Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have created low-density, super-strong aerogels made of carbon nanotubes that could be key to cleaning up oil spills. The new material is lighter than air but can absorb 900 times its own weight. It combines the strength and ultra-light, heat-insulating properties of aerogels with the electrical conductivity of nanotubes.

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Conventional aerogels, dubbed the “frozen smoke” because of their appearance, are the lightest solid materials known – only three times the density of air. They are made of atom-thick sheets of carbon or grapheme which form when water is extracted from a wet gel, leaving behind a strong matrix of nanoparticles. NASA has already used the tremendous insulating capability of aerogels to capture stardust in orbit and insulate the Mars rovers.

In the last two decades scientist have focused on creating silica or polymer aerogels, but researchers at UPenn used commercial nanotubes and large graphene sheets to create nanotube aerogels which consist of 99.9% empty space. The new material is able to absorb up to 900 times its weight. When used for cleaning oil spills, the oil is separated by simply squeezing or burning the fire-resistant nanotube aerogels that can be reused.

+ University of Pennsylvania


Lead Photo by Flickr user kbaird