Multiwalled carbon nanotube aerogels – also known as “frozen smoke” – are now being developed to detect pollutants in a variety of situations.
Aerogels have been in production in the scientific community for a number of years now; compounds so light that they have been dubbed the world’s lightest sold materials. They are typically made from silicon dioxide (sand, for the most part) and have been pressed into service to act as thermal insulation and oil-soaking sponges.
Although silicon aerogels have found a viable market for use, scientists like Lei Zhai have been working on ways to improve both their functionality and flexibility using carbon nanotubes in place of silicon. These carbon nanotubes are tiny – on the order of 50,000 can fit across the width of one human hair – but are difficult to manipulate into place properly.
Zhai and her team persevered, however, and have succeeded in creating a viable MCNT option and testing it to see just how it performs in the real world.
Turns out, MCNT options are not only lighter than their silicon counterparts but show a real facility for detecting pollutants and toxins in even tiny amounts.
How tiny? Try 0.003527 ounces of a substance in the palm of your hand.
Thanks to their excellent ability to conduct electricity (thanks, carbon!), MCNT aerogels have the potential to also be used in chemical reactors and electronics components to help both limit their weight and increase their functionality.
These tiny tubes can also be infused with plastic to make them extra-flexible, allowing them to stretch to many times their original length. A unraveled one-ounce cube of MCNT could cover three football fields, giving it an elastic quality unmatched in other lightweight substances.
Frozen smoke seems like a designation more fanciful than formed, but as it turns out the description is just about bang-on accurate. Now, with the development of MCNT aerogels by researchers such as Zhai and her team, the future of lightweight solids appears to be deftly moving forward.