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| Human World on Apr 15, 2013

Scientists produce world’s lightest material ever

It’s 100 times lighter than a polystyrene foam coffee cup, and has the capacity to soak up environmental pollutants such as toluene and crude oil.

Scientists from Zhejiang University in China have invented an ultralight carbon aerogel that has broken the record for the world’s lightest material.

An 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. This new aerogel is 100 times lighter than a polystyrene foam coffee cup, and it has a large capacity for soaking up environmental pollutants such as toluene and crude oil. The research was published on February 18, 2013 in the journal Advanced Materials.

The ultralight carbon aerogel was produced when scientists freeze-dried a gel solution of carbon nanotubes and graphene. Because the aerogel contains many pores filled with air, it is exceptionally light and has a density of only 0.16 milligrams per cubic centimeter. As of 2013, the aerogel is the world’s lightest material ever produced.

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Ultralight carbon aerogel resting on a cherry blossom. Image appears courtesy of Shaoqing Lu, Zhejiang University.

Previous records for the world’s lightest material were held by American scientists in 2011 (0.9 mg/cm3) and German scientists in 2012 (0.18 mg/cm3).

Professor Chao Gao, a scientist affiliated with the Department of Polymer Science and Engineering at Zhejiang University in China, commented on the findings in a news release. He said:

Carbon aerogel is expected to play an important role in pollution control such as oil spill control, water purification and even air purification.

The scientists compared the absorption capacity of the new ultralight carbon aerogel to several commercially available products and found that the aerogel was seven times better at soaking up organic solvents such as ethanol, crude oil, motor oil, toluene and vegetable oil. Also promising was the freeze-drying process, which was able to produce the aerogel much more efficiently than traditional production methods.

Besides using the ultralight carbon aerogel for environmental remediation purposes, the scientists are hoping to conduct additional research in the future to see how well the aerogel might perform in other engineering applications including energy insulation and sound proofing.

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Professor Gao Chao’s research team in a lab at Zhejiang University. Image appears courtesy of Shaoqing Lu, Zhejiang University.

Co-authors of the study included Haiyan Sun and Zhen Xu. The research was funded in part by the National Natural Science Foundation of China and the Qianjiang Talent Foundation of Zhejiang.

Bottom line: Scientists from Zhejiang University in China have invented an ultralight carbon aerogel that has broken the record for the world’s lightest material. The aerogel has a density of only 0.16 milligrams per cubic centimeter and a large capacity for soaking up environmental pollutants such as toluene and crude oil. The research was published on February 18, 2013 in the journal Advanced Materials.