TEM Image of Aerographite

Recently, I was shown this article regarding a new material being developed dubbed Aerographite. It seems to fall in the same category as aerogels where you create a network of carbon to develop a macroscale material that is very strong and very light. Aerographite is a network of woven carbon tubes that is being touted as the world’s lightest material.

What caught my eye wasn’t the specifications of the material, but the applications for it and the conclusions that people were jumping to. It reminded me of how a couple of years ago, Yi Cui developed his silicon nanotube battery anodes and everyone was claiming that devices would last 10 times longer when running on a battery. These articles, for the most part, seem to miss the fact that while these material advances seem huge on a lab scale specimen, they most likely have trouble scaling to production levels. The raw material specifications don’t take into account things like packaging when it comes to a full battery system, for example.

The aerographite article claims that the applications of this type of material are limitless and that it would revolutionize filtration systems and energy storage. The article made no mention how much of the material was produced and unfortunately I do not have access to the original paper to check this information. This is significant because of a similar material advancement in the last couple of decades. Carbon nanotubes (CNT) came into prominence in the 1990s and were seen as the solution for building a space elevator because of their tensile strength. However, CNTs ran into the issue of scalability for a project that size and we still don’t have a space elevator. It is very difficult to produce very long nanotubes and I see this aerographite as having a similar issue. While it is true that there are numerous applications, articles such as this one make it sound like those revolutions are just around the corner. 

What people must realize is that materials innovations take approximately 20 years to get from the lab to market. It is a very slow process and many of those “limitless” applications may never come to fruition. So the next time you read a similar article, appreciate the hard work the scientists have put in and the significance of the milestone, but please keep in mind that all the world’s problems are not solved and there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to get through the slow process of material innovation.

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I never got a chance to post about this yesterday, but wow. This news is just as big if not bigger than the news of when Scaled Composites successfully won the Ansari X Prize. What this means is a fundamental shift in space flight from the public sector to the private sector. President Obama announced earlier this year of his vision that private industry will be relied upon to ferry cargo and potentially astronauts to and from space. In only a couple of months, not years, the proof of concept of this vision has occurred.

SpaceX was successfully able to put a mock-up of its Dragon capsule into orbit. The Dragon capsule will be able to ferry cargo and/or astronauts to Low Earth Orbit and the International Space Station. This means less of a burden placed on NASA and the taxpayers and more room for quick, agile innovations in space travel technology.

This news also comes at a wonderful time for SpaceX’s founder, Elon Musk. His other major startup, Tesla Motors, had great news a couple of weeks ago where they purchased the NUMMI plant in Fremont, California. This plant allows Tesla to expand its production capabilities significantly and be able to decrease the price of its cars due to economies of scale. In addition, Tesla is poised to go IPO in the near future. Unfortunately, all this success for Elon Musk’s business life doesn’t translate over to his personal life.