You may not have heard of them before, but I can tell you that Aerogels are cool. They are ultra-porous materials that are whipped up from silica gel or even aluminum oxide and may weigh just 15% more than air. Because they consist of so many microscopic air pockets, they are incredibly effective insulators.
And thanks to a new manufacturing process, new types of aerogel-type materials are now a step closer to becoming an integral part of mobile phones and tablets, which means that components that are normally heavy like batteries are about to lose a lot of weight.
Engineers at MIT and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) have now come up with a method of creating aerogel-type materials with a 3D printing process called microstereolithography. The end result may remind you of cotton candy from a structural point of view, but it is super stiff and strong and able to carry a load that is 160,000 times heavier than the material itself.
Interestingly, scientists have already been able to create material with aerogel-like properties using a wide variety of substances, including ceramic, metal and polymer. The advantage this new category of materials has over traditional aerogels lies in the fact that it is a 100 times stiffer. One goal is to create a new category of 100 kilometer-wide solar sails by around 2030. 3D printing machines operating in orbit would spin out sails that could reach Oort Cloud in reasonable time frame, powered by the solar wind.
Back on Earth, the prospect of mobile phones weighing slightly more than air would transform the race to shave off a few grams each year. We can now start looking forward to the marketing campaign between a 4-gram iPhone 12 and a 5-gram Galaxy S 11.
Tero Kuittinen is currently a Managing Director at Magid Associates, an Advisor for Next Games and a Strategist for Primesmith, a Finnish company that specializes in 3D imaging and printing apps