Chinese scientists have created the world’s lightest material: A graphene aerogel that is seven times lighter than air, and 12% lighter than the previous record holder (aerographite). A cubic centimeter of the graphene aerogel weighs just 0.16 milligrams. The graphene aerogel is so light that an cube inch of the stuff can be balanced on a blade of grass, the stamen of a flower, or the fluffy seed head of a dandelion.
Most aerogels are produced using a sol-gel process, where a gel is dehydrated until only the aerogel remains. Some aerogels are also produced using the template method — aerographite, for example, is created by growing carbon on a lattice (template) of zinc oxide crystals — and then the zinc oxide is removed in an oven, leaving just the carbon aerogel. To create the graphene aerogel, however, researchers at Zhejiang University use a novel freeze-drying method. Basically, it seems like the researchers create a solution of graphene and carbon nanotubes, pour it into a mold, and then freeze dry it. Freeze drying dehydrates the solution, leaving single-atom-thick layers of graphene, supported by carbon nanotubes. The researchers say that there’s no limit to the size of the container: You could make a mini graphene aerogel using this process, or a meter-cubed aerogel if you wish.