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Silica Aerogel: Will Siachen Woes End for Our Soldiers Now?

Comparison of the weight between an Aerogel material sample and a collection of 3 dimes, 1 nickle and 1 penny.

Comparison of the weight between an Aerogel material sample and a collection of 3 dimes, 1 nickle and 1 penny.(NASA)

Our soldiers guard our borders in the world’s highest peaks at Siachen braving the freezing cold weather and avalanches which submerge most of them fatally.

With the incident of recent two avalanches still fresh in mind, scientists at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (ISRO), Thiruvananthapuram developed the world’s lightest synthetic material called ‘silica aerogel’, which is the lightest synthetic material ever made.

Silica Aerogel is so light in weight that it can even be placed on a flower head without destroying it. But its thermal resistance is excellent that it can be used as filler in soldiers’ uniforms. Aerogels were first invented in the 1930s, NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland has already made inroads into its usages in space applications with ISRO taking cue and making the new material for use in Siachen glacier.

The material can be used in space too and scientists are mulling its usage in insulating rocket engines. Also known as “Frozen Smoke”, it can soon replace winter clothing with light weight clothing. If painted on windows, it can work as insulator from icy winds in storms and in Antarctica too.

Since the aerogel has 99% air, it is being slated for use on ISRO’s next mission to the moon called Chandryaan-2. The negative properties of the material include its brittle and fragile nature which scientists are trying to address now to make it tough and resilient.

Aerogels are among the lightest solid materials known to man, created by combining a polymer with a solvent to form a gel, and then removing the liquid from the gel and replacing it with air. Aerogels are extremely porous and very low in density and considered one of the finest insulation materials available. “That is the key step that makes an aerogel different from other porous materials,” says Mary Ann Meador, a researcher at Glenn. “Maintaining the gel structure is the most important thing.”

 

The Glenn team is currently working on a NASA project called the Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator, an inflatable reentry vehicle that is folded and stowed inside a launch vehicle. Prior to entering the atmosphere, the HIAD is inflated and becomes rigid. This helps the spacecraft slow down, safely descend and land on Earth, Mars, or any other planet that has an atmosphere.

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