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NASA's AeroGel

It's only 3 times denser than air, but an inch-thick slab can safely shield the human hand from the heat of a blowtorch. A sugar-cube size portion of the gel has the internal surface area of a basketball court.

Discovered in the 1930s by a Stanford University researcher, it's the lightest solid known, nicknamed "frozen smoke". A block the size of a human weighs less than a pound, but is able to support the weight of a subcompact car or about half a ton.

The newest creation is lighter than the 1930 version and it was found how to make it "clear".. A one-inch thick Aerogel window has the same insulation value as 15 panes of glass and trapped air - which means a conventional window would have to be ten- inches thick to equal a one-inch thick Aerogel window.

Aerogel is a good insulator because of the material's large internal surface area - which is folded over and over into what ever shape is needed. It can have so many sides and surfaces that if you could unfold a sugar cube-sized portion and cover a basketball court. It has been recognized by Guinness World Records as the solid with the lowest density.

Dr. Steven Jones of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. is a materials scientist who created the aerogel. He explained that Aerogel is pure silicon dioxide and sand, just as is glass, but a thousand times less dense because it is 99.8 percent air. It is prepared like gelatin by mixing a liquid silicon compound and a fast- evaporating liquid solvent which forms the gel, It is then dried in an instrument similar to a pressure cooker. The mixture thickens, and then a careful heating and depressurizing produce a glassy sponge of silicon.

What remains is sometimes called "solid smoke," for its cloudy translucent color and super-light weight. Surprisingly, this seemingly brittle substance is durable and easily survives launch and space environments.

"It's probably not possible to make aerogel any lighter than this because then it wouldn't gel," Jones said. "The molecules of silicon wouldn't connect."

Areogel was used in experiments aboard the "Stardust" which was launched in 2004 to capture particles from comet Wild 2. It was also used on the 2003 Mars Exploration Rover, and may aid a proposed fundamental- physics testing mission and the Mars Scout Program. It is also being specualted that if used for computer chips and circut boards, it could reinvent what we call "processing speed". I think it'd be great to use as windows if it's so energy efficient - wouldn't it help cut down on oil and gas use if a house can be kept a lot warmer using this?

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