Aerogel is a nanostructure material that is 99.8% air, making it the lightest solid in the world. Its big value is the exceptional insulation it delivers.
The only snag is that the conventional silica aerogels, developed decades ago, are brittle, break and crumble easily.
Scientists have made them stronger over the years and NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Ohio has now come up with two new aerogels that are up to 500 times stronger than their silica counterparts.
They have done this by reinforcing the traditional networks of silica that extend throughout the aerogel structure with a polymer, and also by making aerogels from polyimide, an extremely strong, heat-resistant polymer, and then inserting brace-like cross-links to add further strength to the structure.
These flexible aerogels could be used in a new type of super-insulating clothing that would keep people warm but be less bulky than traditional "thermal" garments. Tents and sleeping bags could benefit from the same properties. Used for fridge and freezer walls, it could reduce their thickness, increasing storage space and improving their insulating power.
Many other applications, in aerospace, motor manufacturing and construction, are already on the drawing board.