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
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 invention could be used for investigating diseases
such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis and for biological
Aerogels are made by taking a wet gel -- a meshwork
of molecules in liquid, such as water -- and removing
the water to leave a spongy structure. The first aerogels
were made in the 1930s by Samuel Kistler, and the
technology was further developed by Lawrence Hrubesh
and colleagues at the Lawrence Livermore National
Laboratory over 40 years later.
Silica aerogels also have many other applications
in fiber optics, insulation against sound or heat,
and miniature pumps for built-in refrigeration systems
in packaging, Risbud said.
The research project was part of the Center on
Polymer Interfaces and Macromolecular Assemblies,
a collaboration between Stanford, UC Davis, UC Berkeley
and the IBM Almaden Research Center. Risbud also continues
to collaborate with Joe Satcher and John Poco of the
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on silica aerogels.
...read the wave
• Subhash Risbud, Chemical Engineering and Materials
Science, (530) 752-0474, firstname.lastname@example.org