UCF associate professor Lei Zhai worked with fellow professors Saiful Khondaker, Sudipta Seal, and Quanfang Chen. Credit: Jason Greene
A spongy substance that could be mistaken for
packing material has the nanotechnology world buzzing.
Univ. of Central Florida Associate
Professor Lei Zhai
and postdoctoral associate Jianhua Zou have engineered the world’s lightest
carbon material in such a way that it could be used to detect pollutants and
toxic substances, improve robotic surgery techniques, and store energy more
The new material belongs to the family of the
lightest solid, also known by its technical name of aerogel or its common
nickname of “frozen smoke.”
Zhai’s team worked with UCF professors Saiful
Khondaker, Sudipta Seal, and Quanfang Chen to create multiwalled carbon nanotubes
(MWCNT) aerogel. Using carbon nanotubes instead of silica, the foundation for
traditional aerogel, increases the materials’ practical use.
For the first time, even the tiniest pressure
change can be detected and tracked. Strips of MWCNT aerogel could be used in
robotic fingers and hands to make them super sensitive and give them the
ability to distinguish between holding a power saw or a scalpel—a distinction
necessary for use in surgery.
Because the nanotubes have a large surface area ,
great amounts of energy could be stored in the aerogel, increasing the capacity
of lithium batteries or supercapacitors used to store energy generated from
renewable resources such as wind and the sun.
Combining the larger surface area and improved electrical
conductivity is also important in developing sensors that can detect toxins
capable of invading the food or water supply. And the same technique can be
used to develop equipment capable of detecting even trace amounts of
“This has many potential applications and
could really open up new areas to explore that we haven’t even imagined
yet,” Zhai said.
A report detailing Zhai’s work appears in the
journal ACS Nano.