Aerogel has been known since 1930s. It is one of the lightest and least dense solids on this planet. It shows some unique properties which is why it was considered a ‘ futuristic material ‘.
A lot of research went into Aerogels but it never made it’s presence felt to the common folk. Since the last few decades’ commercial interest in aerogels has grown and it has finally made the transition from science to industry.
What makes Aerogel so special ?
The structure of aerogels is very unique. Its skeleton is a 3D network of micro to nanoparticles (NP) that comprise less than 1 % of its structure. Speckled all across the NP network are small pores or pockets of air which makes heat conduction from one end of the material to the other, nearly impossible.
This makes it an excellent thermal insulator. It is 99+ % air, therefore highly transparent. Hence the nickname “Frozen smoke”.
“Aerogel is a bunch of contradictions.” It is light and very brittle, yet it can withstand ~ 4000 times it own weight. The microstructure shows the labyrinth of 3D network and also the ’emptiness’ which makes aerogels so special.
It all began at NASA
NASA is credited for inventing aerogels and has been using it extensively, such as for the insulation of the Mars Rover.
Since they do not damage fast moving particles while capturing them, aerogel is a perfect choice for comet dust collectors in space. NASA exploited this feature and extensively used aerogels to collect the particle fragment trail of Comet Wild 2 during the Stardust mission.
Mary Ann Meador is a senior research scientist at NASA’s Glenn Research Centre. She recognized the potential of aerogels and is hopeful of a quick transition from research labs to common homes in the near future.
“The only challenge now is manufacturing aerogels at a higher scale and lower cost, which will happen within the next one or two years.”
From Science to Industry
Aerogel is great for thermal insulation. Last year, Oros came up with a product that benefits the common man – an aerogel based clothing line.
Companies like The North Face and Champion have tried but Oros has nudged past them to create a clothing line, which is light and heat resistant. They have manufactured jackets, hats and gloves lined with a thin sheet of aerogel, which keeps the warmth intact.
They call it the SolarCore Aerogel series. Michael Markesbery, the founder of Oros says,
“Whether you plan to climb Mount Everest, go skiing, winter camping or just want to be warmer when you relax at the ski lodge patio, our Oros performance apparel is going to change the way you experience the outdoors.”
Imagine a simple windbreaker jacket competing against the cold of Siberia. This is no longer a fantasy. The future is here. As for the skeptics, here is a video showcasing what aerogels are capable of !
Another major application of aerogels has come to light as a water purifier. Researchers in the BIONATES research group at Wisconsin’s Institute for Discovery are examining the prospect of using aerogels to clean up oil spills.
Shaoqin “Sarah” Gong and her lab have prepared aerogels based on cellulose nanofibrils which is “Greener aerogel technology” and shows high performance.
According to Gong, “So if you had an oil spill, for example, the idea is you could throw this aerogel sheet in the water and it would start to absorb the oil very quickly and efficiently”
From collecting space dust to cleaning oil spills, aerogels have made a great journey so far. Aerogel is here to stay. So we can expect many more commercial products in the coming years owing to it’s extraordinary qualities.
The author would like to express gratitude towards, Dr. Neha Y. Hebalkar, Scientist E, ARCI Hyderabad for introducing him to the world of Aerogels.