Researchers in China claim to have produced the world’s lightest aerogel. The feather-like aerogel is synthesized from a combination of carbon nanotubes and graphene and weighs in at 0.16 milligrams per cubic centimeter, a sixth that of air.
Carbon nanotubes have been applied to the production of aerogels previously. However, instead of enabling an “invisibility cloak” as in previous research, the researchers at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China believe this aerogel, which they have dubbed “carbon aerogel," could be used as an environmental remediation tool for cleaning up oil spills.
While aerogels have long been proposed as a solution to cleaning up oil spills, actual commercial offerings of any nanotech-based method have been few and far between.
But it’s hard to dismiss the incredible capability of this latest aerogel to absorb organic solvents. Whereas current commercial oil-absorbent products are capable of soaking up to 10 times their own weight, this carbon aerogel is reported to be capable of absorbing 900 times its own weight. This translates into 1 gram of carbon aerogel absorbing 68.8 grams of organics per second, according to the researchers.
"Carbon aerogel is expected to play an important role in pollution control such as oil spill control, water purification and even air purification," said Professor Professor Gao Chao, one of the lead researchers in the project, in a press release.
The researchers have reported the development of their carbon aerogel in the journal Advanced Materials ("Multifunctional, Ultra-Flyweight, Synergistically Assembled Carbon Aerogels").
The Chinese scientists were able to reduce the weight of their aerogel to previous carbon-nanotube versions by using freeze-dried solutions to create the carbon aerogel. This eliminated any moisture that may have been on the carbon nanotubes and graphene, but still managed to maintain the characteristics that were needed for creating the aerogel.
In addition to reducing the weight of the aerogel, the freeze-dried approach lends itself more readily to mass production, according to Gao.
Despite improved avenues to mass production and significantly improved absorption capabilities, it’s easy to be skeptical about whether this technology will be available the next time there’s a catastrophic oil spill. Let’s hope commercialization efforts start sooner rather than later.
Photo: Imaginechina/AP Photo
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.