Boston-based Aerogel Technologies, LLC has created a process for making aerogels, the world's lightest materials, in unlimited sizes, for the first time.
From planes, trains, and automobiles to smartphones, laptops, and flatscreens, plastics make our world lighter, reducing fuel consumption and keeping costs low when every ounce counts. But what if the plastics used to make airplanes, cars, and electronics could be made ten times lighter? A new breakthrough in the manufacturing of aerogels, the world's lightest solid materials, promises to do just that.
Composed of up to 99.9% air by volume, aerogels are also known as the world's best thermal insulators—so effective that they have been used by NASA to protect the electronics of the Mars rovers from the frigid temperatures of the Red Planet and by the oil and natural gas industry to keep subsea oil pipelines warm. To date, however, aerogels have been too challenging and too expensive to make in sizes large enough to serve as structural materials in applications where plastics and composites are currently used.
Now researchers at Boston-based Aerogel Technologies, LLC have developed a new manufacturing technology that, for the first time, enables production of aerogels with plastic-like durability in theoretically unlimited dimensions. The technique opens the possibility of using aerogels as lightweight structural materials for a wide range of new applications at price points that the company projects will soon be cost-competitive with performance plastics like polycarbonate.
Aerogels have traditionally been made using a technique called supercritical drying—a high-pressure process performed in expensive stainless steel reactors that is also used in decaffeination of coffee and green dry cleaning. But just as the size of a pizza is limited to the size of the oven it's baked in, to date aerogels have been limited to the size of the supercritical dryers used to make them. As a result, aerogels have been restricted to parts of only a few inches and no greater than about 24 inches x 24 inches (60 cm x 60 cm) at the very largest.
Using their new technique, Aerogel Technologies has produced a whopping 36 in x 36 in x 0.4 in (90 cm x 90 cm x 1 cm) aerogel panel, the world's largest aerogel to date. The aerogel, made of a proprietary polymer, weighed in at an impressive 7x lighter than typical plastics yet still exhibited the same materials properties as aerogels made using the traditional method. Aerogel Technologies says that because the new technique is performed at ambient conditions and does not require a high-pressure reactor, there is no limit to the size of aerogel parts that can now be produced. The company says that aerogels up to 15x lighter than plastics that exhibit 34% better insulating ability than Styrofoam and up to 1000x more soundproofing ability than any other existing soundproofing materials have been made using the new technique.
The company plans to use the new technology to scale its Airloy® line of aerogels, materials the company describe as combining the strength and durability expected of engineering materials with the low density and superlative insulating properties of aerogels in forms that can be machined, are dust-free, and are water-resistant. Aerogel Technologies is already selling 12-inch (30-cm) panels of their Airloy materials made using the new technology at pre-scale prices through their website BuyAerogel.com. The company says it is currently working to scale the process to produce aerogel panels with dimensions up to 6 ft x 10 ft (about 2 m x 3 m) in thicknesses up to 2 inches (5 cm).
"We call it the dawn of the Airloy age," said Dr. Stephen Steiner, President and CEO of Aerogel Technologies. "Thanks to this new manufacturing technology, aerogels can now be thought of as ultralight plastics replacements that simultaneously provide superinsulating and soundproofing properties in a single material envelope."
The company imagines using the technology to lighten everything from airplane wall panels to undercarriages for cars. Citing an example of the potential of the new technology, Aerogel Technologies claims that replacing just 10% of the plastics used in the interior of a Boeing 737 with Airloy materials could save an airline the size of Southwest $500 million to $1 billion a year in fuel costs alone.
Steiner says making the world's largest aerogel is just the beginning. The company is now partnering with manufacturers in a variety of industries to integrate aerogels made with the new technology into commercial applications.
Source: Aerogel Technologies, LLC.
Aerogel Technologies, LLC
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