Graphene aerogel takes world’s lightest material crown


March 24, 2013

The graphene aerogel can be supported by blades of grass

The graphene aerogel can be supported by blades of grass

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Not even a year after it claimed the title of the world’s lightest material, aerographite has been knocked off its crown by a new aerogel made from graphene. Created by a research team from China’s Zhejiang University in the Department of Polymer Science and Engineering lab headed by Professor Gao Chao, the ultra-light aerogel has a density lower than that of helium and just twice that of hydrogen.

Although first created in 1931 by American scientist and chemical engineer, Samuel Stephens Kistler, aerogels have recently become a hotly contested area of scientific research. A “multiwalled carbon nanotube (MCNT) aerogel” dubbed “frozen smoke” with a density of 4 mg/cm3 lost its world’s lightest material title in 2011 to a micro-lattice material with a density of 0.9 mg/cm3. Less than a year later, aerographite claimed the crown with its density of 0.18 mg/cm3.

Now a new title-holder has been crowned, with the graphene aerogel created by Gao and his team boasting a density of just 0.16 mg/cm3. To create the record-setting material, Gao and his team turned to the wonder material du jour – graphene. Building on experience in developing macroscopic graphene materials, including one-dimensional graphene fibers and two-dimensional graphene films, the team decided to add another dimension and make a three-dimensional porous material out of graphene in an attempt to claim the record.

Instead of the sol-gel method and template-oriented methods generally used to create aerogels, Gao and his team used a new freeze-drying method that involved freeze-drying solutions of carbon nanotubes and graphene to create a carbon sponge that can be arbitrarily adjusted to any shape.

“With no need for templates, its size only depends on that of the container,” said Prof. Gao. “Bigger container can help produce the aerogel in bigger size, even to thousands of cubic centimeters or larger.”

The result is a material the team claims is very strong and extremely elastic, bouncing back after being compressed. It can also absorb up to 900 times its own weight in oil and do so quickly, with one gram of aerogel able to absorb up to 68.8 grams of organics per second – making it attractive for mopping up oil spills at sea.

“Maybe one day when oil spill occurs, we can scatter them on the sea and absorb the oil quickly,” said Gao. “Due to its elasticity, both the oil absorbed and the aerogel can be recycled.”

The researchers are examining other possible applications and say it also has potential as a phase change energy storage insulation material, catalytic carrier or efficient composite.

The graphene aerogel is detailed in a paper published in the journal Nature.

Source: Zhejiang University via

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

Great article, great subject. Such an awesome product I hope this material can be commercial produced for a reasonable price. This material has so many real world usages.

Michael Mantion

Fantastic! Hooray! Huzzah! The latest, lightest man made material.

Now, when will the practical benefits of these types of materials actually be seen?

I'm all for the advancement of knowledge through all varieties of research but at some point things like this need to show some form of practicality for the simple reason that, whether it be through government grants/subsidies or through corporate grants/subsidies the people end up paying for something that is of no use to them.

Case in point, 82 years of research into aero gels with no appreciable benefit, other than someone being able to claim the "lightest material" title from time to time.


I recall that 5 day coolers use aero-gel as the insulation... They are widely available in stores and are rated to keep ice frozen for 5 days.


Case in point not made, go and a) read Wikipedia to see lots of applications and, b) understand that materials like these are used in many applications, but often not referred to as "aerogel".

Another tax ranter, oh dear. Case in point will be that China will overtake all of us "smart-tax-fox" infested western countries in coming decades because instead of whining about every penny of taxes, they just do stuff.

"Stuff" being: Renewable energy. High speed rail. Excellence in education at all levels. Space exploration.

And we? We are leaning back and pointing fingers at their coal fired power plants and human right abuses until suddenly, even all that magically disappears there, and oups: We'll have coal fired power plants and human rights abuses. Things are on the move...


I would love to see a video of somebody playing with this material. Throwing it in the air. To get us a better idea of how much it really weighs.

