May 15 - A scientist in China has produced the lightest substance ever recorded, which he says could provide solutions to heavy problems, such as pollution control. Gao Chou says his carbon aerogel can absorb up to 900 times its own body weight, in addition to displaying other qualities that make it ideal for further development. Ben Gruber has more.
It's called carbon aerogel and it's the lightest material ever created. Made from graphene and carbon nanotubes it's one sixth the density of air, according to its creator Professor Gao Chao of Zhejiang University. (SOUNDBITE) DEPARTMENT OF POLYMER SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING OF ZHEJIANG UNIVERSITY, PROFESSOR GAO CHAO, SAYING: "First we use graphene to build many spaces which look like a beehive and that can expand. In the meantime, we use carbon nanotubes to support it like an iron pillar holding up a wall, making it a strong. In this way, this material can be made super light. Also it has a great flexibility." Gao says it's that flexibility that could turn carbon aerogel into a transformative commercial product. It can conduct electricity and, with an internal structure that's 99 percent free space, can be compressed into a fraction of its original size. But most useful says Gao, may be its ability to absorb up to 900 times its own weight in liquid. He sees it as a breakthrough material for cleaning up large scale oil spills, like the 2010 BP spill that released 100 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico. (SOUNDBITE) DEPARTMENT OF POLYMER SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING ZHEJIANG UNIVERSITY, PROFESSOR GAO CHAO, SAYING: "According to its nature and performance, our super light carbon aerogel can be used in the following aspects. The first one is oil-absorption. It can be used to clean water in marine oil spill accidents. It can also be used in water treatment and clean up environmental pollution. The second one is heat insulation. It can be used in some absolute insulation aspects. The third one is energy storage which also means heat preservation." While it may be the lightest substance ever recorded, Gao says his carbon aerogel is many years away from commercial viability. The main challenge he says will be to produce it on an industrial scale. But, he says, that with further research, it should be possible… making carbon aerogel worth far more than its weight in gold.