The term “aerogel” has been used with increasing frequency in recent years, and people’s understanding of aerogel has also been deepened. From knowing nothing about it to gradually realizing its advantages, especially after emphasizing the role of new materials strategy in the 13th Five-Year Plan, aerogel has become the focus of attention in advanced new materials.
At present, the research on aerogel in China mainly focuses on Boer Institute of Solid State Physics, Tongji University, National University of Defense Technology, Tsinghua University, Zhejiang University, Harbin Institute of Technology and so on. At the same time, the professional level of Chinese universities in the field of aerogel research and the ability of domestic enterprises to reduce the technological exploration of aerogel manufacturing costs have been constantly strengthened, and China has begun to march towards the world’s advanced level, entering the world’s advanced ranks.
In 1931, Kistler at Stanford University prepared aerogel by hydrolytic water glass, but it did not receive extensive attention due to the high production cost. In the 1980s, a number of Physicists in Europe began to study this new material, and in 1985 the Institute of Physics at the University of Wuerzburg in Germany organized the first “Aerogel International Symposium”. Research on aerogels resumed in the United States in the early 1990s.
Tongji University also began to study aerogel in the 1990s, which can be said to be one of the earliest research institutes in China to study aerogel. Aerogels are made up of more than 90 per cent air and less than 10 per cent solids. Aerogels are among the least dense solids in the world, with a density of just 3 kilograms per cubic metre. Aerogels exhibit many excellent physical and chemical properties and functions due to their special nanopore and network structures. Ni Xingyuan said, “The institute of Solid State Physics of Tongji University started its research on the application of aerogel’s physical properties. At present, most of the research on the use function of aerogel is an extension of the physical function. At present, the research on the function of aerogel in Tongji University focuses on the aspects of heat, optics, electricity, acoustics and mechanics (such as explosion protection and impact resistance), and some researches on chemical adsorption have also been carried out. “In terms of materials, we have studied a wide range of materials, including inorganic aerogels, organic aerogels and composite aerogels. In addition to silicon aerogels, which are the most common ones, carbon, sulfur, metal oxide and metal oxides, etc. Tongji University has dabled in most of these aspects.”
In its earliest applications, aerogels were widely used in aerospace and military fields. Due to some properties of aerogels, they became irreplaceable materials for space exploration. The Russian Space station Peace and the US Mars Pathfinder spacecraft were insulated with aerogels. At present, in addition to the aerospace field, aerogel can also be widely used in military industry, petrochemical, electric power, metallurgy, construction, clothing and other fields, especially as an important substitute for traditional thermal insulation materials.
Thermal insulation is currently a hot spot for aerogel applications. When the front side of aerogel is subjected to flame jets of more than 1000 degrees Celsius, the back side can still be touched by hand. This is due to the very low thermal conductivity and refractive index of aerogels, which are dozens of times better insulated than the best glass fibers.
At present, many enterprises in China are engaged in the development and promotion of aerogel, but the application of aerogel in the field of building materials has not been widely promoted. The main reason is that the price of aerogel felt is relatively high compared with existing insulation materials. Therefore, if there is no special requirement in the field of architecture, the designers and developers of buildings generally will not consider using aerogel blanket as insulation material.
Aerogels have comprehensive advantages over other insulation materials, “he said. Compared with other traditional thermal insulation materials, aerogel blanket has lower thermal conductivity and better thermal insulation performance than other materials. Moreover, under the same environmental conditions, the better the thermal insulation performance is, the more energy consumption of thermal insulation or thermal insulation will be significantly reduced. From the perspective of building structure, aerogel blanket will be thinner and lighter, which can expand a large space in the usable area of the building. At the same time, because the product is relatively light, it can reduce the concern about the load-bearing capacity of the building during the construction process. At the same time, aerogel composite products in sound insulation, fire, moisture and other aspects have their own excellent performance. Generally speaking, the cost performance of aerogel composite products is much higher than other thermal insulation materials. Ni Xingyuan pointed out that in the current architectural design and development, people’s understanding of aerogel composite products is not enough, the next step in the field of building materials to strengthen its publicity and promotion work.
Of course, from the point of view of aerogel production enterprises should consider to further reduce their production costs, from reducing the raw material cost of aerogel production and adjusting the production process of composite aerogel to exploit potential. In addition, the production cost of aerogel products will be further reduced if they are produced on a large scale. With the enhancement of people’s understanding and the reduction of product cost, aerogel will be applied in the construction field on a relatively large scale.
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