Elijah Sherv

Feels like it is possible to make a airship out of this ultra light material.

Michael Lau

if it's less dense than helium, why is it sitting on the grass and not floating away?


@ Michael Lau, I was thinking the same thing. At twice the density of hydrogen and lower than that of helium, shouldn't the thing float in air? If that is the case then it would pretty good to make solid airships (airless airships?) , with no scarcity of helium issues. It would also be great to make lots of energy efficient vehicles that can easily climb up hills, etc.


VERY cool! I'd love to have a piece of this aerogel, just to poke around with and see how light it is.


I likewise find myself wondering if it could be used as lift mass... if it's between the mass of helium and hydrogen, and not as flamable as hydrogen... and not prone to leaking out of the envelope as both those gasses do....

Jennifer Linsky

use it in the hulls of oil tankers to prevent spills

Gavin Roe

Do you guys thinks graphene will by sold by the bales? At $500 per tonne?


While the graphene aerogel itself may be less dense than helium, it is also mostly space - space that is easily occupied by "stuff" (oil, as per the example in the story) and also one would presume (given the photograph) "air" - since it isn't floating away...

So, unless one of you thinks of a way to extract all the air and then seal the surface of your "solid" airship so it can't get back in, that clearly can't happen...


It doesn't float away, because a 10cm×10cm×10cm cube does not displace 1000 cubic centimetres of air: a lot of air stays in the pores of the 'sponge'.

If you surround it with a thin air-proof membrane and suck out the air, you have an object more like a balloon, i_f the aerogel is rigid enough to support the membrane against atmospheric pressure. Hydrogen and helium support it by balancing pressures, so they don't need rigidity. Aerogel being "extremely elastic, bouncing back after being compressed" suggests that it compresses easily, so the object will collapse.

A stiff material this light would have exciting uses!


Regarding those questioning why the aerogel is not floating away, here's my understanding of it:

The term "density" could be slightly misleading in this context. The figure of 0.16 mg/cm3 actually refers to the weight of Graphite used in producing 1 cm3 of the aerogel. This does not take in to account the weight of air that occupies the empty areas between the Graphite structure.

Carbon has a density of 2g/cm3 and is approximately 2000 times heavier than the surrounding air (depending on what form of carbon you take in to consideration). Essentially the aerogel uses 0.00016 g (equivalent to 0.00008 cm3 of Graphite) to fill a cm3 of space. This leaves 99.992% of the material empty to be filled by the surrounding air.

No matter how little material is used in making the structure, an open form structure filled with air would always be slightly heavier than the surrounding air due to the presence any trace of denser than air Carbon within it. The only way to make it lighter than air would be to produce a closed structure filled with a lighter than air substance or a vacuum.

Correct me if I'm wrong someone, it is Monday morning after all!


It would be nice to know at what rate it absorbs and releases liquids. If it could slow down the rate of release while not harming the rate of absorption too much, it might make a good fire retardant for fuel tanks in cars and aircraft.

Mel Tisdale

Putting it another way, the material should actually be weighed in a vacuum and you find its density to be roughly 1.18mg/cm3, i.e. slightly heavier than air.


Density of Helium:- At 0 oC, helium has a density of 0.1785 kg/m3 = 0.1785 g/L = 0.0001785 kg/dm3 = 0.0001785 kg/L = 0.0001785 g/cm3 = 0.0001785 g/mL.


@DaddyHoggy @Geometeer @secondclassmale In other words, it would float in vacuum?

Konsta Makkaroita

Can we use this stuff as insulation in houses, or is it still too expensive for that?

Joel Detrow

@Konsta Makkaroita Again, someone correct me if I'm wrong here but there isn't anything that would float in a vacuum. By definition a vacuum is full of nothing. Anything with any mass would be heavier than nothing.

The point being made is that if this substance could be used to fabricate a container strong enough to house a vacuum inside it, that structure could float in air providing the overall density of the structure was lower than that of the surrounding air.

