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New ultralight material good for space - and Earth

A piece of a new, extremely lightweight solid supports the weight of a car. The NASA-made material could go into spacecraft decelerators and home insulation.
A piece of a new, extremely lightweight solid supports the weight of a car. The NASA-made material could go into spacecraft decelerators and home insulation.NASA

A  new version of aerogel — a strange smoky-looking material that's among the world's lightest solids — is 500 times stronger than previous versions. A thick piece could support the weight of a car, yet a thin piece easily bends. The material could be used in everything from Mars landers to refrigerators, scientists say.

Researchers at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland are developing the new aerogel for space missions first, but it may find a place on Earth, too. "Primarily we've been developing these materials for NASA mission applications, such as spacesuits," lead scientist Mary Ann Meador said during a news conference Aug. 19. "These would be able to land larger payloads or manned missions on Mars."

In the future, the material could go into thinner housing insulation, roomier refrigerators and TV antennas that capture broader frequency ranges, she added. Like other aerogels, it is an excellent insulator and has unique electrical properties. "This type of insulation could also be translated into use on Earth for a variety of applications," she said. [How Cellulose Could Make Fibers As Strong As Steel]

Before Meador's latest version, aerogels were made with silica, the same mineral that makes up sand and glass. Silica aerogels are strong but brittle. During the conference, which was held in Philadelphia, and which InnovationNewsDaily watched as a live video feed, Meador held up a small glass jar with broken silica aerogel in it. She had put in a whole piece of the material, but, she said, "It's such fragile material that it's broken apart." 

When used in spacecraft, silica aerogels tend to create dust that blows away, reducing its insulating ability, she said. 

The new aerogel is made from a plastic-based gel that's dried in a supercritical dryer to remove all the liquid. The manufacturing process is similar to silica-based aerogels and creates a material of similarly low density that's 85 to 95 percent air. 

The plastic-like material doesn't create dust, however, and can be made into thin, flexible sheets. Meador demonstrated a sheet during the conference, bending it nearly in half and saying, "This is a form of aerogel insulation that has never been seen before."  

The new aerogel's thin, flexible qualities mean it can go into fabric decelerators for larger spacecraft. NASA is working on inflatable parachutes that slow spacecraft down as they land and protect the craft from the high temperatures created when plowing through an atmosphere. The new material could go into a decelerator such as the IRVE-3 NASA tested in July, Meador said.

The new aerogel won't entirely replace silica aerogels because it isn't translucent, like the silica kind are, so it can't go into windows, Meador later wrote to InnovationNewsDaily in an email. It may also be less insulating than silica aerogels. 

As for when people may see the plastic-based aerogel in their TVs and fridges, Meador said NASA is working with the University of Akron in Ohio and a company in the Cleveland area to manufacture the aerogel in long rolls. "It's something you can visualize in the next couple to five years," she said.

After the news conference, Meador described her research to other scientists at the American Chemical Society's national meeting in Philadelphia.

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