Lego A/S likes to say that its ABS bricks inspire creative play in kids. For a University of Akron researchers, they also inspired a new way to make strong aerogel structures.
"We were inspired by the simplicity of Legos and used them as templates to develop load bearing aerogel structures that are stronger and more durable," reports Sadhan Jana, associate dean of research in UA's College of Engineering and Polymer Science in Akron, Ohio.
According to UA, "aerogels are created by combining a polymer with a solvent to form a gel, and then removing the liquid from the gel and replacing it with air."
What's left, according to UA, is a porous structure with very low density. But until now, those structures have been fairly weak, though aerogels are still used in things like thermal insulation for spacecraft and oceanic pipelines and sound barriers.
UA researchers found a way to engineer them better by emulating Legos.
"The Lego-like aerogel bricks are made from polymer struts with the interior space filled with aerogels. The aerogel inclusions provide desired thermal insulation, and the modular nature and strength are the main benefits of the bricks," UA said in a release announcing the breakthrough.
This apparently makes for a stronger structure — a lot stronger.
"If an 8,000-pound elephant was standing on a 12-inch-by-16-inch-by-16-inch aerogel brick structure, it would not break," Jana said in the university's announcement.
This may make aerogels useful in far more applications, the school says, and UA reports work already is underway for aerogel brick designs for better air filters and packing materials for cryogenic thermal insulation.
And, because the bricks can be put together similarly to Legos, they more easily can be used to make bigger things.
"Now," Jana says, "we can use our imagination to scale up depending on how big the application is, just by putting the Lego-bricks together."