I don't know what the overall strength of this structure is like but would guess that you would need to add some further, denser reinforcement to the structure and therefore increase the overall weight of it. A good starting point would appear to be a "balloon"/skin that used an aerogel lattice inside to maintain the shape, whilst the air inside is removed to produce a partial vacuum. Not that I'd have a clue where to start with fabricating that!


"World's lightest solid" is what the title should have been, and the whole concept of "density" should have been removed from the article.

As people have pointed out: Why is it not floating away if they say it is less dense than helium, and therefore naturally air?

The answer is that it is not really less dense as a material, but it becomes so when they measure how much mass exists in a certain cubic space, which is the same unit as density, hence the confusion. The difference is that in this material they are excluding the mass of the air in between, which is kind of "cheating" the density concept. If I get then bamboo sticks and tie them together to form a shape of a box, does its "density" suddenly drop to include all that space and then we exclude the mass of the air included?

It was just wrong to use the sentences: "...with a density of 4 mg/cm3 lost its world’s lightest material title in 2011 to a micro-lattice material with a density of 0.9 mg/cm3. Less than a year later, aerographite claimed the crown with its density of 0.18 mg/cm3." Otherwise, allow me to blow a gigantic soap bubble and then measure the soap molecules mass, deduct the air mass, and dividing the result by the total spherical size of the bubble.

I am pretty sure it would be much lower "density".

Samer Helmy

Yes, this could be used as insulation in many different applications. Apparently it is not crumbly or breakable, so it should stay in place and not cause any problems. It would be interesting to know about flammability. But of course this material contains very little fuel, so even if it were to flare up, it might not ignite anything else.


@ John Banister

Other than Beryllium's hideous toxicity, I don't see any real problems.


Aerogels are being used today, not just in a lab. A quick yahoo search shows its used in: Wetsuits Firefighter suits Skylights Windows Rockets Paints Cosmetics And though expensive its already being used to insulate houses in hard to reach corners and windows with great effect. It was tested in clothing for extreme cold climates, but turns out it insulates to well and people started overheating.

Only thing holding it back in market place is cost of manufacturing. So hopefully with research this or another type of aerogel will be made cheaply and plentifully.


@secondclassmale If you're interested in a vacuum based lighter than air craft, you might want to look here: In particular, the patent mentioned in post #11. Perhaps if there's a good way to use laser sintering to fabricate with beryllium it might become practical to make that double walled shell.

John Banister

I wonder what the load-bearing capabilities are. Thinking lighter-than-air aircraft components and aerospace usage...


Let's hope this new formulation is indeed much much easier to produce than aerogel.

We need super insulators that the common man can purchase and work with. Aerogel was never brought down to a production price that allowed the common person access to it. This needs to be different.

I hope we don't have to sit around 5 or more years before the stuff is approved and sold to the public.

Dan Lewis

Build a plane from this: glider, jet, prop, copter alone. Awesome for balloon use & maybe spacecraft or High speed racing speedboats, yachts & much much more Mass produce this.

Stephen Russell

Apart from its density, where can we find a list of its other physical properties?

Eugenio de los Reyes

Like most of the other posters, I just wish something like this could be manufactured cheaply enough to be useful, not just a "look, we did it" novelty. This one sounds hopeful though, not as fragile as most.

The Skud

Anything containing graphene isn't going to be cheap, folks. It is made in a lab - not the same as mass producing that material which is a whole other thing. Mass producing that as a feedstock for anything else will take a while I predict. By the time it has reached its application (cost prohibitive, so a limited number), you will have forgotten about it or you wouldn't notice it unless pointed out.

I mean, when was the last time you rode a lightweight carbon fiber bodied car? Lighter weight translates to better fuel consumption, brakes last longer, better handling, a slightly better chance not killing a pedestrian when you hit him, but we stick to some heavier cheaper steel alloy for our cars, because carbon fiber bodied cars are helluva expensive.

