World's lighter solid aerogel
In 1931, chemists Steven Kistler and Charles Learned made a bet on who could remove the liquid in a jam without shrinking or contracting the substance. Kistler won the bet, and in doing so, he invented aerogel.
Now, what exactly is aerogel? When silica is combined with a solvent, a gel is formed. The liquid in the gel is then removed and replaced with air, forming the lightest solid material in the world.
Aerogels aren't easily available; they are rarer than diamonds and cost thousands of dollars per ounce. The electronically conductive material is blue - but for the same reason why the sky is blue. Tiny particles make aerogel scatter blue light more than other colors.
Though it is the lightest material, aerogel is a force to reckon with and cannot be underestimated. A tiny two-gram piece of aerogel can support a 5.5 lbs (2.5 kg) brick. Basically, it can hold four thousand times its weight by force.
But hold up. That isn't even the most amazing thing about aerogel. It has low thermal conductivity, which means that you can do cool experiments with a blowtorch. However, it can easily shatter like glass if you apply too much pressure.
Aerogel has had fascinating uses over the years. It was used as a thickening agent in cosmetics, paint, and napalm. The material's insulation properties helped it find a place in your freezer. This very characteristic led NASA to use aerogel in the Mars rover to protect it from harsh temperatures on Mars. Historical buildings in Switzerland also use aerogel-based plaster to increase insulation. Aerogels were also used in cigarette filters in the '60s and '70s.
Aerogel has even appeared in fashion. You can also find ski jackets with aerogel to keep you warm as you glide down the slopes. Dunlop began producing the aerogel racquet in 2007, and it became popular with tennis players. The aerogel reduces the vibration to the player.
Aerogels are also used to remove pollutants such as oils, toxic organic solvents, dyes, and heavy metal ions from aquatic environments.
In the future, aerogel will find itself in microelectronics, precision engineering robotics, biotechnology, and sensor technology. With 3D printing on the rise, scientists can manufacture parts made of aerogels with high precision. Eventually, they could be used in skylights, body armor, non-deflatable tires, aircraft structural components, and heat shields for spacecraft re-entry.
This versatile material truly has a future with infinite possibilities.