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Aerogel: "Miracle Material" Of The Twenty-First Century?

Sean McGuire |
July 13, 2011 | 5:14 p.m. PDT

Staff Writer

Crayons sit atop a layer of aerogel suspended above the flame of a blowtorch. (Image courtesy of NASA)
Crayons sit atop a layer of aerogel suspended above the flame of a blowtorch. (Image courtesy of NASA)
Yes, that's a blowtorch, and yes, those are intact crayons. The whimsical-looking substance between them is known as aerogel, and scientists have been saying for years it just may change the world.

Aerogel, which holds a Guinness world record for being the lightest solid in existence, is made almost entirely of air, earning it the nickname “frozen smoke.” But, incredibly, it can absorb up to four thousand times its own weight in atmospheric and oceanic pollutants; it is an insulator thirty-seven times more efficient than commonly-used fiberglass; it can survive, unscathed, a direct blast from a kilogram of dynamite; and it can withstand temperatures of over thirteen hundred degrees Centigrade (2,372 degrees Fahrenheit.)

Recently, it was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that scientist successfully created diamonds using this wonder material, expanding aerogel's possible uses to include highly delicate telescopes and finely-calibrated lasers--throwing it back into the spotlight as a possible “miracle material” of the twenty-first century.

Environmentalists have long touted its benefits as both insulation and as a kind of “super sponge” to clean up oil spills and other toxins in the oceans. And, because it's hydrophobic, aerogel can float on the surface of the ocean virtually forever in the proximity of a spill, absorbing very large quantities of oil until it is recovered by a cleanup vessel. Scientists have also suggested using aerogel to filter impurities out of drinking water in rural areas, and in 2005 NASA used a net made of the material to capture dust from the contrail of a comet.

The substance has been around since 1931, but until a few decades ago was far too brittle to be used in anything but the most tightly-controlled laboratory settings. Once it was made more flexible and durable, the problem of its hefty price tag remained: it requires extreme pressure and temperature to produce, which keeps the cost much too high for most consumers to consider. But, this too may soon be a concern of the past. 

Thanks to Swedish company Svenska Aerogel, a breakthrough process has been developed by which large batches of the substance can be produced at ambient temperatures and standard pressures. This results in a significant drop in price, as the new method does not require energy-intensive application of tremendous heat and pressure.

“We're talking a price reduction of about 90 percent,” said CEO Anders Lundstrom in an interview with Greentech Enterprise's Michael Kanellos, though the company declined to get more specific.

Aerogel materials have been used for several years to insulate deep-sea pipelines and protect highly sophisticated industrial technology from heat and water damage, but as it gets cheaper, it may become a viable construction material as well. Several states have adopted legislation to require new buildings to be net-zero-energy (meaning they generate at least as much energy as they use) by a certain date. While most of the energy savings will come from greener sources of energy itself--such as wind, solar, geothermal, and tidal--additional savings can be produced simply by using more efficient insulation in buildings, thereby reducing the amount of energy required for heating and cooling in the first place. In California there is an initiative for net-zero-energy in buildings by 2020. If it passes and aerogel becomes cheaper, there is a big chance this material will become standard in new homes.

In the meantime, Svenska Aerogel's breakthrough could mean the material will soon be readily available for wider market applications.

Read more about the creation of silica aerogel here.

Reach Staff Writer Sean McGuire here.



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