From catching comets to catching pollution, aerogel is, well, catching the attention of environmentalists and businesses alike. The lightest solid known to man was invented in 1931, but its extremely high manufacturing costs has l
imited its use. Now, Malaysian scientist Halimaton Hamdan says she has found the economic cure for aerogel’s manufacturing sickness—corn husks.
The space-age solid was used by NASA to collect dust from a comet in 2006, but its commercial appeal lies in extraordinary insulating capabilities, pollution control, bomb-proofing abilities, and even making tennis rackets lighter. At 99.8% air, aerogel can barely be called a solid; nonetheless, it is able to withstand pressure 2,000 times its own weight. The secret ingredient is silica, the basic ingredient in sand, and Halimaton has discovered a revolutionary way to convert corn husks—which are 20% silica—into the strong, porous material.
Though years away from commercial use, Halimaton says she has cut the cost of producing aerogel by 80%, from $300 per 3.5 ounces to only $60. As an insulator, aerogel is 39 times more effective than fiberglass according to NASA, lessening the need for heating and air conditioning, and consequently reducing energy bills and pollution. Its light weight and incredible strength also make it suitable for bomb-proofing buildings, absorbing oil spills and air pollutants, and making lighter airplanes and athletic equipment.
Though mostly (and I mean mostly) air, it can support up to 4,000 times its own weight and is 1,000 times less dense than glass, which is also silica-based. This porous nature creates a cloudy appearance, like a hologram, giving aerogel its nickname—frozen smoke. Although its appearance is so, aerogel has a future anything but cloudy and may soon reduce the green in our energy bills and put it back into the planet.
By Danny Scuderi
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