How Silica Aerogels are Made

The discussion below relies upon the following terms:

Hydrolysis:

The reaction of a metal alkoxide (M-OR) with water, forming a metal hydroxide (M-OH).

Condensation:

A condensation reaction occurs when two metal hydroxides (M-OH + HO-M) combine to give a metal oxide species (M-O-M). The reaction forms one water molecule.

Sol:

A solution of various reactants that are undergoing hydrolysis and condensation reactions. The molecular weight of the oxide species produced continuously increases. As these species grow, they may begin to link together in a three-dimensional network.

Gel Point:

The point in time at which the network of linked oxide particles spans the container holding the Sol. At the gel point the Sol becomes an Alcogel.

Alcogel (wet gel):

At the gel point, the mixture forms a rigid substance called an alcogel. The alcogel can be removed from its original container and can stand on its own. An alcogel consists of two parts, a solid part and a liquid part. The solid part is formed by the three-dimensional network of linked oxide particles. The liquid part (the original solvent of the Sol) fills the free space surrounding the solid part. The liquid and solid parts of an alcogel occupy the same apparent volume.

Supercritical fluid:

A substance that is above its critical pressure and critical temperature. A supercritical fluid possesses some properties in common with a liquids (density, thermal conductivity) and some in common with gases. (fills its container, does not have surface tension).

Aerogel:

What remains when the liquid part of an alcogel is removed without damaging the solid part (most often achieved by supercritical extraction). If made correctly, the aerogel retains the original shape of the alcogel and at least 50% (typically >85%) of the alcogel’s volume.

Xerogel:

What remains when the liquid part of an alcogel is removed by evaporation, or similar methods. Xerogels may retain their original shape, but often crack. The shrinkage during drying is often extreme (~90%) for xerogels.

Sol-Gel Chemistry

The formation of aerogels, in general, involves two major steps, the formation of a wet gel, and the drying of the wet gel to form an aerogel. Originally, wet gels were made by the aqueous condensation of sodium silicate, or a similar material. While this process worked well, the reaction formed salts within the gel that needed to be removed by many repetitive washings (a long, laborious procedure). With the rapid development of sol-gel chemistry over the last few decades, the vast majority of silica aerogels prepared today utilize silicon alkoxide precursors. The most common of these are tetramethyl orthosilicate (TMOS, Si(OCH3)4), and tetraethyl orthosilicate (TEOS, Si(OCH2CH3)4). However, many other alkoxides, containing various organic functional groups, can be used to impart different properties to the gel. Alkoxide-based sol-gel chemistry avoids the formation of undesirable salt by-products, and allows a much greater degree of control over the final product. The balanced chemical equation for the formation of a silica gel from TEOS is:

Si(OCH2CH3)4 (liq.) + 2H2O (liq.) = SiO2 (solid) + 4HOCH2CH3 (liq.)

The above reaction is typically performed in ethanol, with the final density of the aerogel dependent on the concentration of silicon alkoxide monomers in the solution. Note that the stoichiometry of the reaction requires two moles of water per mole of TEOS. In practice, this amount of water leads to incomplete reaction, and weak, cloudy aerogels. Most aerogel recipes, therefore, use a higher water ratio than is required by the balanced equation (anywhere from 4-30 equivalents).

Catalysts

The kinetics of the above reaction are impractically slow at room temperature, often requiring several days to reach completion. For this reason, acid or base catalysts are added to the formulation. The amount and type of catalyst used play key roles in the microstructural, physical and optical properties of the final aerogel product.

Acid catalysts can be any protic acid, such as HCl. Basic catalysis usually uses ammonia, or ammonia buffered with ammonium fluoride. Aerogels prepared with acid catalysts often show more shrinkage during supercritical drying and may be less transparent than base catalyzed aerogels. The microstructural effects of various catalysts are harder to describe accurately, as the substructure of the primary particles of aerogels can be difficult to image with electron microscopy. All show small (2-5 nm diameter) particles that are generally spherical or egg-shaped. With acid catalysis, however, these particles may appear “less solid” (looking something like a ball of string) than those in base-catalyzed gels.

As condensation reactions progress the sol will set into a rigid gel. At this point, the gel is usually removed from its mold. However, the gel must be kept covered by alcohol to prevent evaporation of the liquid contained in the pores of the gel. Evaporation causes severe damage to the gel and will lead to poor quality aerogels

Single-Step vs. Two-Step Aerogels

Typical acid or base catalyzed TEOS gels are often classified as “single-step” gels, referring to the “one-pot” nature of this reaction. A more recently developed approach uses pre-polymerized TEOS as the silica source. Pre-polymerized TEOS is prepared by heating an ethanol solution of TEOS with a sub-stoichiometric amount of water and an acid catalyst. The solvent is removed by distillation, leaving a viscous fluid containing higher molecular weight silicon alkoxy-oxides. This material is redissolved in ethanol and reacted with additional water under basic conditions until gelation occurs. Gels prepared in this way are known as “two-step” acid-base catalyzed gels. Pre-polymerized TEOS is available commercially in the U.S. from Silbond Corp. (Silbond H-5).

