Detailed nanostructures have been investigated for hierarchically porous alumina aerogels and xerogels prepared from ionic precursors via sol-gel reaction. Starting from AlCl3·6H2O and poly(ethylene oxide) (PEO) dissolved in a H2O/EtOH mixed solvent, monolithic wet gels were synthesized using propylene oxide (PO) as a gelation initiator. Hierarchically porous alumina xerogels and aerogels were obtained after evaporative drying and supercritical drying, respectively. Macroporous structures are formed as a result of phase separation, while interstices between the secondary particles in the micrometer-sized gel skeletons work as mesoporous structures. Alumina xerogels exhibit considerable shrinkage during the evaporative drying process, resulting in relatively small mesopores (from 5.4 to 6.2 nm) regardless of the starting composition. For shrinkage-free alumina aerogels, on the other hand, the median mesopore size changes from 13.9 to 33.1 nm depending on the starting composition; the increases in PEO content and H2O/EtOH volume ratio both contribute to producing smaller mesopores. Small-angle X-ray scattering (SAXS) analysis reveals that variation of median mesopore size can be ascribed to the change in agglomeration state of primary particles. As PEO content and H2O/EtOH ratio increase, secondary particles become small, which results in relatively small mesopores. The results indicate that the agglomeration state of alumina primary particles is influenced by the presence of weakly interacting phase separation inducers such as PEO.
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