A team of Kansas State University researchers has patented a new, more cost effective way to make a gel that can be used in oil & gas processing insulation, general building and vacuum insulation, electrochemical double layer supercapacitors, fuel cell catalysts, general catalysts, water filtration systems, cosmetics, acoustic damping, and perhaps as a net to capture fine cometary dust.
K-State physics professor Christopher Sorensen was the lead researcher for carbon soot aerosol gels. The product, which is officially known as an aerosol gel, is a low density, high surface area gel formed in a gas. The aerogels received U.S. Patent
7,691,909 and are available for licensing from the Kansas State.
“If you take a gaseous mixture of acetylene and oxygen and blow it up in a chamber, you get a cloud of smoke,” Sorensen said. “But if you leave it alone for a couple of minutes the nanoparticles of carbon smoke link together to form a lacey network that spans the chamber. It looks like the darkest, blackest angel food cake you’ve ever seen.”
When studying soot formation in flames about 12 years ago, Sorensen said he and a graduate student initially discovered that clouds of particles in a gas — also known as aerosols — can form a gel.
“When I first saw our pictures of gelled soot in a flame, I knew I had a big fish,” Sorensen said of the discovery’s magnitude. To that point, such gels had only been formed in liquids, much like the process used to make gelatin, he said.
Aerosol gels can be used as thermal or sound insulation, much like plastic foam. The material also has potential applications in electrochemical double layer supercapacitors, as fuel cell or general catalyst supports, or in water filtration systems. Sorensen has already been contacted by interested companies and is pursuing grants to further develop the material outside the laboratory setting.
“It is important to point out that this high-tech material, that could have a wide variety of applications, is the fruit of pure, curiosity-driven science,” he said.
The new material is similar to an existing product called aerogels, which is made in the liquid phase, Sorensen said. The last step in the process to make aerogels is an intense, high-pressure drying step that removes moisture. That latter step — which also can be quite costly — isn’t needed with Sorensen’s aerosol gel product, which he hopes will be an advantage when it comes to the commercialization of the material.
“I take great pride in the fact that there is only one place in the world that gels aerosols and that’s right here in good, ol’ Manhattan, Kan.,” Sorensen said.
K-State physics professor Amit Chakrabarti was instrumental in helping the research team understand the experimental conditions, and former K-State graduate students Rajan Dhaubhadel and Corey Gerving performed much of the requisite lab work. They are all listed on the patent, which was granted April 6 by the U.S. Patent Office.
FIGS. 1-3 from U.S. Patent
7,691,909 are TEM photographs of the acetylene-, ethylene-, and propane-derived gel products, respectively. These photographs illustrate that the carbon monomers are graphitic in nature. Acetylene and ethylene products both have monomers with typical sizes of about 60 nanometers.
The Kansas State discovery provides a novel method for producing porous materials with high specific surface area and extremely low density has been discovered. Representing a vastly different approach to synthesis of ultralow density materials compared to the widely used sol-gel method, the newly discovered process involves the gelation of nanoparticles in the aerosol phase to create a material that has been given the name “aerosol gel”.
The unique, gas-phase nanoparticle synthesis method used in this process allows the input precursors to aggregate and gel very quickly, thus producing this new material on a very short timeframe. So far, aerosol gels of silica and carbon have been produced that have very similar properties to that of silica and carbon aerogels. These materials have densities as low as 2.5 mg/cc, surface areas as large as 400 m2/g, very low thermal conductivity, and variable electrical conductivity.
Since the formation of the aerosol gels is made in the gas-phase, there is no need for the expensive, difficult, and time-consuming supercritical drying process inherent in the sol-gel production of commercial aerogel materials. The aerosol gel production method is also predicted to be capable of synthesis of a wider array of low-density, high porosity materials, unlike the sol-gel counterpart which is limited by solution thermodynamics.
Interested parties should contact: National Institute for Strategic Technology Acquisition and Commercialization (NISTAC)
2005 Research Park Circle Manhattan, KS 66502
Tel: 785-532-3900 Fax: 785-532-3909
E-Mail: [email protected]
More information about carbon soot aerosol gels is available at