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Aerographite: The lightest material on earth

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The breakthrough material can improve the range of electric cars by making Li-ion batteries lighter.

It's 75 times lighter than styrofoam. But resilient enough to retain its original form even after being completely squished. And it can soak up entire light rays.

Aerographite, the latest lab creation from scientists at Germany's Kiel University and the Hamburg University of Technology, weighs in at 0.2 milligrams per cubic centimeter, making it the lightest material on earth. The new material is four times lighter than the previous record-holder, a micro-lattice material that weighs 0.9 mg/cc. In comparison, the once heralded Aerogel, which weighs 3 mg per cubic cenimeters, now looks downright heavy.

But besides bragging rights, the material's unique properties has numerous game-changing applications. The researchers foresee it being used inside the electrodes of Li-ion batteries to reduce the amount of battery electrolyte that's needed and thus reducing the weight. The heftiness of electric car batteries has severely limited efforts to improve driving rang, a problem that has hampered widespread adoption of the technology. It can also be used to protect the sensitive instruments in satellites by absorbing vibration or to help purify water and air by absorbing pollutants.

To create the material, scientists took a powdered form of zinc oxide and heated it up to 900 degrees Celsius so it can crystalize. Next, the zinc oxide was used to make a kind of porous pill comprised of interweaving nano structues called tetrapods. The pill is then put into a reactor and heated up to 760 degrees Celsius as part of a process in which carbon-enriched steamed gas coats the zinc oxide with a graphite coating. Meanwhile, hydrogen is also introduced, which turns the zinc oxide into a gas that eventually evaporates. What's left behind is a tangled, tube-like carbon structure that's ultra-lightweight.

"Think of the Aerographite as an ivy-web, which winds itself around a tree. And then take away the tree," Rainer Adelung of Kiel University explains.

After running the material through a series of tests, scientists found that it can be compressed up to 95 percent and be pulled back to its original form without any damage and that it can even absorb light.

The scientific results were published as the title story in the scientific journal Advanced Materials on July, 3rd.

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure