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Thursday, November 3, 2016

Gels are AMAZING! (and a little bit about Sodium Polyacrylate)

A few days ago, I did an experiment with water gel powder (sodium polyacrylate) I bought online. The special thing about this chemical is that it is a polymer than can absorb over 400 times its volume in water. This causes it to create a gel on contact with water, which is why it is used in diapers and as a thickening agents in detergent. However, this got me interested in gels in general.

A gel by definition is a cross linked polymer that makes up a 3D structure encompassing a liquid and holds it together through surface tension. In laments terms, a cross linked polymer is a complex molecule made up of several covalent and ionic bonds. Then, when a liquid is added to this solid, it "traps" the water around it creating a gel.

Gels are a confusing topic because of the fact that its state and properties all depend on what aspect you are looking at it. If you are talking about the skeleton structure, it is a solid, but the liquid trapped in it is still a liquid. However, gels are still extremely important both in everyday life and on the frontier of science and technology.

You don't have to look very far to find a gel in your everyday life. There are plenty of things made of gels from toys like water beads to things like re-freezable gel packs. However, they are also used NASA shuttles in technology like aerogel.

Aerogel is an invention that was created in the 1930s and was the result of keeping a gels solid structure while dehydrating it. The outcome was the least dense solid known to man to this day. It is used as an insulator of the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen fuel tanks on a space shuttle in order to keep it in liquid form. Without this material, we wouldn't be nearly as successful at getting into space as we are today.

I hope to do further research into gels soon, but for now I'll leave it here. Gels are grosely underestimated for their significance in our every day lives and how amazing they truly are. The next time you see a diaper, just think about the science behind it. A dirty diaper might smell horrid, but it's also amazing.

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