By Aviva Hope Rutkin
There is a lab at Union that makes “frozen smoke.” It is light and breaks easily, so transparent that you see right through it.
To scientists, this “smoke” is an aerogel, the lightest known solid in the world. Mechanical engineering professor Ann Anderson, chemistry professor Mary Carroll and over seventy Union research students have worked with aerogels over the past decade.
“We started collaborating because a mechanical engineering student came to Professor Anderson and said, ‘I want to make one of these,’” said Carroll.
Aerogels are an incredibly porous substance created by removing the liquid from gels. Despite their airy weight and appearance, a typical silica aerogel has a surface area of about 550 square meters per gram.
The majority of the lab’s work focuses on silica aerogels, which are chemically similar to glass or sand.
However, aerogels can also be made out of carbon, aluminum, nickel or titanium.
Aerogels are traditionally produced using autoclaves, which are pressurized vessels.
However, Union did not have any autoclaves when research began in 2001, so the lab borrowed a hydraulic hot press from engineering professor Ronald Bucinell instead.
Using the hot press, the group invented a now-patented method to produce aerogels in about six to eight hours, a fraction of the time that autoclaves take.
Much research is also conducted on the characterization of aerogels. Past projects have focused on their density, surface area, morphology and photolytic qualities.
“A lot of the projects are student-generated,” said Anderson.
One student, Mike Posilovic ‘12, is exploring the strength of aerogels for his senior engineering project. By using different additives, he hopes to create aerogels that are more difficult to break.
Students also do research on practical uses of the substance.
While insulation is the biggest commercial application for aerogels, projects have focused on a number of other uses, including catalysis, chemical sensors and boat coating.
Steve Juhl ‘12, a chemistry major, studies how aerogels can be incorporated into catalytic converters for cars. He uses a synthetic gas mixture that mimics automobile exhaust, and examines the percent loss of compounds such as carbon monoxide.
Scholars student Leah Smith ‘14 is investigating how much organic solvent aerogels can absorb, with the potential goal of using them to clean up oil spills.
Thus far, the lab has published nine journal articles, and Anderson and Carrol recently contributed two chapters to the Aerogel Handbook. They are also applying for a second patent related to the hot press production method.
In total, the lab has received over one million dollars in grant money, mostly from the National Science Foundation.
Seven students currently work in the aerogel lab, which moved to Wold 115 in the spring of this year. Previously, students were spread out among several rooms on different floors in Science and Engineering.
“Being in one physical location really helps us collaborate,” Carroll said. “It’s a beautiful space.”