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  • This scientist is creating a new, and highly specialized type of aerogel using a wonder

  • material we know and lovegraphene. While this material is mostly comprised of air,

  • it also boasts graphene-like properties that make it both super strong and electrically

  • conductiveThis means that the aerogel you're looking at could completely revolutionize

  • material scienceseven blazing a trail for in-space manufacturing. Which is why scientists

  • are now looking to synthesize this new material on the International Space StationBecause

  • in the absence of gravitystrange 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 specialTo understand that, we

  • have to look at its component partsstarting 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 strongstronger 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 similarlyaerogels 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 XLabthe EXtreme Environment Microsystems Laboratorywe 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 natureAnd 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 gravityScientists 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 aerogelSo 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

  • completelyThe 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

  • futureSo 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 cornerwhich 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 futureWhen 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

This scientist is creating a new, and highly specialized type of aerogel using a wonder

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Inside the Lab That Wants to Make Graphene Aerogel in Space

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    Summer posted on 2021/05/23
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