The new ceramic aerogel is so lightweight that it can rest on a flower without damaging it. Image: UCLA Samueli Engineering.
The new ceramic aerogel is so lightweight that it can rest on a flower without damaging it. Image: UCLA Samueli Engineering.

Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), together with collaborators at eight other research institutions, have created an extremely light, very durable ceramic aerogel. This material could be used for applications like insulating spacecraft, because it can withstand the intense heat and severe temperature changes that space missions endure.

Ceramic aerogels have been used to insulate industrial equipment since the 1990s, and have also been used to insulate scientific equipment on NASA's Mars rover missions. But this new version is much more durable after exposure to extreme heat and repeated temperature spikes, and much lighter. Its unique atomic composition and microscopic structure also make it unusually elastic.

When it's heated, the ceramic aerogel contracts, rather than expanding like other ceramics do. It also contracts perpendicularly to the direction that it's compressed – imagine pressing a tennis ball on a table and having the center of the ball move inward rather than expanding out. This is the opposite to how most materials react when compressed. As a result, the material is far more flexible and less brittle than current state-of-the-art ceramic aerogels: it can be compressed to 5% of its original volume and fully recover, while other existing aerogels can be compressed to only about 20% and then fully recover.

The research, which is reported in a paper in Science, was led by Xiangfeng Duan, a UCLA professor of chemistry and biochemistry, Yu Huang, a UCLA professor of materials science and engineering, and Hui Li of Harbin Institute of Technology in China. The study's first authors are Xiang Xu, a visiting postdoctoral fellow in chemistry at UCLA from Harbin Institute of Technology, Qiangqiang Zhang of Lanzhou University in China, and Menglong Hao of the University of California (UC), Berkeley and Southeast University in China. Other members of the research team were from UC Berkeley, Purdue University, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Lanzhou University, Hunan University in China and King Saud University in Saudi Arabia.

Despite the fact that more than 99% of their volume is air, aerogels are solid and structurally very strong for their weight. They can be made from many types of materials, including ceramics, carbon or metal oxides. Compared with other insulators, ceramic-based aerogels are superior at blocking extreme temperatures, and they have ultralow density and are highly resistant to fire and corrosion – all qualities that lend themselves well to reusable spacecraft.

But current ceramic aerogels are highly brittle and tend to fracture after repeated exposure to extreme heat and dramatic temperature swings, both of which are common in space travel. The new material is made of thin layers of boron nitride, a ceramic, with atoms that are connected in a hexagon pattern, like chicken wire.

In the UCLA-led research, this ceramic aerogel withstood conditions that would typically fracture other aerogels. It stood up to hundreds of exposures to sudden and extreme temperature spikes when the engineers raised and lowered the temperature in a testing container between -198°C and 900°C in just a few seconds. In another test, the material lost less than 1% of its mechanical strength after being stored for one week at 1400°C.

"The key to the durability of our new ceramic aerogel is its unique architecture," Duan said. "Its innate flexibility helps it take the pounding from extreme heat and temperature shocks that would cause other ceramic aerogels to fail."

Ordinary ceramic materials usually expand when heated and contract when they are cooled. Over time, those repeated temperature changes can lead the materials to fracture and ultimately fail. The new aerogel was designed to be more durable by doing just the opposite – it contracts rather than expands when heated.

In addition, the aerogel's ability to contract perpendicularly to the direction that it's being compressed – like the tennis ball example – helps it to survive repeated and rapid temperature changes. (This property is known as a negative Poisson's ratio.) The aerogel also has interior ‘walls’ that are reinforced with a double-pane structure, which cuts down the material's weight while increasing its insulating abilities.

According to Duan, the process developed by the researchers to make the new aerogel could also be adapted to make other ultra-lightweight materials. "Those materials could be useful for thermal insulation in spacecraft, automobiles or other specialized equipment," he said. "They could also be useful for thermal energy storage, catalysis or filtration."

This story is adapted from material from UCLA, with editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier. Link to original source.