Good Thinking

Super-buoyant material inspired by water striders

Tiny fibers in the new aerogel serve the same purpose as tiny hairs on the water strider's feet (Photo: Praveenp)
Tiny fibers in the new aerogel serve the same purpose as tiny hairs on the water strider's feet (Photo: Praveenp)
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Tiny fibers in the new aerogel serve the same purpose as tiny hairs on the water strider's feet (Photo: Praveenp)
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Tiny fibers in the new aerogel serve the same purpose as tiny hairs on the water strider's feet (Photo: Praveenp)

Aerogels are among the lightest solid materials in existence, and are created by replacing the liquid component of a gel with a gas – this results in their extremely low density, and has earned them the nickname of “frozen smoke.” Now, scientists have created a new type of aerogel that is inspired by the feet of the water strider. The material is reportedly so buoyant, that a boat made from one pound (454 grams) of it could carry about 1,000 pounds (454 kg) of cargo.

The aerogel was created by a team at the Helsinki University of Technology, and contains tiny fibers known as nano-fibrils, derived from the cellulose in plants. The presence of the fibers allows the aerogel to float using the same principles employed by the water strider’s long, skinny feet. Those feet are covered in tiny hairs that trap air, and that help spread the insect’s weight across the water, keeping it from breaking the surface tension.

Once commercialized, the aerogel could find use in things such as miniature military robots, environmental pollution sensors, children’s water toys or beach floats. It is also able to absorb large amounts of oil, which could make it well-suited to use in cleaning up oil spills.

Source: American Chemical Society

2 comments
windykites
I suggest that inflatable balloons or pontoons are a lot cheaper. In this context, what is lighter than air? The feet of the water strider are not the inspiration for using aerogel. These feet are obviously water repellent, like a lotus leaf. That is the inspiration. Aerogel floats because it is mostly air. I guess it is fairly expensive, and I have heard it can be dangerous to handle
Dan Linder
Lighter than air? A vacuum. If the spaces in the aerogel were filed with nothing, it could be lighter assuming the gel structure were less dense than the air it replaced, but then how strong?