All kinds of precious metals are in your gadgets (laptops, smartphones) that you never going to buy in bulk (say kilograms), but in small amounts it is affordable. Be realistic about your expectations. Not everything is going to be for the average consumer.

Fretting Freddy the Ferret pressing the Fret

I'm just stunned, huge congratulations to China’s Zhejiang University from me. But would'nt it be cheaper to just mine this stuff, from the Upsidaisium mine on Mt. Flatten?

Dave B13

Hurray for Carbon!

Daniel Gregory

It is obviously not mass density, which most people are assuming. To me the figures being cited are bulk densities.

Mass density is what we all learn in our physics/chemistry classes. It depends on the composition and physical state, but it is a pure undivided substance basically.

When we start dividing up a material, we start introducing voids (that are filled with air as other commentators have stated) into the material. This changes the overall volume and we get an apparent density. Yet, we usually measure this under certain guidelines (some don't do that), then it is called bulk density.

Kyle Walton

I also had the idea of filling airships with this but I'm not the first one to post the idea. Oh well as long as somebody tries it. I wonder what the price is.

Also as for cleaning up oil spills how toxic is the material if an amount were to break off and get eaten by fish, whales, sharks, seaweed ect. It would be a shame if it was like those carbon nano tubes that went to the brains of fish and killed them then killed whatever ate the fish and so forth till some point that I don't remember.

Ben O'Brien

So saying it is lighter than helium is essentially meaningless.

Clare Love

I'd wonder how it would be if it's pores were filled and sealed with hydrogen. a semi trailer size lighter than air vehicle comes to mind. Just enclose the H2 filled sponge with a balloon....


As said by others, the lighter than Helium claim is meaningless. As for suggestions of filling a balloon with the Graphene sponge and filling the sponge with hydrogen/ or helium - why not just the balloon - no internal graphene sponge?? The


@ Rt1583:

There are plenty of practical benefits, but they're "too good". Like an engine that can go 10 times as far on half as much one in any industry anywhere wants that. Like actual cures for diseases...treatments make more money. Or genetically modified super foods...that can't reproduce outside a lab.

It's all about the o'mighty-dolla. The only reason the research is done at all is as a wool blanket to distract people from the fact that no research anywhere is being used in the ways it could be used, to the degree it could be used.

"Look, we made something even BETTER! Now don't pay attention to the fact that we have all this technology that we often aren't using AT ALL, let alone effectively, because we want to keep fleecing you all for as long as possible."

Aaron Eisenbarth

Wonder if the UAH team in Huntsville AL. could incorporate this material into one of their concrete canoes?


gona replace the air in my tyres wit it, no more flats for me :)

Gary McMurray

how about filling a 'balloon' made of a graphene skin with graphene aerogel, then REMOVING all the gases, this creates a vacuum, even hydrogen sinks in a vacuum, the aerogel provides the structure, to stop it imploding, if properly sealed nothing could get in through the graphene scale it up hey presto floating island.

Jonny Hardcore

Would this be good in tires?

Ian Mitko

It's basically some bubbles like you get in a bubble bath but made of a stronger and lighter material than the soap bubbles!!

If you blew it up into the air it would float away but as the graphene element is a very small percentage of the area taken up by the object then although it is lighter than air it is only lighter by a very small percentage.


I have thought that by using two different gas filled aerogels, that extremely large flying structures on the order of rigid airships, could be built. What I envisioned was an outer layer of gas tight composites surrounding a layer of sealed helium filled aerogels several meters thick. Which, in turn encloses a layer of sealed hydrogen filled aerogels, tens of meters thick, before transitioning back into sealed helium filled aerogels surrounding helium filled "Ballast Tank" gas bags used to adjust lift. If given a rigid internal framework, such a dirigible could be built strong enough to survive all but the fiercest storms an by insulating the hydrogen aerogels, would avoid the fate of the "Hindenberg" while taking advantage of hydrogen's greater lift capacity. Such an airship would never have to land and could fly 300 kmph or more

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