Carbon nanofoam is an allotrope of carbon. An allotrope is a variant of a substance composed of only one type of atom. The best-known allotropes of carbon are graphite and diamond. Carbon nanofoam, the 5th allotrope of carbon, was discovered in 1997 by Andrei V. Rode and his team at the Australian National University in Canberra, in collaboration with Ioffe Physico-Technical Institute in St Petersburg. Its molecular structure consists of carbon tendrils bonded together in a low-density, mistlike arrangement.
Carbon nanofoam is similar in some respects to carbon and silicon aerogels produced before, but with about 100 times less density. Carbon nanofoam has been extensively studied under electron microscope by John Giapintzakis and team at the University of Crete. Its production and study has primarily been pioneered by Greek, Russian, and Australian scientists.
The carbon nanofoam is produced by firing a high-pulse, high-energy laser at graphite or disordered solid carbon suspended in some inert gas such as argon. Like aerogels, carbon nanofoam has extremely high surface area and acts as a good insulator, capable of being exposed to thousands of degrees Fahrenheit before deforming. It is practically transparent in appearance, consisting of mostly air, and fairly brittle.
One of the most unusual properties displayed by carbon nanofoam is that of ferromagnetism; it is attracted to magnets, like iron. This property vanishes a few hours after the nanofoam is made, though it can be preserved by cooling the nanofoam to extremely low temperatures, about -183° Celsius (-297° Fahrenheit). Other allotropes of carbon, such as fullerenes at high pressure, display some properties of magnetism, but not at the level carbon nanofoam does. The magnetic properties of carbon nanofoam remind scientists that the magnetism of a substance cannot be determined simply by the type of substance, but by its allotrope and temperature as well.