These slightly different processing conditions impart subtle, but important changes to the final aerogel product. Single-step base catalyzed aerogels are typically mechanically stronger, but more brittle, than two-step aerogels. While two-step aerogels have a smaller and narrower pore size distribution and are often optically clearer than single-step aerogels.

Aging and Soaking

When a sol reaches the gel point, it is often assumed that the hydrolysis and condensation reactions of the silicon alkoxide reactant are complete. This is far from the case. The gel point simply represents the time when the polymerizing silica species span the container containing the sol. At this point the silica backbone of the gel contains a significant number of unreacted alkoxide groups. In fact, hydrolysis and condensation can continue for several times the time needed for gelation. Failure to realize, and to accommodate this fact is one of the most common mistakes made in preparing silica aerogels. The solution is simple, patience. Sufficient time must be given for the strengthening of the silica network. This can be enhanced by controlling the pH and water content of the covering solution. Common aging procedures for base catalyzed gels typically involve soaking the gel in an alcohol/water mixture of equal proportions to the original sol at a pH of 8-9 (ammonia). The gels are best left undisturbed in this solution for up to 48 hours.

This step, and all subsequent processing steps, are diffusion controlled. That is, transport of material into, and out of, the gel is unaffected by convection or mixing (due to the solid silica network). Diffusion, in turn, is affected by the thickness of the gel. In short, the time required for each processing step increases dramatically as the thickness of the gel increases. This limits the practical production of aerogels to 1-2 cm-thick pieces.

After aging the gel, all water still contained within its pores must be removed prior to drying. This is simply accomplished by soaking the gel in pure alcohol several times until all the water is removed. Again, the length of time required for this process is dependent on the thickness of the gel. Any water left in the gel will not be removed by supercritical drying, and will lead to an opaque, white, and very dense aerogel.

Supercritical Drying

The final, and most important, process in making silica aerogels is supercritical drying. This is where the liquid within the gel is removed, leaving only the linked silica network. The process can be performed by venting the ethanol above its critical point (high temperature-very dangerous) or by prior solvent exchange with CO2 followed by supercritical venting (lower temperatures-less dangerous) It is imperative that this process only be performed in an autoclave specially designed for this purpose (small autoclaves used by electron microscopists to prepare biological samples are acceptable for CO2 drying). The process is as follows. The alcogels are placed in the autoclave (which has been filled with ethanol). The system is pressurized to at least 750-850 psi with CO2 and cooled to 5-10 degrees C. Liquid CO2 is then flushed through the vessel until all the ethanol has been removed from the vessel and from within the gels. When the gels are ethanol-free the vessel is heated to a temperature above the critical temperature of CO2 (31 degrees C). As the vessel is heated the pressure of the system rises. CO2 is carefully released to maintain a pressure slightly above the critical pressure of CO2 (1050 psi). The system is held at these conditions for a short time, followed by the slow, controlled release of CO2 to ambient pressure. As with previous steps, the length of time required for this process is dependent on the thickness of the gels. The process may last anywhere from 12 hours to 6 days.

At this point the vessel can be opened and the aerogels admired for their intrinsic beauty.

The graphic below shows the process conditions for both the carbon dioxide substitution/drying process and the alcohol drying process:

Supercritical Drying Processes

Typical Recipes

Single-Step Base Catalyzed Silica Aerogel:

This will produce an aerogel with a density of approx. 0.08 g/cm3. The gel time should be 60-120 minutes, depending on temperature.

Mix two solutions:

o Silica solution containing 50 mL of TEOS, 40 mL of ethanol

o Catalyst solution containing 35 mL of ethanol, 70 mL of water, 0.275 mL of 30% aqueous ammonia, and 1.21 mL of 0.5 M ammonium fluoride.

Slowly add the catalyst solution to the silica solution with stirring.

Pour the mixture into an appropriate mold until gelation.

Process as described above.

Two-Step Acid-Base Catalyzed Silica Aerogel:

This will produce an aerogel with a density of approx. 0.08 g/cm3. The gel time should be 30-90 minutes, depending on temperature.

Mix two solutions:

o Silica solution containing 50 mL of precondensed silica (Silbond H-5, or equivalent), 50mL of ethanol

o Catalyst solution containing 35 mL of ethanol, 75 mL of water, and 0.35 mL of 30% aqueous ammonia.

Slowly add the catalyst solution to the silica solution with stirring.

Pour the mixture into an appropriate mold until gelation.

Process as described above.


Special thanks to the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory’s Microstructured Materials Group for permission to use this paper.

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