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Aerogel is a synthetic porous ultralight material derived from a gel, in which the liquid component of the gel has been replaced with a gas. The result is a solid with extremely low density and low thermal conductivity. Nicknames include frozen smoke, solid smoke, solid air, or blue smoke owing to its translucent nature and the way light scatters in the material. It feels like fragile expanded polystyrene (Styrofoam) to the touch. Aerogels can be made from a variety of chemical compounds.
Aerogels are produced by extracting the liquid component of a gel through supercritical drying. This allows the liquid to be slowly dried 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 dioxide. Carbon aerogels were first developed in the late 1980s.
Despite their name, aerogels are solid, rigid, and dry materials that do not resemble a gel in their physical properties: The name comes from the fact that they are made from gels. Pressing softly on an aerogel typically does not leave even a minor mark; pressing more firmly will leave a permanent depression. Pressing extremely firmly 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 two of 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 especially good because silica is also a poor conductor of heat (a metallic aerogel, on the other hand, would be less effective). They are good convective inhibitors because air cannot circulate through the lattice. Aerogels are poor radiative insulators because infrared radiation (which transfers heat) passes right through silica aerogel.
Owing to its hygroscopic nature, aerogel feels dry and acts as a strong desiccant. Persons handling aerogel for extended periods should wear gloves to prevent the appearance of dry brittle spots on their skin.
The slight color it does have is due to Rayleigh scattering of the shorter wavelengths of visible light by the nano-sized dendritic structure. This causes it to appear smoky blue against dark backgrounds and yellowish against bright backgrounds.
Aerogels by themselves are hydrophilic, but chemical treatment can make them hydrophobic. If they absorb moisture they usually suffer a structural change, such as contraction, and deteriorate, but degradation can be prevented by making them hydrophobic. Aerogels with hydrophobic interiors are less susceptible to degradation than aerogels with only an outer hydrophobic layer, even if a crack penetrates the surface. Hydrophobic treatment facilitates processing because it allows the use of a water jet cutter.
Aerogels may have a thermal conductivity smaller than the gas they contain. This is caused by the Knudsen effect. Knudsen effect is the reduction of thermal conductivity in gases when the size of the cavity encompassing the gas becomes comparable to the mean free path. Effectively, the cavity restricts the movement of the gas particles, decreasing the thermal conductivity in addition to eliminating convection. For example, thermal conductivity of air is about 25 mW/m·K at STP and in a large container, but decreases to about 5 mW/m·K in a pore 30 nanometers in diameter.
Silica aerogel is the most common type of aerogel, and the most extensively studied and used. It is silica-based, derived from silica gel. The lowest-density silica nanofoam weighs 1,000 g/m3, which is the evacuated version of the record-aerogel of 1,900 g/m3. The density of air is 1,200 g/m3 (at 20 °C and 1 atm). As of 2013, aerographene had a lower density at 160 g/m3, or 0.13 times the density of air at room temperature.
It has remarkable thermal insulative properties, having an extremely low thermal conductivity: from 0.03 W/m·K in atmospheric pressure down to 0.004 W/m·K in modest vacuum, which correspond to R-values of 14 to 105 (US customary) or 3.0 to 22.2 (metric) for 3.5 in (89 mm) thickness. For comparison, typical wall insulation is 13 (US customary) or 2.7 (metric) for the same thickness. Its melting point is 1,473 K (1,200 °C; 2,192 °F).
Until 2011, silica aerogel held 15 entries in Guinness World Records for material properties, including best insulator and lowest-density solid, though it was ousted from the latter title by the even lighter materials aerographite in 2012 and then graphene aerogel in 2013.
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 400–1,000 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 density 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.
The term "aerogel" to describe airy masses of carbon nanotubes produced through certain chemical vapor deposition techniques is incorrect. Such materials can be spun into fibers with strength greater than Kevlar, and unique electrical properties. These materials are not aerogels, however, since they do not have a monolithic internal structure and do not have the regular pore structure characteristic of aerogels.
Aerogels made with aluminium oxide are known as alumina aerogels. These aerogels are used as catalysts, especially when "doped" with a metal other than aluminium. Nickel–alumina aerogel is the most common combination. Alumina aerogels are also being considered by NASA for capturing hypervelocity particles; a formulation doped with gadolinium and terbium could fluoresce at the particle impact site, with the amount of fluorescence dependent on impact energy.
Chalcogel is an aerogel made of chalcogens (the column of elements on the periodic table beginning with oxygen) such as sulfur, selenium and other elements. Metals less expensive than platinum have been used in its creation.
Aerogel performance may be augmented for a specific application by the addition of dopants, reinforcing structures and hybridizing compounds. Aspen Aerogels makes products such as Spaceloft which are composites of aerogel with some kind of fibrous batting.
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Aerogels are used for a variety of applications:
The first step is the creation of a colloidal suspension of solid particles known as a “sol”. Silica aerogel is made by the creation of colloidal silica. The process starts with a liquid alcohol such as ethanol which is mixed with a silicon alkoxide precursor, for example tetramethyl orthosilicate (TMOS) or tetraethyl orthosilicate (TEOS). A hydrolysis reaction forms particles of silicon dioxide forming a sol solution. The oxide suspension begins to undergo condensation reactions which result in the creation of metal oxide bridges (either M–O–M, “oxo” bridges or M–OH–M, “ol” bridges) linking the dispersed colloidal particles.
When this interlinking has stopped the flow of liquid within the material, this is known as a gel. This process is known as gelation. These reactions generally have moderately slow reaction rates, and as a result either acidic or basic catalysts are used to improve the processing speed. Basic catalysts tend to produce more transparent aerogels with less shrinkage.
The removal of the liquid from a true aerogel involves special processing. Gels where the liquid is allowed to evaporate normally are known as xerogels. As the liquid evaporates, forces caused by surface tensions of the liquid-solid interfaces are enough to destroy the fragile gel network. As a result xerogels cannot achieve the high porosities and instead peak at lower porosities and exhibit large amounts of shrinkage after drying.
In 1931, to develop the first aerogels, Kistler used a process known as supercritical drying. By increasing the temperature and pressure he forced the liquid into a supercritical fluid state where by dropping the pressure he could instantly gasify and remove the liquid inside the aerogel, avoiding damage to the delicate three-dimensional network. While this can be done with ethanol, the high temperatures and pressures lead to dangerous processing conditions. A safer, lower temperature and pressure method involves a solvent exchange. This is typically done by exchanging the initial aqueous pore liquid for a CO2 miscible liquid such as ethanol or acetone, then onto liquid carbon dioxide and then bringing the carbon dioxide above its critical point. A variant on this process involves the direct injection of supercritical carbon dioxide into the pressure vessel containing the aerogel. The end result of either process exchanges the initial liquid from the gel with carbon dioxide, without allowing the gel structure to collapse or lose volume.
Aerogel composites have been made using a variety of continuous and discontinuous reinforcements. The high aspect ratio of fibers such as fiberglass have been used to reinforce aerogel composites with significantly improved mechanical properties.
Carbon aerogel is made from a resorcinol–formaldehyde aerogel by its pyrolysis in inert gas atmosphere, leaving a matrix of carbon. It is commercially available as solid shapes, powders, or composite paper.
Silica-based aerogels are not known to be carcinogenic or toxic. However, they are a mechanical irritant to the eyes, skin, respiratory tract, and digestive system. Small silica particles can potentially cause silicosis when inhaled. They also can induce dryness of the skin, eyes, and mucous membranes. Therefore, it is recommended that protective gear including respiratory protection, gloves and eye goggles be worn whenever handling aerogels.
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