What can support up to 4,000 times it’s own weight, withstand blasts of dynamite, and is used by NASA to collect comet dust?
If you guessed aerogel, you are correct!
Aerogel is one of the cooler synthetic substances that science has to offer. It was actually only invented in 1930, and only came into existence as the result of a bet between two chemists: Samuel Stephens Kistler and Charles Learned.
What was the bet? Learned didn’t think Kistler could take a silica gel or jelly, composed predominantly of water, and excavate that water without damaging or shrinking the structure.
Well, drinks ended up being on Learned, as Kistler was able to manipulate silica (silicon dioxide) gels through a process called supercritical drying. Essentially, Kistler sucked out the water and replaced it with a gas. Little did they know, they had created one of the most important substances known to man.
The amazing concoction has continued to be tweaked ever since, giving birth to incredible carbon and polymer aerogels, with scientists perfecting the recipe even further even today. Aerogels are currently being used to insulate electronics aboard the Mars Rover!
Supermaterial, Super Properties
What characteristics of aerogel make it so sensational? It’s actually the most lightweight solid known to man. Aerogels are between 96-99.8% air! Not only that, aerogels are Earth’s lowest density solids, 1,000 times less dense than glass! They’re also incredible temperature and noise insulators (perfect for use in space).
But wait, there’s more: current aerogels can support thousands of times their weight and survive extreme heat and cold! When you hold aerogel, it’s as if it’s not even there, but if you press down on it firmly, it’ll give you a styrofoam-like feeling. Some common names for the compound are frozen smoke, blue smoke, solid smoke and solid air.
Here’s a video of the substance in action.
Interested in picking some up to play with? It won’t quite be NASA grade, but still pretty amazing nonetheless. Isn’t science cool?
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