NASA originally developed aerogels for work in space, but companies are finding plenty of uses for them here on Earth.
Their low thermal conductivity makes them superb insulators (See: Super-insulating aerogels promise to make homes more energy-efficient). But it's their extreme absorbency that might come to the rescue in an oil spill.
Out of efforts to create a superior kitty litter, an aerogel sponge that Aeroclay, Inc. hopes to commercialize could help clean up our big black messes. Comprised of polymers and clay, this aerogel is 96 percent air.
This particular one is oleophilic or oil-loving. Chemically, it hates water, loves oil: the perfect combination.
This video shows the aerogel soaking up oil floating on top of water. The oil does not react with the aerogel, making the oil usable after being squeezed out. Once emptied, the aerogel sponge can also be used again.
Eric Bland of Discovery reports:
By modifying the different polymers that keep aerogel from collapsing in on itself, scientists can program which liquids or particles the material picks up.
An aerogel sponge could clean up oil covering rocks and birds like a kitchen sponge, but AeroClay's executives primarily have another use in mind; stopping oil from reaching the shore in the first place.
Unfortunately, the oil-loving sponges aren't ready to be tested on the crude currently spilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
In regard to other sources of pollution, researchers at Arizona State University are studying the ability of aerogels to filter contaminants from industrial liquid and gas emissions. When shaped into granules, aerogels have increased surface area for absorbing whatever substance its polymer recipe was designed for. Exposing waste water, chemicals and gases to these granules could help draw various toxins out of the emissions.
David Schiraldi demonstrates below how he makes his aeroclay kitty litter in a blender.