A solid that is lighter than air
April 13, 2017
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Recently, an amazing material that has been around for almost a century is finally seeing the spotlight of the science and tech world. This material is seven times lighter than air, and has recently set the record for the world’s lightest material. This material is known as graphene aerogel, and this particular kind of aerogel is the current record holder. Still making leaps and bound in the field today, aerogel was originally invented in 1931 in a bet between scientists Samuel Stephens Kistler and Charles Learned, where they bet who could replace the liquid in jellies with gas without causing shrinkage or loss of form.
The process begins with carefully drying the gel to remove the liquid and then carefully filling the holes the liquid had left with gas. After this process called supercritical drying, is complete, the new substance is called aerogel, which can be made from several materials such as silica, carbon, and metal oxide. However, the current lightest aerogel, graphene aerogel is made of a single atom thick layer of graphene supported by carbon nanotubes. Another unique trait about this kind of aerogel is that it is dried through a different process; this process is basically through freeze drying the solution. This type of aerogel has many impressive capabilities, such as a cubic centimeter only weighs .16 milligrams. It can also recover from over 90% compression and a very important trait is that it can absorb 900 times its weight in oil quickly. The latter quality allows this material to become indispensable in cleaning up oil spills. Also it is a very effective insulator and also conductor giving it seemingly endless possibilities as a material. While it is still being introduced into the commercial market, NASA has already used it for spacecraft insulation, and even as a filter to collect meteor dust on a satellite.
While not a new discovery, the continued and rapid development of this technology will lead to massive implications across the board from space travel to clothing. This aerogel seems almost from science fiction and has rightfully been given the nickname frozen smoke. Keep an eye out for it in the news as we never know how it may be applied next.