Back when I was a young whippersnapper, aerogel was a new and exciting wondermaterial. Since then, the aerated silica gel has been surpassed in some ways by other materials with even lower densities, but a new flexible incarnation of aerogel is destined to make the jump from labs at NASA to the socks on our feet.
The first generation of aerogel, while very strong and a good insulator, was crumbly and shattered easily. NASA found all kinds of uses for it, but for the rest of us, there wasn't much that could be done with it. Since then, NASA has been hard at work trying to make this stuff a bit more useful, and it seems to have succeeded, as researchers have just introduced a "major improvement" in the form of a stronger — but more importantly flexible — version of the material.
It's nice that this new aerogel is 500 times stronger than the original, but what we're really excited about is the fact that it's flexible enough to be rolled out into bendable sheets. A quarter inch of flexible aerogel provides as much insulation as three inches of fiberglass, making it five to 10 times more efficient at keeping heat in (or out). And since it's soft, it'll be easy to use it in clothing, outdoor gear, kitchen stuff, building materials or whatever else you want, up to temperatures of about 575 degrees Fahrenheit.
What we don't know yet is how difficult or expensive it is to make this next gen aerogel: historically, it hasn't been cheap, which has limited its commercial potential.
On the other hand, the fact that you couldn't use it for much probably limited its commercial potential even more, so we're hoping that all of the obvious applications with this new flexible stuff will kickstart some large scale, affordable production of the material, giving us those aerogel tea cozies we've always wanted.