Fire starter and dry ice sit atop the aerogel on postdoc researcher Bohdan Senyuk’s hand. (photo by Blaise Fleury)

We’ll Drink to That

If you invented something that could morph into fireproof clothing, extraordinary insulation or a potential habitat for Mars colonies, wouldn’t you expect it to win
an award?

CU physicists who invented transparent aerogel and nabbed the top honor in NASA’s 2018 iTech competition: front row, left to right: Qingkun Liu, Andrew Hess, Ivan Smalyukh, Joshua De La Cruz and Varun Chandrasekar. Back row, left to right: Andrew Funk, Vladyslav Cherpak, Eldho Abraham, Blaise Fleury and Bohdan Senyuk. (photo by Qingkun Liu)

A group of talented CU physicists invented the first transparent, heat-resistant aerogel that is also earth-friendly. Professor Ivan Smalyukh and his researchers used beer wort—a brewery waste liquid—to invent the thin, flexible aerogel film with myriad applications, including spacesuits, vessels and potentially to retrofit glass windows in homes and skyscrapers with aerosol sheets to reduce heat loss. “It’s not often new technologies…are both cheap and environmentally friendly, so this is really exciting,” said technical team leader Blaise Fleury.

The aerogel’s intricate nanoparticle composition results in a substance 100 times lighter than glass that is nearly impervious to heat and has a uniform lattice pattern that light easily penetrates. You could literally coat your hand with aerogel and light a fire in your palm without feeling a thing.

For their breakthrough invention, Smalyukh’s team won NASA’s 2018 iTech competition, a prestigious national contest that recognizes technical feasibility, the impact on future space exploration, humanitarian benefits and commercialization potential.

“Window inefficiency is a challenging problem, with the global area of windows comparable to the size of Portugal,” Smalyukh said, “but our team…is working hard to solve it by developing approaches for scalable production of transparent aerogels.”

—Carol Brock