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article imageOp-Ed: The 'plastic' to change the world? Aerographite can do it all

By Paul Wallis     Jul 20, 2012 in Technology
Sydney - The new material Aerographite really could make more of an impact on human life than the introduction of plastic in the 20th century. Aerographite is a carbon based “mesh” which can carry 40,000 times its own weight. explains how useful this material is likely to be:
German material scientists from Kiel University and the Hamburg University of Technology have created the world’s lightest material, dubbed aerographite. One cubic centimeter of aerographite weighs just 0.2 milligrams, which is four times lighter than the previous record holder, 5,000 times less dense than water, and six times lighter than air.
The uses identified so far are:
1. Batteries
2. Wearable computing
3. Filtration
The scientists report that by changing the process — the temperature of the oven, how quickly the hydrogen is added — the structure of aerographite can be modified, perhaps to tailor it for each use-case.
The structure of Aerographite is its big winning hand. Many carbon polymers are comparatively one-trick wonders. They can do so much, they fracture, they lose integrity and shape, they’re more “carbon-y” and have various molecular quirks. Aerographite doesn’t appear to have any of these weaknesses.
As a material, it’s able to be multi-shaped without losing its valuable characteristics. Some of the pictures of Aerographite look like frozen smoke. There’s no particular morphology of the material itself.
The structural changes referred to in the article are also highly relevant for production purposes. They mean Aerographite can be adapted for different roles and uses with minimal alteration to the production methods. That means that it’s very suitable for production design at very low costs, unlike many other materials which require a virtual operatic production to be produced commercially, and cost a fortune.
Weighty issues
One of the major costs in engineering and every other type of industrial design is weight. Gravity is the big obstacle to materials design. Heavy materials are high-maintenance design elements, and often costly to produce commercially. Batteries are a case in point. They’re ridiculously heavy, and therefore very design-inefficient. Weight is also a major wear and tear issue for many industrial designs, reducing product life and reliability simply because gravity and weight are destructive forces on materials and machines.
Aerographite can literally be made in a normal industrial-standard oven and turned into valuable design products. For production purposes, it’s the difference between baking your own cookies and buying a wedding cake. Add to this the fact that Aerographite is so obviously useful in so many areas, and it’s no contest.
Commercial production of Aerographite
Conventional plastics manufacturers don’t need to worry about the new product putting them out of business or requiring expensive retooling. It’s so easy to make that they can make it themselves with existing equipment quite easily.
Check out the production process according to site. This site has “recipes” for aerogels, and Aerographite is really very straightforward. It doesn’t actually say “add sprinkles”, and requires a multistage furnace and vapour deposition stage, but that’s it. Looks like they’ve also got options for recoverable catalysts like zinc, too.
Try this for simple production:
Chemical vapor deposition is next used to deposit the aerographite form over the template made in the previous section. These details describe formation of a “basic” aerographite configuration, i.e., a hollow material with closed graphitic shells.
1. Place the ZnO template into the second zone (the “processing zone”) of the multizone clamshell tube furnace.
2. Heat the first zone of the furnace to 200 °C–this is the “injection zone”.
3. Heat the second the zone of the furnace to 760 °C.
4. Introduce a flow of 20 sccm (0.02 L min−1) of argon at atmospheric pressure.
5. Begin injection of toluene at a rate of 5.5 mL h−1.
6. Increase the flow of argon to 200 sccm and introduce a flow of 20 sccm hydrogen.
7. Discontinue injection of the toluene.
8. Turn off the flow of argon and increase the hydrogen to 600 sccm.
9. Wait 45 min.
10. Reintroduce a flow of 200 sccm argon and decrease the hydrogen to 20 sccm.
11. Continue injection of the toluene.
12. Wait 120 min.
13. Discontinue injection of the toluene, turn off the flow of argon, and increase the flow of hydrogen to 600 sccm.
14. Wait 20 min.
15. Introduce a flow of 600 sccm argon and turn the hydrogen off. Turn the furnace off and wait for it to cool below 200 °C before removing samples.
… Serve with new patents, milk and cookies.
This is kid stuff for chemical engineers. It means that the world’s most abused and most useful element, carbon, has yet another trick up its sleeve. Aerographite will be the 3D printing material of the future, too, from the look of this. It’s ideal for complex prints, and the low mass reduces strain on physical print dynamics.
Weight and non-electrical designs
I hope they don’t put too much emphasis, however understandable, on the purely conductive properties of Aerographite. The potential uses as a working material are even more impressive, and can be done on a super-size scale.
You could design a city, a car, a train, a plane or a ship with this stuff, do a full model, and simply print it out to scale. The easy-modification capacity also means that it can be used structurally in infinite ways, with specific stress loading for high value structural options.
Large surface area, modified or otherwise, allows for reinforcement. You could, theoretically, use Aerographite in practically any role.
For instance:
In some types of clothing, reinforcement is a major issue. You could make the world’s best athletic supports, tailored to provide resistance and give at microgram levels. You could create a bodysuit which would give you a full workout, adding resistance to provide muscle tone. You could lose weight and gain muscle with an Aerographite T shirt. (Muscular development is actually based on use. Clothes which target specific areas for development, like the abs, would sell like crazy.)
In medicine, you could use it as a support frame for regrowth of tissue where major tissue loss has occurred. Nano materials are already in use for this purpose, but Aerographite could be extremely valuable in reducing cost and providing consistent resistance factors for mobile areas affected by surgery or injury.
Artists and architects could use Aerographite to create otherwise impossible structures. You could make musical instruments, e-readers, furniture, appliances, you name it.
I hope researchers will forgive me if I say this is like inventing “fire as a solid” and potentially as useful. This is an infinite resource with infinite uses. How much more useful could it be?
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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