AEROGEL, NANOGEL, LITRACON MATERIALS OF OUR FUTURE

Aerogel in hand (Pic: Nasa/JPL )

UPDATE:Hugo Boss created a line of winter jackets out of the material but was pulled because they received complaints that it was too hot. The same complaints surfaced for some mountaineering boots developed for a climb up Mount Everest. Even Dunlop, a racket sports company, is currently incorporating the material into their tennis and squash rackets to deliver more power and strength.Green, strong, light, protective and relatively easy to make, scientists need only to figure out how to better regulate temperatures when used.

Nanogel is Cabot Corporation’s trade name for its family of silica aerogels. Although aerogel was first invented 75 years ago, Cabot has been producing Nanogel aerogel since 2003 at its state-of-the-art plant in Frankfurt, Germany. Cabot is the only company to develop a commercialized process that allows continuous production of the material under ambient conditions. This process allows control of the material’s porosity, pore size and distribution, and bypasses the high-cost traditional method of super-critical drying, so that Nanogel can be manufactured in a safe and continuous manner.

Easily adapted for a wide range of applications, including:

 

 

Key characteristics*:

Extremely low thermal conductivity

9-12mW/mK

High porosity

95% air, 5% solid

Nano-sized pores

20-40 nanometers

High surface area

~750m2/g

Very low tap density 

30-100kg/m3

High oil absorption capacity (DBP) 

540g/100g

Specific heat capacity Kj/Kg .7-1.15

Variety of particle sizes 

5 microns-4mm

Surface chemistry 

Completely hydrophobic

Opacity

Translucent, IR opacified and opaque

Aerogel, one of the world’s lightest solids, can withstand a direct blast of 1kg of dynamite and protect against heat from a blowtorch at more than 1,300C.

Scientists are working to discover new applications for the substance, ranging from the next generation of tennis rackets to super-insulated space suits for a manned mission to Mars.

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It is expected to rank alongside wonder products from previous generations such as Bakelite in the 1930s, carbon fibre in the 1980s and silicone in the 1990s. Mercouri Kanatzidis, a chemistry professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, said: “It is an amazing material. It has the lowest density of any product known to man, yet at the same time it can do so much. I can see aerogel being used for everything from filtering polluted water to insulating against extreme temperatures and even for jewellery.”

Aerogel is nicknamed “frozen smoke” and is made by extracting water from a silica gel, then replacing it with gas such as carbon dioxide. The result is a substance that is capable of insulating against extreme temperatures and of absorbing pollutants such as crude oil.

It was invented by an American chemist for a bet in 1931, but early versions were so brittle and costly that it was largely consigned to laboratories. It was not until a decade ago that Nasa started taking an interest in the substance and putting it to a more practical use.

In 1999 the space agency fitted its Stardust space probe with a mitt packed full of aerogel to catch the dust from a comet’s tail. It returned with a rich collection of samples last year.

In 2002 Aspen Aerogel, a company created by Nasa, produced a stronger and more flexible version of the gel. It is now being used to develop an insulated lining in space suits for the first manned mission to Mars, scheduled for 2018.

Mark Krajewski, a senior scientist at the company, believes that an 18mm layer of aerogel will be sufficient to protect astronauts from temperatures as low as -130C. “It is the greatest insulator we’ve ever seen,” he said.

Aerogel is also being tested for future bombproof housing and armour for military vehicles. In the laboratory, a metal plate coated in 6mm of aerogel was left almost unscathed by a direct dynamite blast.

It also has green credentials. Aerogel is described by scientists as the “ultimate sponge”, with millions of tiny pores on its surface making it ideal for absorbing pollutants in water.

Kanatzidis has created a new version of aerogel designed to mop up lead and mercury from water. Other versions are designed to absorb oil spills.

He is optimistic that it could be used to deal with environmental catastrophes such as the Sea Empress spillage in 1996, when 72,000 tons of crude oil were released off the coast of Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire.

Aerogel is also being used for everyday applications. Dunlop, the sports equipment company, has developed a range of squash and tennis rackets strengthened with aerogel, which are said to deliver more power.

Earlier this year Bob Stoker, 66, from Nottingham, became the first Briton to have his property insulated with aerogel. “The heating has improved significantly. I turned the thermostat down five degrees. It’s been a remarkable transformation,” he said.

Mountain climbers are also converts. Last year Anne Parmenter, a British mountaineer, climbed Everest using boots that had aerogel insoles, as well as sleeping bags padded with the material. She said at the time: “The only problem I had was that my feet were too hot, which is a great problem to have as a mountaineer.”

However, it has failed to convince the fashion world. Hugo Boss created a line of winter jackets out of the material but had to withdraw them after complaints that they were too hot.

Although aerogel is classed as a solid, 99% of the substance is made up of gas, which gives it a cloudy appearance.

Scientists say that because it has so many millions of pores and ridges, if one cubic centimetre of aerogel were unravelled it would fill an area the size of a football field.

Its nano-sized pores can not only collect pollutants like a sponge but they also act as air pockets.

AND MORE…

LiTraCon

Áron Losonczi, a Hungarian architect, laid glass fibres into structural concrete blocks before they set, rendering the light ethereal and see-through.

Nanogel

Used to insulate spaceships 30 years ago, Nanogel — sound absorbent, insulating and light transmitting — is now sandwiched within building facades.

SmartWrap

American architects have invented a new façade material made from paper-thin, polymer-based film, stuffed with air gel pockets for insulation. It can be attached with flexible solar cells and LEDs, printed with patterns and wrapped around a frame.

Electrochromic glass

We already have glass that becomes opaque by running an electric current through it. More sophisticated versions change reflectivity, glare, colour and opacity: entire glass-clad buildings might act like Reactolite sunglasses, and reducing the heat gain and loss that can make glass so energy inefficient.

Responsive environments

Spaces that communicate with their user have been one of architecture’s dreams since the Sixties. One day walls will be soft, embedded with sensors and IT, so that walls become like skin, buildings like bodies. Coating walls in nanotechnology devices is being explored too, for instance to make surfaces self-cleaning — or coating them in electronic ink so that a wall becomes one giant LCD screen. The first small SmartSlab panels will emerge in the next three years.

Carbon fibre

Imagine a skyscraper, 40 storeys high, with a helical shell entirely woven by robots from IT-embedded carbon fibre, like a cocoon. The LA architects Peter Testa and Devyn Weiser are pioneering the transfer of carbon fibre technology to architecture. Most of their projects, like the Carbon Tower, remain speculative.

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