Manufacturing Advanced Aerogels
More than 85 years ago, a chemical engineer named Samuel Stephens Kistler made a bet with a friend as to whether he could remove the liquid from a gel and replace it with a gas — all without causing the gel to shrink.
Kistler won the bet. And the result was a new kind of material that’s proven remarkably and lastingly useful: the aerogel.
After nearly a century, these highly-porous synthetic substances are still some of the most lightweight materials known to humanity. While silica aerogel products have been manufactured for industrial purposes for more than 70 years, the rise of new processes and products has placed the aerogel back at the cutting-edge of material science.
New aerogel materials range from ceramics to metal oxides to polymers and now even to custom nanoparticle configurations. Aerogels are already in use in a wide variety of applications from offshore pipelines to NASA spacecraft, but their unique properties present new opportunities for the development of diverse future products. Some key properties include:
· Soundproofing: aerogels provide the highest level of sound attenuation of any material.
· Thermal insulation: aerogels provide insulation that is often better than conventional insulation materials in a smaller space, while also exhibiting better resistance to moisture breakdown.
· Energy storage and supercapacitors: aerogels can feature added conductive, ion-transporting, or otherwise specialized-functionality particles. These added particles can combine with the continuously connected, yet porous structures of aerogels to create batteries and supercapacitors with simultaneously high energy density and high power density.
Aerogels exhibit important properties like soundproofing and thermal insulation simultaneously, meaning they can serve as multi-function lightweight materials with uses in aerospace, transportation, refrigeration, buildings, and other fields.
Advanced aerogels also have serious potential in a range of other leading-edge fields. For example, because numerous materials can be incorporated into an aerogel during its synthesis, there are conceivable applications that could aid in controlled drug release, biodegradability, and even the replication of cellular networks. The highly porous structure of the aerogel makes for a high surface area that’s suited to new possible environmental applications like oil spill remediation and carbon sequestration.
Aerogels have extraordinary potential across sectors. But the challenge is scale — aerogel production processes remain slow, costly, energy-intensive, and material-intensive.
Current manufacturing methods limit the sizes and shapes of aerogels that can be created, making it difficult to produce the materials for many specific applications. Moreover, some of the most promising aerogel applications, including batteries, still depend on major new R&D breakthroughs.
There’s interest and investment in overcoming these challenges. The US government has funded a range of research projects through the National Laboratories, Environmental Protection Agency, DARPA, the National Science Foundation and other agencies focused on a several potential applications. Some firms are likewise making investments.
Yet application-specific research isn’t necessarily what’s needed to overcome the problems inherent scaling aerogel production. What’s most needed is long-term investment in improving basic production processes. With investment time horizons of up to 18 years, a serious challenge is finding sufficiently patient capital.
Still, it’s conceivable that we’ll come to realize the promise of advanced aerogels. Other technologies from batteries to solar to carbon fibers have faced similarly long time-horizons. Through foresighted investments and public-private partnerships, these technologies have matured dramatically.
Samuel Stephens Kistler is unlikely to have imagined the potential in aerogels when he first placed his bet. But governments, firms, and research institutions should today see what’s possible.
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