Stephen Steiner at Los Alamos National Laboratory holding a silica aerogel in his hand
Birthday: 26th of March, 1982
Hometown: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
“Talk about some extreme chemistry! As if aerogel weren’t exciting enough, here we are in our fourth year of making the world’s lowest density solid in zero-gravity. So what’s the big deal? Why have we endured the gut-wrenching environment of NASA’s KC-135A over and over? Why do we go to such extremes to make this stuff in zero-gravity?
Because aerogel has the potential to revolutionize everything from your winter jacket to surfboards to computers, and aerogels made in zero-gravity are materials like nothing else.”
These are the first two paragraphs on the website http://zerogaerogel.com/ created by Stephen Steiner, who I had the pleasure to spend a dinner with and talk about his past, present and future as an inventor.
These three words—automated nanomaterials production—are constantly on Steve’s mind (from this point on I shall refer to Mr. Steiner as Steve, as we have been great friends for the past four years and have also been inventing and venturing together in our time at MIT). Already in high school, Steve had taken an interest in science and at the time was particularly interested in ways of generating hydrogen. His junior year he was looking at photoelectrolysis of sun light as a way to electrolyze water while simultaneously extracting energy in the form of electrical current. Going through the literature, he found that titanium dioxide semiconductors are great materials to do just that and so the 17 year-old teenager decided to make his own!
Set yourself a goal, try something, do it wrong, and keep trying until you get it right—that was certainly one lesson Steve had to learn right of the bat! Quickly he discovered that the material of choice had an extremely high melting point, which makes it complicated to render into usable forms. After many trials of blowtorches, explosive thermite reactions, even acids, he still had not found the right way to get what he wanted.
That meant, back to the drawing board, or in this case the Internet—albeit the early Internet (1999)! There he found another way of approaching his problem; he read about materials called aerogels made through a wet-chemistry technique called sol-gel processing, and so he thought, “Why not make titanium dioxide aerogels to make a semiconductor for photoelectrolysis?”
And at that point, a new question arose: “Can I make an aerogel?” Soon after, he started in on trying different techniques and, with the help of his former high school chemistry teacher, ordered the chemicals he needed to start to make silica aerogels—or so he thought. But the recipes he got from the Internet wouldn’t work and again Steve said to himself, I have to make my own!
The process was made up of two steps—first, making a gel in a beaker and second, extracting the liquid to turn it into the so-called aerogel. Making the necessary gels didn’t seem to work at first until by accident he found that a method which worked very well—instead of adding catalyst all at once, he broke the process into two steps. In fact, this way, he was able to control the gel time quite precisely, which seemed to be an advantage over current procedures at the time.
Now, to extract the liquid from the gel, he would need to perform a supercritical drying procedure (which is as dangerous and expensive as it sounds!) But this didn’t hold Steve back and rather was exactly why he wanted to do it! So he purchased high-pressure pipe components with the help of his dad, Teflon-taped and epoxied everything together, bought liquid carbon dioxide from a welding house nearby, and found that his system could hold the needed pressure but eventually the epoxy seals would fail and fly across the room. With time he improved the setup and got it welded to replace all the Teflon tape and glue.
But that was not enough for Steve, so he started to call scientists at Lawrence Livermore and asked them tons of questions, always extracting the bits of information that he needed to use his machine. After 20 trials trying to operate the so-called manuclave (or “manual autoclave”), everything finally started to work!
Although he didn’t make titanium dioxide semiconductors, he ended up building an autoclave and inventing a new manufacturing procedure for creating silica aerogel and instead
• Exhibited his work at the International Science and Engineering Fair, where he won 2nd place in Chemistry
• Received a patent for his autoclave design and the rapid gelation technique
• Won an Intel Achievement Award for doing research without the resources of a lab or mentor (in fact, one of the Intel Judges said: “We looked at using aerogels for integrated circuits a few years ago, but we couldn’t get the gel time fast enough!”)
• Won a free trip to Space Camp from NASA
• Won $2,500 for the United States Air Force
Today, he is a PhD candidate at MIT and his rapid gelation technique has been used for the study of aerogel production aboard zero-gravity flights performed by NASA. The length of each zero-gravity period during the flight is relatively short (only 23 seconds), but his technique allows the gel to form that fast.
Set yourself a goal, work hard, go back to the books if it doesn’t work, and then work even harder and you will win big!
Thank you Steve for the interview!