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Art Meets Aerogel
Tsui holds one of her aerogel creations.
Tsui holds one of her aerogel creations.

By Colleen Sharkey
Staff Writer

The Louvre - the Vatican Museums - the Jet Propulsion Laboratory?

There is no doubt that the heavens and the exploration of space have inspired beautiful art. However, a NASA center that is associated with science and engineering is not often compared to the likes of the world's greatest museums in terms of artistic inspiration. Science and art melded, however, on a tour of JPL when one industrial artist with a keen eye noticed the creative potential of the truly space-age material, aerogel. Ordinarily a "no-no" for visitors to touch, April Tsui has more than handled the ghostly material, she's made it into art.

The so-called "solid blue smoke" earned a record in the 2003 Guinness Book as the lightest solid in the world and feels like incredibly light Styrofoam. One form of this extraordinary substance is 99.8 percent air and 0.2 percent silica dioxide (by volume). Aerogel is currently aboard the Stardust spacecraft, where it will collect and return samples of interstellar dust grains and particles of comets to Earth. It is also heading toward the red planet keeping the electronics warm and cozy in the Mars Exploration Rovers - Spirit and Opportunity - scheduled to land in January 2004.

Text and images projected onto rings of aerogel made from a mold.
Text and images projected onto rings of aerogel made from a mold.

While members of the space community see aerogel as an ideal insulator and sample return device, Tsui, a student at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, sees it as a fascinating medium for art. "I had heard of aerogel before but it wasn't until I saw it in person that I was compelled to work with it," she said. "I proposed the idea [of using aerogel for art] to Dr. Steven Jones, one of two aerogel makers at JPL. He was very open to trying things."

Jones, accustomed to being approached by industry entrepreneurs with designs on aerogel as part of his technology transfer work, wasn't shocked to hear that Tsui had her eye on the ghostly matter too. "It's so unique and different from anything we encounter in our daily lives," Jones said. "It is of interest to people in general but even more so for an artist because it becomes a medium for what they want to express."

Using leftover scraps provided by Jones, Tsui has manipulated aerogel in ways that were never dreamt of by the space community. She has embedded various objects into it - like pennies and chicken wire - and even used lasers on it to carve out shapes. The brain she carved from a piece of aerogel made the April 2003 cover of Nature Reviews Neuroscience magazine.

Her work has evolved into a relationship with the California Science Center near the University of Southern California. Her tenacious personality, that is so evident just upon meeting her, compelled her to approach museum curators to gauge their interest in collaborating with her. Soon, she'll be working with their fabrication department and assisting the Stardust mission outreach office to illustrate the properties of aerogel in a way that engages the public.

Clearly unafraid of tackling new challenges, Tsui came into design school with only limited graphic design experience but quickly learned how to use complicated machinery to create art. In fact, she believes that her inexperience was beneficial to the learning process by making her more imaginative and inventive when fashioning her pieces.

Another aerogel creation.
Another aerogel creation.

"When I'm excited, it's really hard to stop me and my strengths come from experimenting," she said. "If I weren't experimental, I wouldn't have ever approached aerogel."

Tsui describes most of her work as "on the wacky side," and explains that she likes to use materials and machining techniques in an unusual way to find her artistic voice.

Her JPL mentor, Jones jokingly calls Tsui's work with aerogel "bootlegging," since using it for art was never the motivation for making aerogel. He does truly feel, however, that any legitimate method of advancing aerogel is worth trying. In this overlap between science and art, audiences will have the benefit of both appreciating aerogel's captivating look and learning about its amazing capabilities. It seems an unconventional artist met just the right unconventional material.

Last Updated: 2 March 2011

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Last Updated: 2 Mar 2011