Aerogel is a manufactured material with the lowest bulk density of any known porous solid. It is derived from a gel in which the liquid component of the gel has been replaced with a gas. The result is an extremely low-density solid, with a notable effectiveness as a thermal insulator. It is nicknamed frozen smoke, solid smoke, solid air or blue smoke due to its translucent nature and the way light scatters in the material; however, it feels like expanded polystyrene (styrofoam) to the touch.
Aerogel was first created by Samuel Stephens Kistler in 1931, as a result of a bet with Charles Learned over who could replace the liquid in ‘jellies’ with gas without causing shrinkage.
Aerogels are produced by extracting the liquid component of a gel through supercritical drying. This allows the liquid to be slowly drawn off without causing the solid matrix in the gel to collapse from capillary action, as would happen with conventional evaporation. The first aerogels were produced from silica gels. Kistler’s later work involved aerogels based on alumina, chromia and tin oxide. Carbon aerogels were first developed in the late 1980s.
Despite their name, aerogels are rigid, dry materials and do not resemble a gel in their physical properties; the name comes from the fact that they are derived from gels. Pressing softly on an aerogel typically does not leave a mark; pressing more firmly will leave a permanent depression. Pressing firmly enough will cause a catastrophic breakdown in the sparse structure, causing it to shatter like glass—a property known as friability; although more modern variations do not suffer from this. Despite the fact that it is prone to shattering, it is very strong structurally. Its impressive load bearing abilities are due to the dendritic microstructure, in which spherical particles of average size 2–5 nm are fused together into clusters. These clusters form a three-dimensional highly porous structure of almost fractal chains, with pores just under 100 nm. The average size and density of the pores can be controlled during the manufacturing process.
Aerogels are good thermal insulators because they almost nullify the three methods of heat transfer (convection, conduction, and radiation). They are good conductive insulators because they are composed almost entirely from a gas, and gases are very poor heat conductors.
Silica aerogel is the most common type of aerogel and the most extensively studied and used. It is a silica-based substance, derived from silica gel. The world’s lowest-density solid is a silica nanofoam at 1 mg/cm3, which is the evacuated version of the record-aerogel of 1.9 mg/cm3. The density of air is 1.2 mg/cm.
Carbon aerogels are composed of particles with sizes in the nanometer range, covalently bonded together. They have very high porosity (over 50%, with pore diameter under 100 nm) and surface areas ranging between 400–1000 m2/g. They are often manufactured as composite paper: non-woven paper made of carbon fibers, impregnated with resorcinol-formaldehyde aerogel, and pyrolyzed. Depending on the density, carbon aerogels may be electrically conductive, making composite aerogel paper useful for electrodes in capacitors or deionization electrodes. Due to their extremely high surface area, carbon aerogels are used to create supercapacitors, with values ranging up to thousands of farads based on a capacitance of 104 F/g and 77 F/cm3. Carbon aerogels are also extremely “black” in the infrared spectrum, reflecting only 0.3% of radiation between 250 nm and 14.3 µm, making them efficient for solar energy collectors.
Aerogels made with aluminium oxide are known as alumina aerogels. These aerogels are used as catalysts, especially when “metal-doped” with another metal. Nickel-alumina aerogel is the most common combination. Alumina aerogels are also being considered by NASA for capturing of hypervelocity particles; a formulation doped with gadolinium and terbium could fluoresce at the particle impact site, with amount of fluorescence dependent on impact energy.
SEAgel is a material similar to organic aerogel, made of agar.
Chalcogels are a type of aerogel made of chalcogens (the column of elements on the periodic table beginning with oxygen) such as sulfur, selenium, and other elements. Research is ongoing, and metals less expensive than platinum have also been used in its creation.
Aerogels made of cadmium selenide quantum dots in a porous 3-D network have recently been developed for use in the semiconductor industry