July 18, 2012 at 1:27 PM ET
European scientists have created a new super-strong carbon material that is 75 times lighter than Styrofoam, electrically conductive, highly compressible and about as black as black can get.
The material, called Aerographite, is a cob-webby network of porous carbon tubes that look like wisps of cotton candy when imaged with a scanning electron microscope.
It weighs 0.2 milligrams per cubic centimeter, making it the lightest material in the world, according to the researchers whose creation was announced Tuesday in the journal Advanced Materials.
That’s four times lighter than the hitherto-lightest material in the world, a nickel material presented about six months ago called microlattice that is also made of interconnected hollow tubes.
Carbon has a lower atomic mass than nickel. "Also, we are able to produce tubes with porous walls. That makes them extremely light," Arnim Schuchard, a study co-author at Kiel University, said in a news release.
Aerographite can be compressed up to 95 percent and it will spring back to its original form without any damage. In fact, up to a point, it will become more solid and thus stronger than before.
"Also, the newly constructed material absorbs light rays almost completely. One could say it creates the blackest black," team member Karl Schulte from Hamburg University of Technology said in the release.
To make it, Schuchard, Schulte, and colleagues started off with zinc oxide powder that they heated to 900 degrees Celsius to create a crystalline structure.
This crystalline structure has micro and nano "tetrapods," essentially scaffolding for the deposition of carbon. This is done via chemical vapor deposition at 760 degrees C to form the tangled web structure.
Meanwhile, hydrogen is introduced to react with the oxygen in the zinc oxide, resulting in the emission of steam and zinc gas and leaving the porous carbon tubes called Aerogrpahite.
"When the carbon is put on top, it is not even necessary to make complete tube shells; it is enough for the carbon to stay as a grid," study co-author Matthais Mecklenburg at the Hamburg University of Technology, explained to me in an email.
"The holes in the grid give additional weight reduction. The removal of (zinc oxide) templates leads to stabilizing wrinkles of the nanoscaled thin carbon layers."
The team believes the material will be useful as an electrode in lithium-ion batteries used in today’s electric vehicles, allowing weight reduction and thus more miles per charge.
Other potential uses range from electronics for aviation and satellites to water purification.