Novel, low density structures which combine biologically-based fibers with clay aerogels are produced in an environmentally benign manner using water as solvent, and no additional processing chemicals. Three different reinforcing fibers, silk, soy silk, and hemp, are evaluated in combination with poly(vinyl alcohol) matrix polymer combined with montmorillonite clay. The mechanical properties of the aerogels are demonstrated to increase with reinforcing fiber length, in each case limited by a critical fiber length, beyond which mechanical properties decline due to maldistribution of filler, and disruption of the aerogel structure. Rather than the classical model for reinforced composite properties, the chemical compatibility of reinforcing fibers with the polymer/clay matrix dominated mechanical performance, along with the tendencies of the fibers to kink under compression.
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