UCLA researchers and joint collaborators have created an extremely light and very durable ceramic aerogel, a new material that could be used for applications like insulating spacecraft due to its ability to withstand severe temperature changes encountered on space missions.
While under development, the aerogel stood up to hundreds of exposures to sudden and extreme temperature spikes ranging back-and-forth between -198°C and 900°C. “The key to the durability of our new ceramic aerogel is its unique architecture,” says Xiangfeng Duan, a UCLA professor of chemistry and biochemistry. “Its innate flexibility helps it take the pounding from extreme heat and temperature shocks that would cause other ceramic aerogels to fail.”
Current ceramic aerogels are highly brittle and tend to fracture after repeated exposure to extreme heat and dramatic temperature swings, both of which are common within space travel. Over time, those repeated temperature changes can lead such materials to fracture and ultimately fail. But the new aerogel was designed to be more durable through the development of thin layers of boron nitride, a ceramic, with atoms that are connected in hexagon patterns like chicken wire. The unique atomic composition and microscopic structure also make it unusually elastic and much lighter.
As a result, the material is far more flexible and less brittle than current state-of-the-art ceramic aerogels as it can be compressed to five percent of its original volume and fully recover; while other existing aerogels can be compressed to only about 20 percent and then fully recover. Ceramic-based aerogels are also superior in blocking extreme temperatures, and they have ultralow density and are highly resistant to fire and corrosion—all qualities that lend themselves well to reusable spacecraft.
“The key to the durability of our new ceramic aerogel is its unique architecture,” Duan says. “Its innate flexibility helps it take the pounding from extreme heat and temperature shocks that would cause other ceramic aerogels to fail.”