Written by Jonny Williamson
Aerogel, sometimes referred to as ‘solid smoke’, are materials in which the liquid content has been replaced with gas while the structural components are left intact. The aerogel, created by Dr Olli Ikkala and fellow team members at the Helsinki University of Technology, makes use of tiny fibres from plant cellulose – a natural polymer much like plastic. Cellulose is more commonly commercially used in the production of various forms of paper and textiles.
The team used a new processed form of minute cellulose, called nano-cellulose, to form the aerogel, with early tests speculating that 500g of cellulose aerogel is capable of supporting up to half a tonne – roughly the weight of five household refrigerators.
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Dr. Ikkala, speaking at the unveiling of the aerogel at the American Chemical Society, said:
“It can be of great potential value in helping the world shift to materials that do not require petroleum for manufacture. The use of plant and wood-based cellulose does not influence the food supply or prices, like corn or other crops. We are really delighted to see how cellulose is moving beyond traditional applications, such as paper and textiles, and finding new high-tech applications.”
Possible products created from the new material include sensors for detecting atmospheric pollution, miniaturized robots, children’s toys, as well as a potential solution to an increasingly significant environmental problem. Research has shown that the aerogel is not only extremely buoyant, but highly absorbent, meaning it could be used to clean up oil spills quickly and easily, with the oil even being recoverable at the end.