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Air is 6 times denser than aerographite but looking at pictures or videos presenting the material, I see it resting on tables rather than raising to the ceiling.
Also, since the material is made of carbon nanotubes, I assume there are empty spaces between those tubes. Why are those spaces not occupied by air?

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up vote 22 down vote accepted

Your two questions are connected. There is a huge amount of empty space in aerographene (and other aerogels). However this space is filled with air, and precisely because it is filled with air it doesn't float.

This is because the density reported is the density the material would have if the air was sucked out (i.e. in vacuum), and it is so low because the material is extremely porous. But in the atmosphere, the air fills the immense empty space. The effective volume of air displaced by aerographite now takes up only the volume of the constituent nanotubes of aerographite, which is extremely small. The tiny weight of this displaced air presents the buoyant force, which is not sufficient to counter the weight of the structure. Effectively because it is so porous the aerographite's density increases when not in vacuum.

On the other hand, given that graphene is known to be non-permeable for atoms, if you sucked the air out of aerographene and encased it in graphene, and if outside air didn't squish the whole thing so that it's density surpassed that of air, than the resulting balloon might float.

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How would filling the aerographene with air prevent it from floating? Its density is still lesser than air. – udiboy1209 Jul 14 '13 at 17:55
Aerographite would effectively displace the volume of air equal to the sum of volumes of all nanotubes comprising the aerographite (everything else would get filled air). The buoyant force then would be equal to the weight of air occupying that volume. – mgphys Jul 14 '13 at 18:27
This would be less than the weight of the structure, especially considering the dense composition of the nanotubes out which the aerographite is composed. In other words it wouldn't float, as the whole structure is denser than air. – mgphys Jul 14 '13 at 18:29
@udiboy It's the vacuum that floats, not the hard stuff. It's a common misconception that a vacuum doesn't float ... if you can somehow encapsulate it that is. – Christian Jul 14 '13 at 21:48
An analogy: Do steel sheets float? If you form them into an aircraft carrier? if you fill the aircraft carrier with water? – DJohnM Aug 28 '13 at 19:23

What follows is very much the same as mgphys' answer, but I'm going to pedantic about what I mean.

So imagine that

  1. I manufacture a substantial body of areographene, and then carefully slice out of it a rectangular prism that is $h$ by $l$ by $w$ in size. This gives a volume for the material of $V = h l w$.

  2. A put a analytic balance in a vacuum chamber and careful measure the mass $M$ of the test sample. Now I calculate a figure for the bulk density $\rho_\mathrm{bulk} = M/V$ which will be rather less than the density of air. This is the kind of measurement that people mean when they say that areogels and areographene are less dense than air.

  3. However, if I retrieve my sample and look at it under a microscope I will see that is has a fine scaled structure in which filaments and sheets of graphene do not fill the volume of the material but instead form an open lattice work. So the real volume of graphene is not $V$ at all!

  4. If I choose a liquid that will not damage the material I could carefully measure the volume $v$ actually occupied by the graphene using Archimedes' method.

  5. With that I calculate $\rho_\mathrm{detail} = M/v$ which will be higher than the density of air. Now, because the air can move into the spaces between the filaments and sheets the volume of air displaced by the sample is $v$, not $V$ and the density we have to use to determine if it will float is $\rho_\mathrm{detail}$.

This is also why mgphys states that if we were to wrap up the sample with a thin, non-permeable membrane while in vacuum (and that membrane held, and the sample doesn't get crushed) it could float.

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For 4. wouldn't that depend on the liquid you're using? I assume something like liquid helium would occupy small empty spaces that would not be occupied by water because the size of a molecule of H20 is larger than that of a helium atom. This would mean that you can only find an upper bound to the volume occupied by the graphene. – Youcha Jul 15 '13 at 14:51
To some degree yes, but the micro structure of these foams is pretty big on the scale of molecules so this would be a minor adjustment. – dmckee Jul 15 '13 at 15:03

The density measurement was done in air, not vacuum.

On page 24 of the Supporting Materials document it states:

Determination of masses and densities:

The dimensions of Aerographite specimens had been determined by light microscopy. Mass of samples had been measured on standard atmospheric conditions with a Saratorius MC5 microbalance (Capacity / Readability: 5.1 g x 1 μg; Repeatability: ± 1 micrograms).

(emphasis added)

This means that the weight (and therefore the density) did not take into account the buoyancy effect of the surrounding air. The actually density is the published value PLUS the density of air.

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Very nice Peter. Different crystal structures can actually make the density enormously different. Do you have any sources for your hypothesis, or is it just guessing? – Ali Jul 15 '13 at 20:58
@Ali see bottom of post for source. – PeterVermont Aug 21 '13 at 14:47

protected by Qmechanic Jul 15 '13 at 20:44

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