It looks like glass and feels like solidified smoke, but the most interesting features of the new silica aerogels made by UC Davis and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory researchers are too small to see or feel. Lighter than styrofoam, this strange material is riddled with pores just nanometers in size, leaving it 98 percent empty.
Water can soak into the material, but in the confined space the water molecules arrange themselves in unusual ways, said Subhash Risbud, professor of chemical engineering and materials science at UC Davis. For example, a lipid membrane can spread across a wet aerogel just as it does around a living cell.
Scientists studying such lipid membranes usually put them on a wafer of silicon or gold. Instead, the aerogel provides a wet cushion for the membrane, allowing it to have moisture on both sides and act more like a real cell in which membranes are studded with proteins. Researchers at Stanford University, led by engineering professor Curtis Frank and Risbud, recently patented the concept.
Andy Fell | UC Davis
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