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Carbon Aerogel Supersponge Could Soak Up Oil Spills

Lightest ever carbon aerogel shows remarkable absorption capablities for cleaning up oil spills and other environmental remediation

2 min read
Carbon Aerogel Supersponge Could Soak Up Oil Spills
Imaginechina/AP Photo

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

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Two Startups Are Bringing Fiber to the Processor

Avicena’s blue microLEDs are the dark horse in a race with Ayar Labs’ laser-based system

5 min read
Diffuse blue light shines from a patterned surface through a ring. A blue cable leads away from it.

Avicena’s microLED chiplets could one day link all the CPUs in a computer cluster together.

Avicena

If a CPU in Seoul sends a byte of data to a processor in Prague, the information covers most of the distance as light, zipping along with no resistance. But put both those processors on the same motherboard, and they’ll need to communicate over energy-sapping copper, which slow the communication speeds possible within computers. Two Silicon Valley startups, Avicena and Ayar Labs, are doing something about that longstanding limit. If they succeed in their attempts to finally bring optical fiber all the way to the processor, it might not just accelerate computing—it might also remake it.

Both companies are developing fiber-connected chiplets, small chips meant to share a high-bandwidth connection with CPUs and other data-hungry silicon in a shared package. They are each ramping up production in 2023, though it may be a couple of years before we see a computer on the market with either product.

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