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Aerogel

NASA aerogel

Aerogel is a truly amazing material. It is the lightest solid on the planet – up to 99% air. It is strong enough to support up to 4,000 times it’s own weight. It looks like solid smoke, and can absorb water better than a sponge, yet a thin piece can also shield and protect your skin from a blowtorch flame. Surely everything should be made of this – why haven’t we heard of it?!

Like the theremin we featured a few weeks ago, aerogel is proof that not all amazing stuff is well known. In fact, it was invented by American scientist Steven Kistler way back in 1931, in response to a bet with a friend over who could replace the liquid in ‘jellies’ with gas, without causing shrinkage. Apparently chemical engineers don’t take a wager lightly!

Aerogel is in fact the name for a family of materials, the most common being silica aerogel, chemically identical to glass. They are all produced using costly lab equipment, which partly explains why it has gone so long under the radar. (A 220cc piece sells on eBay for GBP 395! (Remember that’s 99% air you’re paying for.))

Despite this, it has found a variety of applications, including building insulation, and collecting stardust travelling at six kilometres per second through space. That was NASA. Of course, it is also used in Dunlop’s squash racquets.

Expect to see more of these amazing materials in the future, as the production costs come down and more applications are developed. Its super-absorptive properties could make it suitable for cleaning up oil-spills. You’ll probably be convinced by this video of what happens when it comes into contact with water:

For everything else you could want to know about aerogel, see Aerogel.org

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