Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles This scientist is creating a new, and highly specialized type of aerogel using a wonder material we know and love… graphene. While this material is mostly comprised of air, it also boasts graphene-like properties that make it both super strong and electrically conductive. This means that the aerogel you're looking at could completely revolutionize material sciences—even blazing a trail for in-space manufacturing. Which is why scientists are now looking to synthesize this new material on the International Space Station. Because in the absence of gravity… strange things can happen. Microgravity just unlocks a completely new area of material science. It's a brand new knob that we've never had access to before. You could potentially have new properties. We might uncover new types of underlying physics. These scientists are working on an experiment to go onboard the ISS, that if successful, could have huge impacts on in-space manufacturing... and future deep space missions. So what exactly makes graphene aerogel so special? To understand that, we have to look at its component parts—starting with graphene. Graphene is composed of the element carbon and it's actually just a single atomic layer of carbon in a honeycomb lattice. Graphene is an amazing material because it is strong— stronger than steel. It's also electrically conductive, so carriers can transport within graphene at really fast speeds. It has applications in energy storage, like batteries or super capacitors. There's been a ton of hype around graphene, with many calling it a “wonder material.” And after years of R&D, we're just starting to see it leave the lab. But it's not the only material getting hype. There's also aerogel. Aerogels are a class of materials that can be made out of pretty much anything. Like sculptures can be made out of stone or clay, and very similarly, aerogels can be made out of these different raw materials. Which opens the door to nearly limitless possibilities. Aerogels are almost completely made out of air. And are considered one of the lightest solid materials ever known. The most popular type of aerogel is silica based. Silica aerogels have been used by NASA in the Stardust mission. NASA utilized this material because it was lightweight and also had a porous structure such that they can capture this space dust material. Silica aerogels have also been used as insulation on NASA's Mars rovers... and are even being used as insulation for thinner, warmer outerwear here on Earth. This material tends to get the most attention, and sometimes gets mistaken as the one and only aerogel. But aerogels can also be made out of metals, polymers, and of course graphene... which brings us to the XLab. In the XLab—the EXtreme Environment Microsystems Laboratory—we make tiny but tough electronics and materials. Like graphene aerogel, which has the super strength and electrical conductivity of graphene, in the form of a light aerogel. There's two main steps in creating graphene aerogel. The first is to create the graphene hydrogel. And so, you start with graphene oxide flakes and you disperse those in an aqueous solution. And then once you have your graphene oxide dispersion, you can load that into a furnace and heat that to about 200 degrees Celsius. And that will form your hydrogel. It's honestly exactly like making Jell-O where you put in the powder and then you add the hot water and you let it cool and you have a Jell-O. And so, a hydrogel is the graphene Jell-O. And then, the second part is taking away the liquid from that and leaving just air in the structure. Making a graphene aerogel is special because of its two-dimensional nature. And so making a graphene aerogel allows us to study the way two-dimensional flakes or a sheet interact with each other when we bind them together. And the atomic structure of a material determines its different properties. Which is why--despite the fact that diamonds, pencil lead, and graphene are all made entirely out of carbon--they each have very different characteristics. And then there's gravity. Scientists are eager to solve the mystery of how the structure of graphene aerogels will behave in microgravity. To find out, Debbie's team is preparing to send a payload to the ISS with all the necessary components to make graphene aerogel in space -- basically using the same two-step process outlined earlier. The first step, making the hydrogel, is actually the one we're interested in for the space station. When you're dealing with liquid to solid phase transitions, there are concerns you have to worry about, especially with dispersion with the powder, because gravity is going to pull those down and that creates an anisotropic, or unevenly distributed graphene hydrogel, which then gives you an unevenly distributed graphene aerogel. And that, in turn, affects the properties, so you could have with that less electrical connectivity, lower absorption. The International Space Station is, of course, in outer space. So gravity's effects are minimized. The flakes are free to float around homogeneously, and when we perform the reduction step in the furnace on the space station, that will give us a more uniform macro structure. Synthesizing graphene aerogels in a microgravity environment is really exciting because it can potentially advance many of our engineering applications such as the development of batteries, the development of thermally insulating materials, and also sensor materials. We are currently about one year into the project and so we are hoping, fingers crossed, to launch our payload within the next year. Once we get the payload back, we hope to learn, number one, what is the mesostructure of a microgravity synthesized aerogel? So structurally, what does it look like? Is it different from an Earth-based material? We plan on measuring the mechanical properties, the thermal properties and the electrical properties of the aerogels and compare the Earth-based properties to the microgravity-based properties. Equipped with this knowledge, if researchers can crack how to manufacture graphene aerogels in microgravity, then the way we explore space could change completely. The idea is to take raw materials, bring it up to the space environment, build what you need, and then deploy it from space. So that's the big vision there. While we're not at that point yet, this graphene aerogel experiment is moving us towards that possible future. So I think some of the first demonstrations and first validations of our work could happen within the next 5 to 10 years. The thought that a new era of materials science is just around the corner, which could in turn herald a new era of human space exploration, is a thrilling concept for Debbie and Jessica. It's just cool, it's the new frontier, it's just unexplored, it's the future. When I take a step back and think about the potential to do these experiments in space, it's really fascinating and exciting and I think the people I work with are really excited too.