Superinsulating aerogel resists mechanical and thermal shocks



A new mechanically strong, double-pane ceramic aerogel made from hexagonal boron nitride that is resistant to high temperatures could be used in aerospace and industrial applications. The material, which boasts both a negative Poisson’s ratio and a negative thermal expansion coefficient, is very different to typical ceramic aerogels that are brittle and structurally degrade under thermal shocks.




Aerogels are exceptionally lightweight, composite materials containing more than 99% air. They can withstand high temperatures and are resistant to many chemicals. Most aerogels studied so far, however, are made from ceramic materials, such as silica, alumina and silicon carbide, and are thus very brittle.


Researchers recently made aerogels from graphene (a sheet of carbon just one atom thick). Here, the nanosheets of carbon stack up against each other, which makes the material incredibly strong. The nanosheets also divide the aerogel into nanosized cells through which air cannot pass. This means that the material has a thermal conductivity that is lower than that of air.

Sacrificial template
A team led by Xiangfeng Duan of the University of California, Los Angeles, has made a structurally similar aerogel from another 2D material, hexagonal boron nitride (hBN) by using a porous graphene aerogel as a sacrificial template. The researchers grew their aerogel using modified hydrothermal reduction and non-contact freeze-drying techniques. They used borazine as the hBN precursor and then grew hBN layers on top of the graphene structure using chemical vapour deposition.

Since hBN resists oxidation better than graphene and has a higher thermal stability as well, they are easily able to remove the graphene using a thermal etching process to leave behind the pure hBN aerogel.

The resulting material has a density as low as 0.1 mg/cm3 thanks to its highly porous structure with atomically thin cell walls (made of highly crystalline hBN), is superelastic (it can be compressed to 5% of its original length without breaking and fully recovers), and has an ultralow thermal conductivity (of around 2.4 mW/m∙K in vacuum and 20 mW/m∙K in air). It can also withstand sharp temperature shocks in that it can be heated to 900°C and then rapidly cooled to -198°C at a rate of 275°C per second over several hundred cycles while hardly losing any of its strength.

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