Mind & Matter


The Lightest Known Material Just Got Lighter

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A 2 gram block of aerogel supports a 2.5 kilogram brick. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.


When compiling materials for Transmaterial, one of my favorite entries was Nanogel, Cabot Corporation's pelletized version of aerogel. Originally developed by the chemical engineer Samuel Stephens Kistler, the world's lightest known solid material—made of 1% quartz and 99% air—earned the nickname "frozen smoke" due to its surprising lightness and translucency.

Recently, scientists from the NanoScience Technology Center at the University of Central Florida have made the lightest solid even lighter. Made from carbon nanotubes, the new substance is called "multi-walled carbon nanotube (MCNT) aerogel," and boasts a density of only 4 mg/cm3—lighter than any other aerogel made thus far. The MCNT aerogel exhibits a large surface area, incredible strength, and high conductivity. When infused with a polymer material, MCNT aerogel also becomes amazingly flexible.

Given its inherent insulating capacity and fire resistance, aerogel has proven to be an effective light-transmitting insulation for skylights and translucent window wall systems. The superior properties of MCNT aerogel suggest a further transformation of building apertures and other applications. Imagine a self-structured, flexible, electricity-conducting window with a far better R-value, strength, and fire rating than a typical insulated glazing unit—and you quickly realize the extent to which this kind of technological innovation could change status quo techniques in building construction.




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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.