New ‘aerogel’ space-age insulating material is world’s lightest

August 21, 2012

Aerogel (credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory chemists have developed a new flexible “aerogel” — stuff so light it has been called “solid smoke” — described as the world’s lightest solid material and best solid insulating material.

“The new aerogels are up to 500 times stronger than their silica counterparts,” said Mary Ann B. Meador at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society.

“A thick piece actually can support the weight of a car. And they can be produced in a thin form, a film so flexible that a wide variety of commercial and industrial uses are possible.”

Flexible aerogels, for instance, could be used in a new genre of super-insulating clothing that keeps people warm in the cold with less bulk than traditional “thermal” garments. Tents and sleeping bags would have the same advantages.Home refrigerator and freezer walls insulated with other forms of the material would shrink in thickness, increasing storage capacity.

Meador said that the aerogel is 5–10 times more efficient than existing insulation, with a quarter-inch-thick sheet providing as much insulation as 3 inches of fiberglass. And there could be multiple applications in thin-but-high-efficiency insulation for buildings, pipes, water heater tanks and other devices.

NASA envisions one use in an advanced re-entry system for spacecraft returning to Earth from the International Space Station, and perhaps other missions. Re-entry vehicles need a heat shield that keeps them from burning up due to frictional heating from Earth’s atmosphere. Those shields can be bulky and heavy. So NASA is exploring use of a heat shield made from flexible aerogel that inflates like a balloon when spacecraft enter the atmosphere. Meador said the material also could be used to insulate spacesuits.

Scientists produced the stronger new aerogels in two ways. One involved making changes in the innermost architecture of traditional silica aerogels. They used a polymer, a plastic-like material, to reinforce the networks of silica that extend throughout an aerogel’s structure. Another involved making aerogels from polyimide, an incredibly strong and heat-resistant polymer, or plastic-like material, and then inserting brace-like cross-links to add further strength to the structure.