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updated 3/14/2011 2:10:34 PM ET 2011-03-14T18:10:34

A spongy material evocatively known as "frozen smoke" could have a range of handy applications, researchers say.

The substance, technically known as an aerogel, could be used to detect pollutants, improve robotic surgery techniques and store energy more efficiently.

"The [material] has many potential applications and could really open up new areas to explore that we haven't even imagined yet," said Lei Zhai, an associate professor at the University of Central Florida (UCF) and author of a new paper in the journal ACS Nano.

As described in a UCF press release, the new substance is made of carbon, belongs to the family of lightest solids and looks somewhat like packing material.

With frozen smoke, even the tiniest of changes in pressure can be detected and tracked. Strips of the new aerogel could line robotic fingers and hands to make them super-sensitive and give them the ability to distinguish between holding a power saw or a scalpel – a distinction obviously helpful while performing surgery, for example.

The aergoel's carbon nanotubes – tubular units so small that thousands fit on a single strand of human hair – also boast a large surface area. This characteristic allows great amounts of energy to be stored in the aerogel, which could increase the capacity of lithium batteries or supercapacitors that store renewable energy generated from the wind and sun.

Combining the material's large surface area and electrical conductivity could also lead to sensors that can detect toxins capable of invading the food or water supply. Equipment capable of detecting trace amounts of explosives is yet another possibility.

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