Aerogel: The Future Material of Today
Aerogel, AKA frozen smoke, at first sounds like something out of a science fiction book, but it has been around since 1931. The product was created by Samuel Stephens Kistler in an attempt to replace the liquid in jellies with gas without causing shrinkage. The material is comprised of 90-94% air with the rest made generally of silica (a non-toxic, environmentally-friendly compound), though other common types are from alumina or carbon [Source: CNET]. This allows the gel to not only be good at insulation but also has its use in cleaning oil spills.
The creation of aerogel, until now, has been for high-tech projects like insulating oil and pipe lines or, most recently, the Mars Rover Spacecraft. However, companies like Aspen Aerogel have introduced aerogel blankets (named Spaceloft blankets by Aspen) to the industrial building market. The “Spaceloft blankets have two to four times the insulating value per inch compared to fiberglass or foam. It’s also relatively easy to work with, allows water vapor to pass through, and is fire resistant…” [Source: CNET]. According to Aspen Aerogel, other properties of the Spaceloft blanket include:
- excellent compressive strength
- floating indefinitely on pure water and resisting liquid water inflitration
- lowest thermal conductivity of any solid
- exceptional reflectors of audible sound
- exotic energy absorber — capture high velocity dust particles in space
The aerogel is most useful in places that do not have a cavity for standard insulation, which makes it great for buildings that require natural light and high levels of insulation. Companies like Kalwell, uses a nano aerogel between two layers of fiberglass panels and gets an R-20 insulation, 5 times that of a modern high efficiency window, out of a translucent wall. [Source: Treehugger]. This improved efficiency could lead to not only home heating savings but also reduce the amount of energy we use to heat/cool as well as light our homes.
Aerogel has another interesting quality, and that is the ability to soak up oil and water depending on the gel’s chemistry. Two scientists are looking to commercialize Aeroclay (the aerogel sponge) for normal use. The aeroclay would float atop water and absorb and retain whatever liquid and later release the liquid through squeezing. The aeroclay isn’t going to be used for home use, however, but for cleaning up oils spills. It can be put over rocks and birds to clean up oil, although its main purpose is to stop any oils spills from reaching the shore. Since aerogel has the lowest density of all solids, it can hold much more oil than other materials (about seven times its own weight according to a the American Chemical Society), though this may not always be the best way to capture oil. Unfortunately, the product is not yet ready to be used for the recent oil spill and will not be on the market for a couple more years [Source: Discovery]. Even without the oil spill, this technology is necessary for overall public health. According to Dr. Robert Pfeffer, “There are a lot of industries where the water becomes contaminated with oil, machine tool industries petroleum industry…People change the oil in their car and then…dump the oil into the sewer and it gets into the water system” [Source: American Chemical Society]. By simply passing waster water and air through a container of aerogel, polluting industries can create clean air and water and release that to the environment rather than toxic chemicals and pollutants.
But it isn’t just in industrial settings where aerogel is creating a stir. The cost of aerogel has decreased enough that it has also been used to: strengthen sporting goods (tennis racquets), insulate mountain boots and help create hydrogen based fuel. Despite all the positive attention aerogel has been receiving since the early 21st century, very few people actually have heard of the product. While the material can help with our pollution problems, it will not solve the problem of climate change or global warming. However, the use of this material worldwide could significantly lower emissions and put us on the right track.