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Mechanically strong aerogels get closer to commercialization

By Mary Page Bailey |

Aerogels — ultralight, insulating and heat-resistant nanoporous solids — offer benefits in many applications, but commercially available aerogels are typically limited to just two formats: particles and blankets. Aerogel Technologies, LLC (Boston, Mass.; www.aerogeltechnologies.com) is currently constructing a pilot plant in Boston to manufacture new, mechanically strong shaped-form aerogels in film and panel formats. In the past, aerogels were traditionally brittle and easily crushed, but these new forms boast durability similar to plastics, explains Stephen Steiner, president and CEO of Aerogel Technologies. “For the first time, we have commercially available aerogels that can be used as a multifunctional lightweight alternative to structural plastics. They are thermally insulating, soundproofing and can handle high temperatures,” adds Steiner. Not only are the aerogels lighter and more insulating than plastics and foams, they are also extremely insulative against noise, are non-flammable and are machinable, which means they can be processed similarly to engineering plastics.

The new pilot plant — due to begin operating in May 2019 — is well-suited for large-scale aerogel production since Aerogel Technologies’ process eliminates the costly supercritical drying step typically required for large aerogel parts, says Steiner. Supercritical dryers are readily used in producing aerogel particles and blankets, but they pose a problem in producing more substantial monolithic forms, since the dryers would need to be prohibitively large to accommodate the parts. Removing the supercritical dryer not only lowers costs by enabling operation at ambient conditions, but it also provides for a smaller equipment footprint, which means that several process units can operate in parallel in a manufacturing facility, making the process modular and easily expandable. Initially, says Steiner, the pilot plant will focus on 1- and 4-ft panel sizes, but these dimensions could be widely expanded to meet customer needs.

aerogels

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