A spongy substance that could be mistaken for packing material has the nanotechnology world buzzing.
University of Central Florida Associate Professor Lei Zhai and postdoctoral associate Jianhua Zou have engineered the world’s lightest carbon material in such a way that it could be used to detect pollutants and toxic substances, improve robotic surgery techniques and store energy more efficiently.
The new material belongs to the family of the lightest solid, also known by its technical name of aerogel or its common nickname of “frozen smoke.”
Zhai’s team worked with UCF professors Saiful Khondaker, Sudipta Seal and Quanfang Chen to create multiwalled carbon nanotubes (MWCNT) aerogel. Carbon nanotubes are so small that thousands fit on a single strand of human hair. And using the nanotubes instead of silica (major material in sand), the foundation for traditional aerogel, increases the materials’ practical use.
For the first time, even the tiniest pressure change can be detected and tracked. Strips of MWCNT aerogel could be used in robotic fingers and hands to make them super sensitive and give them the ability to distinguish between holding a power saw or a scalpel — a distinction necessary for use in surgery.