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Some remarkable properties of aerogels

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Aerogel, the world's lightest solid, has been listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. The density of the new material is just 3.55 kilograms per cubic meter, which is only 2.75 times the density of air. Dried pine is 140 times denser (500kg per cubic meter). The substance looks like congealed smoke, but its composition is similar to glass. It is very suitable for aerospace applications because of its very small density. At Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where Dr. Jones has developed a new type of aerogel, made mostly of pure silicon dioxide and the like. In the process, the liquid silicon compound is first mixed with a liquid solvent that evaporates quickly to form a gel. The gel is then dried in an instrument similar to a pressurized digester and heated and depressurized to form a porous spongy structure. The aerogel Dr. Jones ended up with was 99.8% air.
 
Aerogel is sometimes referred to as "solid smoke" or "frozen smoke" because of its translucent color and ultra-light weight. The new material looks fragile, but is actually very strong and can withstand temperatures of up to 1,400 degrees Celsius. These properties of aerogels have many applications in space exploration. Aerogel materials have been used on the Russian space station Mir and the American Mars Pathfinder spacecraft.
A new type of aerogel, with a density of just three milligrams per cubic centimeter, has been accepted into the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's densest solid.
 
The aerogel is translucent, light blue and so light that it is also known as "solid smoke".The new aerogel was developed by Dr. Stephen Jones, a materials scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Its main ingredient is silicon dioxide, like glass, but because it is 99.8 percent air, it is only one-thousandth as dense as glass.
Aerogel looks fragile, but it's actually very strong and durable. It can withstand thousands of times its own mass and does not melt until temperatures reach 1,200 degrees Celsius. It also has low thermal conductivity and refractive index, and insulation that is 39 times stronger than the best glass fiber. Because of these properties, aerogel has become an irreplaceable material for space exploration. Both the Russian Mir space station and the American Mars Pathfinder spacecraft have used it for thermal insulation.
 
Aerogel's applications in space are far from limited. NASA's Stardust spacecraft is carrying it on a very important mission in space: collecting comet particles. Scientists believe the comet particles contain some of the oldest and most primitive material in the solar system, and that studying them could help us better understand the history of the sun and planets. In 2006, the Stardust spacecraft will return to earth with the first samples of comet dust ever collected.
It travels at about six times the speed of a rifle bullet, and although it is smaller than a grain of sand, when it comes into contact with other material at such high speeds, its physical and chemical composition can change, or even be completely vaporized. Now that scientists have aerogels, the problem is simple. Like an extremely soft baseball glove, it will gently slow the comet's dust, causing it to glide to a halt after a distance of 200 times its own length. After entering the aerogel glove, the dust leaves behind a carrot-like trail, and because the aerogel is almost transparent, scientists can easily track the particles.

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Tag: Aerogel