Incredibly lightweight and durable ceramic aerogel could protect future spacecraft

Researchers from UCLA and partners from eight other institutions have created a new material that is a lightweight aerogel made of ceramic that is very durable. The material is so durable that it could one day be used in some of the most extreme conditions known to man, such as to protect spacecraft from heat during re-entry to the Earth's atmosphere. Ceramic aerogels have been used for such purposes in the past.

However, the team says that the new aerogel they have created is much more durable after exposure to extreme heat and major temperature changes seen in space missions than previous aerogels. The material has a unique atomic composition and structure that make it unusually elastic.

When the material is heated, it contracts rather than expanding as most ceramics do. Another unique property of the new material is that is contracts perpendicularly to the direction that it's compressed. The scientists say you can think of that as if a tennis ball moved inward rather than expanding out when pressed onto a table.

That allows the material to be far more flexible and less brittle than current ceramics. The material can be compressed to 5% of its original volume and recover fully. By comparison, other aerogels can only be compressed to about 20% of their original volume and still recover.

The material is made using thin layers of boron nitride, which is a ceramic material with atoms connected in hexagon patterns. The team says that after being stored for a full week at 1,400-degrees Celsius, the material had lost less than 1% of its mechanical strength.