Aerogel is a space-age material famed for having the lowest bulk density of any known porous solid – it is has been described as “solid smoke” due to its lightness and has been used to create everything from batteries to oil spill clean-up equipment. Now a team of researchers from NASA’s Glenn Research Center has announced that advances in aerogel could lead to a new generation of highly insulating clothing. In the past, aerogel was dismissed for use in clothing as it is made from silica and can be fragile and brittle. However scientists have altered the composition and structure of aerogel to make it up to five hundred times stronger.
The NASA team announced the new development this week at the 244th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society in Philadelphia. Researchers have made silica aerogels stronger by changing their “innermost architecture” and using polymers to reinforce the networks of silica that extend throughout the material’s structure. Another similar but separate method is to reinforce polyimide (an incredibly strong and heat-resistant polymer) with brace-like cross-links to further strengthen the aerogel.
Speaking to BBC News, Mary Ann Meador from NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Ohio, US said: “The new aerogels are up to 500 times stronger than their silica counterparts. A thick piece actually can support the weight of a car. And they can be produced in a thin form, a film so flexible that a wide variety of commercial and industrial uses are possible.”
Meador said she believed that this new super-thin form of aerogel could be used to manufacture highly insulating clothing that are less bulky than traditional “thermal” garments. It could also potentially be used in the walls of fridges and freezers, reducing their thickness and increasing storage space. The NASA Glenn scientist also theorized that aerogel could be used in futuristic spacesuits and firefighter protective gear.