Lightest Material on Earth Could Mop up Oil Spills: Uses for the Graphene Sponge

First Posted: Mar 25, 2013 01:47 PM EDT

Researchers have created a new substance that is now the lightest material on Earth. Known as graphene aerogel, the substance is less dense than helium and could potentially be used to clean up oil spills.

Aerogel itself, though, is nothing new. It was first created in 1931 by an American scientist who used silicon dioxide. It was consequently named "frozen smoke." Then, in 2011, nickel aerogel was created with a density of a mere .9 mg/cubic centimeter--the lightest material at that time. Scientists continued to work away until they eventually created a material, named aerographite, which had a density of a mere .18 mg/cubic centimeter.

Dotted with pores and containing pockets of air, the newest substance is even more impressive. It has a density of a mere .16 mg/cubic centimeter, officially making it the lightest material.

In order to actually make this substance, researchers had to utilize some high-tech freeze drying that could yield graphene sponges of arbitrary size--some were as big as tennis balls while others were as small as a bottle stopper.

"It's somewhat like large space structures such as big stadiums, with steel bars as supports and high strength film as walls to achieve both lightness and strength," said Sun Haiyan, one of the researchers who helped create the new material, in an interview with "Here, carbon nanotubes are supports and graphene is the wall."

The process itself could potentially be scaled up to an order of feet--convenient considering what the material could potentially be used for. The aerogel is extremely resilient, and can potentially mop up 900 times its weight in oil. It could be indispensible as a clean-up sponge when major oil spill disasters occur, such as the one in the Gulf of Mexico.

That said, there could be many other applications for the new material. Scientists are still investigating its prospects and its potential for other uses.

The new materials and its properties are details in the journal Nature.

Want to see images of the material? Check them out here.

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