Less is More with Aerogel

In the 20 century, many people believed that by the 21 everyone would have a flying car and live like the cartoon show, "The Jetsons."

Today, there may not be flying cars, but technology is getting ever so closer to living the Jetson lifestyle at a slow pace but nonetheless a progressive one. A material that is helping with the discovery and observation of the stars and planets and possibly technological advancement on earth happens to be at the Science Complex at Santa Monica College.

Aerogel, a translucent looking type of matter in a lighted display case is currently standing at the second floor foyer at the Science Complex thanks to funding through the SMC foundation. The display features the aerogel measured in three inches in length, four inches in width and three-fourth inches in height.

What is Aerogel? According to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in accordance with NASA, "Aerogel is a silicon based solid with a sponge like structure in where 99% of the volume is empty space."

When a particle hits the Aerogel, the particle buries itself in the Aerogel creating a carrot shaped track up to 200 times its own length. This slows and stops the particle, which is why it was used in the Stardust mission in 1999 to collect comet samples and interstellar dust.

Scientists were able to collect those particles because of Aerogel's distinctive smoky blue shine that looks the color of a blue light saber or a hologram. Aerogel was first developed for space use in 1987 and by 1992 it took its first space flight.

Dr. Peter Tsou, who made the aerogel
material lighter and more suitable for catching comet particles and space flights, donated the sample of Aerogel to SMC.
"The exhibit is here to pique people's interest in high-tech or exotic materials," said SMC chemistry professor Dr. James Murphy in a press statement released with the aerogel display.

"Aerogel has a remarkable appearance that can inspire and recruit more students into the sciences, something we need more of," said Joe Weichman, former student of Murphy and who met Dr. Tsou while working at JPL according to the press statement.

Even though it has been projected to be used in thermal insulation for space habitats on mars and the moon and make electrodes and sensors, the reason aerogel cannot be sold to the public as insulation 39 times more effective than the best fiberglass insulation is the cost NASA states.

Even thought the public cannot afford it, NASA does state that if aerogel was cheap and available for domestic home application, the thermal insulation properties of aerogel would cause drastic reduction of heating and cooling loads of domestic, industrial or office buildings as inserts for the double-pane window glass.

"It's very interesting looking, I like anything space related," said student Tony Alvarez. "I never really noticed it but now I know it's here, I'll look into it," said student Wendy Castillo.

The public may have to wait when or if aerogel will be available but in the meantime it is available for viewing at SMC.