New 'frozen smoke' may improve robotic surgery, energy storage

Mar 01, 2011
UCF associate professor Lei Zhai worked with fellow professors Saiful Khondaker, Sudipta Seal and Quanfang Chen. Credit: Jason Greene

A spongy substance that could be mistaken for packing material has the nanotechnology world buzzing.

University of Central Florida Associate Professor Lei Zhai and postdoctoral associate Jianhua Zou have engineered the world's lightest in such a way that it could be used to detect pollutants and , improve techniques and store energy more efficiently.

The new material belongs to the family of the lightest solid, also known by its technical name of or its common nickname of "frozen smoke."

Zhai's team worked with UCF professors Saiful Khondaker, Sudipta Seal and Quanfang Chen to create multiwalled carbon nanotubes (MWCNT) aerogel. Carbon nanotubes are so small that thousands fit on a single strand of human hair. And using the nanotubes instead of (major material in sand), the foundation for traditional aerogel, increases the materials' practical use.

For the first time, even the tiniest pressure change can be detected and tracked. Strips of MWCNT aerogel could be used in robotic fingers and hands to make them super sensitive and give them the ability to distinguish between holding a power saw or a scalpel – a distinction necessary for use in surgery.

Because the nanotubes have a large surface area , great amounts of energy could be stored in the aerogel, increasing the capacity of lithium batteries or supercapacitors used to store energy generated from renewable resources such as wind and the sun.

Combining the larger surface area and improved electrical conductivity is also important in developing sensors that can detect toxins capable of invading the food or water supply. And the same technique can be used to develop equipment capable of detecting even trace amounts of explosives.

"This has many potential applications and could really open up new areas to explore that we haven't even imagined yet," Zhai said.

A report detailing Zhai's work appears in the journal ACS Nano.

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4.7 / 5 (3) Mar 01, 2011
Interesting article but...

"or its common nickname of "frozen smoke.""

Outside of science articles for the popular press I have never heard them called that. Even many people who have little interest in science seem to know the term "aerogel". Or at least, that has been my impression. If one asks someone what "frozen smoke" is you would probably get far less recognition than for "aerogel", I'd wager.
not rated yet Mar 08, 2011
I agree with Sean, only silica aerogels are reffered to as frozen smoke. Even in that context, most silica aerogels are not referred to as frozen smoke, mainly just the plain silica ones. Those got good press with NASA, but their (unmodified) mechanical properties aren't good enough for hardly any applications, and when modified they no longer resemble frozen smoke. Carbon nanotube aerogels are solid black, not translucent or opaque at all.
On a similar note, none of the aerogels (carbon/silica/clay/cellulose) are similar in appearance or properties other than density, and therefore not used for the same applications. Carbon nanotube aerogels would be useful for this specific application because it is lightweight and has conductive properties that can be measured much like a dielectric or piezoelectric material. This is not standard of aerogels, and should not be accepted as a standard property.

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