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The Amazing Properties of Aerogels

June 1st, 2015
The Amazing Properties of Aerogels

Imagine holding a gauzy blue block of the lightest solid material on Earth. To the naked eye, it looks like a self-contained cube of gaseous fog. To the touch, it feels like dry Jell-O. You apply a flame to this ethereal substance and, much to your surprise, your hand remains cool and comfortable. The mystery material you hold in your hand could only be an aerogel.


Aerogels, like many great human innovations, were first created as the result of a bet. In 1931, a chemical engineer by the name of Samuel Stephens Kistler made a friendly wager with a fellow scientist to see who could replace the liquid component of a gel with a gas without causing the structure of the gel to collapse. Kistler first succeeded in creating aerogels by employing supercritical drying processes to remove the liquid component of silica gel.


The end result was truly remarkable. Kistler’s aerogel was a gel in name only. In fact, its structure was composed of 98% air, and only 2% solid silica. Later, Kistler was able to produce similar results by using other substances such as alumina and tin dioxide as substitutes for the silica.


So what can we do with aerogels?


We can create lightweight jackets that insulate so well that they have to be vented in order to keep a person from overheating in freezing temperatures. We can purify water by using aerogels to absorb heavy metals. We can use them as a controlled dosage drug delivery system. We can even capture the dust from the tail of a comet in their pores.


NASA was the chief patron of aerogel technology for much of the twentieth century, but in recent years aerogel applications have spread to a number of other earthbound industries.


The world’s tallest skyscraper, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, employs aerogels to insulate the mammoth structure. The US Navy has been experimenting with aerogels to produce next generation wetsuits for its divers. Carbon aerogels have even been used as an electrode material in supercapacitors.


We can’t wait to see what the future has in store for aerogel technologies. Over the course of their 80 year history, they’ve evolved from scientific curiosities to versatile industrial materials with a myriad of practical applications.


Want to learn more about the latest advances in thermal technology? Stay tuned for more updates from HTS Amptek!

Written by heatingtapes

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