Aerogel - The World's Lightest Solid
On this episode of Glimpse, we talk about a porous substance often touted as the world’s lightest solid. Created by Samuel Stephens Kistler in the 1931 as a result of a bet on who could replace the liquid within jellies without causing shrinkage.
The prefix Aero comes before most objects with a relationship to air. By replacing up to 99.8% of the liquids with gas resulted in the aptly named Aerogel. The remaining percentage of the gel is comprised of silica in a porous form, which allows the resulting gel to maintain a certain structure and rigidity.
Simply evaporating the liquid from the gel would cause the structure of the gel to shrink in size, simply because liquid molecules tend to pull on the structures surrounding them causing them to crumple within. However, by placing the jelly within a pressure chamber called the Autoclave and heating it to the critical point of the liquid, the liquid then transforms into a supercritical fluid. This is a point where distinct gas and liquid states do not exist, which allows us to remove the molecules without causing a shrinkage effect.
Aerogels have been used as insulating materials within spacesuits by NASA since the 1960s due to its low thermal conductivity. Its general fragility and brittleness have prevented it from seeing more applications within various industries. However, with more improvements on strengthening its structure, we could see a myriad of new uses for it in the future.
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