What happens if you take 10 parts metal oxide and 90 parts air and mix them together? Well the answer is a little more interesting that you might assume.
The materials that are produced are called “aerogels” or their nickname of “frozen smoke.”
Although discovered as the result of a bet in 1931 by Samuel Stevens Kistler, aerogel technology is just now coming into the focus of the world of science.
Aerogels are unusual solids due to their extremely porous microstructure, this lends itself to giving the bulk material special and unique; optical, acoustic, thermal & electrical properties.
For example a single 1 lb (approx 1/2 kg) block can support up to half a short ton of weight (approx 450 kg) and what’s more this is all from a material which is light enough to be suspended on a whisked egg white.
In fact, aerogels are the world’s lightest solids.
While still expensive researchers are predicting this could become one of the most important materials of the 21st century.
With this in mind a group at the University of Central Florida has engineered an aerogel from multiwalled carbon nanotubes (MWCNT). They believe that by using carbon instead of the more common silica to construct the aerogel it increases its practicality.
For instance they are able to use their aerogel to track even the tiniest pressure change imaginable, when attached to the fingers and hands of surgical robots, this delicate feedback will provide the distinction between holding a power tool and a medical instrument such as a scalpel.
This is of course one example of the possible uses for both traditional and MWCNT aerogels.
Director of the research Associate Professor Lei Zhai has said “This has many potential applications and could really open up new areas to explore that we haven’t even imagined yet.”
A report of the work appears in the journal ACS Nano (DOI: 10.1021/nn102246a).