Nav: Home

Researchers create ultra-lightweight ceramic material that withstands extreme temperatures

February 14, 2019

UCLA researchers and collaborators at eight other research institutions have created an extremely light, very durable ceramic aerogel. The material could be used for applications like insulating spacecraft because it can withstand the intense heat and severe temperature changes that space missions endure.

Ceramic aerogels have been used to insulate industrial equipment since the 1990s, and they have been used to insulate scientific equipment on NASA's Mars rover missions. But the new version is much more durable after exposure to extreme heat and repeated temperature spikes, and much lighter. Its unique atomic composition and microscopic structure also make it unusually elastic.

When it's heated, the material contracts rather than expanding like other ceramics do. It also contracts perpendicularly to the direction that it's compressed -- imagine pressing a tennis ball on a table and having the center of the ball move inward rather than expanding out -- the opposite of how most materials react when compressed. As a result, the material is far more flexible and less brittle than current state-of-the-art ceramic aerogels: It can be compressed to 5 percent of its original volume and fully recover, while other existing aerogels can be compressed to only about 20 percent and then fully recover.

The research, which was published today in Science, was led by Xiangfeng Duan, a UCLA professor of chemistry and biochemistry; Yu Huang, a UCLA professor of materials science and engineering; and Hui Li of Harbin Institute of Technology, China. The study's first authors are Xiang Xu, a visiting postdoctoral fellow in chemistry at UCLA from Harbin Institute of Technology; Qiangqiang Zhang of Lanzhou University; and Menglong Hao of UC Berkeley and Southeast University.

Other members of the research team were from UC Berkeley; Purdue University; Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; Hunan University, China; Lanzhou University, China; and King Saud University, Saudi Arabia.

Despite the fact that more than 99 percent of their volume is air, aerogels are solid and structurally very strong for their weight. They can be made from many types of materials, including ceramics, carbon or metal oxides. Compared with other insulators, ceramic-based aerogels are superior in blocking extreme temperatures, and they have ultralow density and are highly resistant to fire and corrosion -- all qualities that lend themselves well to reusable spacecraft.

But current ceramic aerogels are highly brittle and tend to fracture after repeated exposure to extreme heat and dramatic temperature swings, both of which are common in space travel.

The new material is made of thin layers of boron nitride, a ceramic, with atoms that are connected in hexagon patterns, like chicken wire.

In the UCLA-led research, it withstood conditions that would typically fracture other aerogels. It stood up to hundreds of exposures to sudden and extreme temperature spikes when the engineers raised and lowered the temperature in a testing container between minus 198 degrees Celsius and 900 degrees above zero over just a few seconds. In another test, it lost less than 1 percent of its mechanical strength after being stored for one week at 1,400 degrees Celsius.

"The key to the durability of our new ceramic aerogel is its unique architecture," Duan said. "Its innate flexibility helps it take the pounding from extreme heat and temperature shocks that would cause other ceramic aerogels to fail."

Ordinary ceramic materials usually expand when heated and contract when they are cooled. Over time, those repeated temperature changes can lead those materials to fracture and ultimately fail. The new aerogel was designed to be more durable by doing just the opposite -- it contracts rather than expanding when heated.

In addition, the aerogel's ability to contract perpendicularly to the direction that it's being compressed -- like the tennis ball example -- help it survive repeated and rapid temperature changes. (That property is known as a negative Poisson's ratio.) It also has interior "walls" that are reinforced with a double-pane structure, which cuts down the material's weight while increasing its insulating abilities.

Duan said the process researchers developed to make the new aerogel also could be adapted to make other ultra-lightweight materials.

"Those materials could be useful for thermal insulation in spacecraft, automobiles or other specialized equipment," he said. "They could also be useful for thermal energy storage, catalysis or filtration."
-end-
The research was partly supported by grants from the National Science Foundation.

University of California - Los Angeles

Related Spacecraft Articles:

Final images from Cassini spacecraft
Researchers are busy analysing some of the final data sent back from the Cassini spacecraft which has been in orbit around Saturn for more than 13 years until the end of its mission in September 2017.
New nano-barrier for composites could strengthen spacecraft payloads
The University of Surrey has developed a robust multi-layed nano-barrier for ultra-lightweight and stable carbon fibre reinforced polymers (CFRPs) that could be used to build high precision instrument structures for future space missions.
'Oumuamua is not an alien spacecraft
Early reports of the interstellar visitor 'Oumuamua's odd characteristics led some to speculate that the object could be an alien spacecraft, sent from a distant civilization to examine our star system.
NASA's TESS spacecraft starts science operations
NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite has started its search for planets around nearby stars, officially beginning science operations on July 25, 2018.
NASA spacecraft finds new type of magnetic explosion
Four NASA spacecraft have observed magnetic reconnection in a turbulent region of the Earth's outer atmosphere known as the magnetosheath, the planet's first line of defense against the intensity of the solar wind.
do spacecraft, newborns and endangered shellfish have in common?
Researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine have developed a microbial detection technique so sensitive that it allows them to detect as few as 50-100 bacterial cells present on a surface.
Promising sensors for submarines, mines and spacecraft
Researchers from the Physics Department of Moscow State University and their colleagues have discovered a mechanism that allows gas sensors, based on nanocrystalline metal oxides, to work at room temperature.
NASA'S OSIRIS-REx spacecraft slingshots past Earth
NASA's asteroid sample return spacecraft successfully used Earth's gravity on Friday to slingshot itself on a path toward the asteroid Bennu, for a rendezvous next August.
On the road to creating an electrodeless spacecraft propulsion engine
Experiments by researchers give clues about the behavior of plasma in different environments.
NASA spacecraft investigate clues in radiation belts
NASA's Van Allen Probes uncover new phenomena in our near-Earth environment with their unique double orbit.
More Spacecraft News and Spacecraft Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Climate Mindset
In the past few months, human beings have come together to fight a global threat. This hour, TED speakers explore how our response can be the catalyst to fight another global crisis: climate change. Guests include political strategist Tom Rivett-Carnac, diplomat Christiana Figueres, climate justice activist Xiye Bastida, and writer, illustrator, and artist Oliver Jeffers.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Speedy Beet
There are few musical moments more well-worn than the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. But in this short, we find out that Beethoven might have made a last-ditch effort to keep his music from ever feeling familiar, to keep pushing his listeners to a kind of psychological limit. Big thanks to our Brooklyn Philharmonic musicians: Deborah Buck and Suzy Perelman on violin, Arash Amini on cello, and Ah Ling Neu on viola. And check out The First Four Notes, Matthew Guerrieri's book on Beethoven's Fifth. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.