'Solid smoke' now hundreds of times stronger

'Solid smoke' now hundreds of times stronger

By Stephanie Grimes | Posted - Aug. 31, 2012 at 11:47 a.m.


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SALT LAKE CITY — Improvements have been made to a material known as aerogel that could lead to the material being used for highly insulated clothing that would be lighter than ever.

Aerogels, often described as "solid smoke" because they are so light, are made from silica and are usually very brittle. The material has been around since 1931, but it was only recently that a method was discovered that would allow the material to be put to a wider range of uses.

The new aerogels, presented at the 244th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society, are up to 500 times stronger than their previous form.

Scientists at NASA's Glenn Research Center accomplished the feat by altering the chemical structure of a material that is already 95-percent air. They used polymers, plastic-like materials, to reinforce the silica networks that run throughout the structure of an aerogel.

The greater flexibility and strength of aerogel opens new possibilities for the product.

"A thick piece actually can support the weight of a car," Mary Ann Meador, of NASA, told the BBC. "And they can be produced in a thin form, a film so flexible that a wide variety of commercial and industrial uses are possible."

These uses may include a new type of highly insulated clothing that would provide as much warmth as traditional thermal wear, at a fraction of the thickness.

Super-insulated tents and sleeping bags are also now a possibility, according to the French Tribune, as well as refrigerators and freezers with added capacity due to less space being devoted to insulating materials.

The material can also be used to insulate space suits, but not firefighting uniforms, which are required to withstand more than aerogel's 575-degree Fahrenheit limit.

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Stephanie Grimes

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