Aerogel: wanna make a bet?

Have you ever made a bet that resulted in the discovery of a new material?

Well, this is exactly how aerogel was first made!

The story goes that American chemists, Samuel Kistler and Charles Learned made a bet about who could remove the liquid in a gel without causing shrinkage or contraction. And in 1931, Kistler won the bet and had created the first aerogel.

Aerogel is a very light, porous material with low density and low thermal conductivity, and basically feels like stretched-out Styrofoam (according to Wikipedia anyway).

This material is made by extracting the liquid out of the gel, leaving only a porous network. This extraction is known as supercritical drying, where the liquid within the gel is directly converted into a gas by high temperatures and constant pressure. After drying, the resulting material will maintain the same shape it had when it was a gel.

Because of its low density, aerogel is a very brittle material that can be easily broken.
But despite this brittleness and low density, the material is able to hold four thousand times its weight by force. The weight can be evenly dispersed over the entire surface, so a tiny 2 gram piece of aerogel can support a 2.5 kilogram (2500 gram) brick!

But that isn’t the coolest property of aerogel. Nope! The coolest is its low thermal conductivity, the material’s ability, or in this case lack of ability, to conduct heat and, therefore thermally insulate.

The porous structural network of aerogel does not allow for the heat to transfer from one side of the material to the other, since the solid material and the air/gas that fills the empty space are such poor heat conductors.

So you can attempt to burn those flowers all night without any luck! Or hold a piece of aerogel in your hand and reach for that blowtorch! If you don’t believe me, check out this video!

Even though aerogel has been around for ages, it has only just recently started to make waves.

The most obvious application for aerogel is its use as a thermal insulator for buildings, including windows, as it would allow for sunlight to enter the space without heating up the room. Although it is not widely available, it is possible to find companies that produce aerogel for insulation.

Aerogel was also used for thermal insulation in NASA’s Mars Rover, and now there is research into its use for manned spacecrafts and spacesuits. Aerogel would be a particularly effective insulator for spacecrafts as it is so lightweight, but due to its brittleness, it may not be suitable for spacesuits.

There are also other applications for aerogel, which include stardust collectors and thickeners in make-up.


It really is incredible to think that something that started out as a bet, ended up creating a material with some awesome properties and a wide variety of applications.

I’m now tempted to make a few bets in the lab with some of my colleagues myself! Hopefully, I’ll be as successful as Kistler!

So, do you wanna make a bet?


[Images via WikiCommons]

Want to know more?

Kistler, S. S. Nature. 1931, doi: 10.1038/127741a0.

4 Responses to “Aerogel: wanna make a bet?”

  1. farns says:

    Reminds me of the story I read recently of the discovery of a new iguana in the movie, “The Blue Lagoon”. The American filmmakers felt the need to add some native fauna to distract from all the underage sex scenes, so they found a random iguana to use in the scene. A reptile scientist spotted the lizard and noticed that it was one that he didn’t recognize,thus, a new species was born 😀

  2. Rebecca Szabadai says:

    I’m not entirely sure Isabel! Maybe because the concentrations are quite minute it’s not that bad for you…? This is something I’ll have to look up!

  3. isabelsm says:

    If you use it in makeup wouldn’t that be bad as you wouldn’t be able to lose heat from your face? Seeing as the forehead loses a lot of heat could be a bit dangerous right?

  4. marijap says:

    Wow that’s really cool, I wonder how much it would cost to insulate an entire building. I feel like we need this at bio 21, that building has no insulation and feels like a sauna in summer!