect for so many applications. But wait, it gets better. Aerogel’s structure helps it counteract the methods of heat transfer. Those being convection, conduction, and radiation–[source: Cabot Corporation].
Right now, Aerogel’s uses are endless, but the material is still costly making it hard to use for large projects. But considering that on average, a homeowner could save $750.00 a year (using today’s standards) by merely flashing their windows with Aerogel, the game is on to make this affordable. Add to the fact that using Aerogel as insulation could significantly reduce the carbon footprint of every home that uses it we are looking at one of the most exceptional products made this century.–[source: Aspen Aerogels, New Spaceloft].
Want Some Aerogel for Yourself?
Government agencies, corporations, and entire industries are in a race to find ways to reduce the cost of manufacturing Aerogel. Everything from producing companies, NASA, to the general public, will benefit from using Aerogel. Aerogel is here to stay. Want to learn more about Aerogel? Visit http://www.aerogel.org. Want to own a piece of the future? Visit http://www.buyaerogel.com
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