NUS team develops a lightweight, super-absorbent, “green” aerogel from recycled cotton

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A team of researchers led by Associate Professor Hai Minh Duong and Professor Nhan Phan-Thien from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the National University of Singapore have developed a method to convert cotton-based fabric waste into aerogels that are ultralight, compressible, absorbent, and have low thermal conductivity.

The fabrication process is fast, cheap and environment-friendly; and can even be used to produce aerogels from old clothes. The findings of this novel technology were published in Colloids and Surfaces A in January 2018.

“This new eco-friendly cotton aerogel is a major improvement from the aerogel that our team had previously developed using paper waste,” Hai Minh Duong said. “It is highly compressible, hence storage and transportation costs could be greatly reduced.”

“Furthermore, these cotton aerogels can be fabricated within eight hours – this is nine times faster than our earlier invention and about 20 times faster than current commercial fabrication processes,” he added. “They are also stronger, making them more suitable for mass production.  While we have demonstrated novel application of the cotton aerogels for effective haemorrhage control and heat insulation, we will continue to explore new functions for this advanced material.”

The potential applications of the aerogels are wide-ranging, such as oil-spill cleaning, treatment of deep hemorrhagic wounds, and thermal insulation. To treat hemorrhages, the team designed pellets of the aerogel along with chitosan, a nature-derived polymer. The material can be injected through a clinical syringe to control bleeding in deep wounds.

The team also made a lightweight thermal jacket from the aerogel along with other commonly used fabrics to maintain the temperature of ice-slurry from 0.1 to 1.0 degrees Celsius for more than four hours. “The heat insulation property of the novel cotton aerogels can be applied to various consumer products, such as cooler bags to keep food items fresh,” professor Nhan Phan-Thien said in a statement. “We also foresee tremendous potential for other high-value applications, such as pipeline insulation and transportation of liquefied natural gas which needs to be stored at a low temperature.”

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