As far as aerogels go, most people who know anything about material science are familiar with their amazing properties. They’ve been around since the 1930s, after all, and are pretty well-known. But even those who know all about what aerogels can do might be surprised to learn that there’s now a new – and even more incredible – type of aerogel. It came about when a team of researchers combined an aerogel with cellulose and came up with a material that’s super-strong, flexible, amazingly absorbent, lightweight, and can even be crushed into a flat magnetic “nanopaper.” In short, it combines the best properties of cellulose (a natural compound) and aerogel (a manufactured material) to create a completely new kind of material with tons of possibilities.
The researchers were looking for a way to get around the characteristic stiffness and brittleness of aerogels. They accomplished that by soaking cellulose in a solution of two metal compounds and then freeze-drying it, removing all of the moisture to leave a very porous aerogel. But unlike other aerogels, this one is flexible enough to be folded in half. And when most of the air is crushed out of it, it becomes a flat piece of magnetic “nanopaper” that can support an astounding four hundred thousand pounds per square inch. And it’s able to absorb a respectable amount of water before being wrung out and popping right back into shape. But what’s most exciting about this awesome new discovery is that the components to make the cellulose aerogel are all relatively inexpensive, so we might soon see it in all kinds of new applications.