Frozen smoke to change the world

Thursday 23 Aug 2007

A miracle new material could become a fundamental building component in the 21st century

Aerogel, nicknamed “frozen smoke” is the world's lightest known solid, it weighs only three times that of air. When handled, Aerogel feels like a very light, hard foam. Being chemically similar to glass, it also happens to shatter like glass, yet is incredibly strong structurally, and can support thousands of times its own weight. It is made by extracting water from a silica gel, then replacing it with gas such as carbon dioxide. It can withstand a direct blast of 1kg of dynamite and protect against heat from a blowtorch at more than 1,300C. The result is a substance that is capable of insulating against extreme temperatures and of absorbing pollutants such as crude oil. NASA are already using it to insulate space suits, new versions have been designed to mop up lead and mercury from water and to absorb oil spills.

It was invented by an American chemist for a bet in 1931, but early versions were so brittle and costly that it was not until a decade ago that Nasa started taking an interest in the substance.

It has, however, failed to convince the fashion world. Hugo Boss created a line of winter jackets out of the material but had to withdraw them after complaints that they were too hot.

A wide range of possible applications could see Aerogel becoming a wonder product of our time.

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