A Boston-based company has created a process for making aerogels, the world’s lightest materials, in unlimited sizes for the first time.

BOSTON—Aerogel Technologies, LLC, has reported a breakthrough in manufacturing that could allow aerogels to be made 10 times lighter than existing plastics, but with the same material properties as aerogels produced by the traditional method.

From trains, automobiles, and planes, to smartphones, laptops, and flatscreens, plastics make the  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, Aerogel Technologies reports.

Composed of up to 99.9 percent 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 is said to open 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, aerogels have, to date, 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 its new technique, Aerogel Technologies has produced a whopping 36 inch x 36 inch x 0.4 inch (90 cm x 90 cm x 1 cm) aerogel panel, reported to be the world’s largest aerogel to date.

The aerogel, made of a proprietary polymer, weighed in at an impressive seven times lighter than typical plastics, yet still exhibited the same material properties as aerogels made using the traditional method. Aerogel Technologies said 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 said that aerogels up to 15-times lighter than plastics—exhibiting 34 percent better insulating ability than Styrofoam and up to 1000-times  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 describes 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 its Airloy materials made using the new technology at pre-scale prices through its website (BuyAerogel.com). The company said it is currently working to scale the process to produce aerogel panels with dimensions up to 6 feet x 10 feet (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 (www.aerogeltechnologies.com). “Thanks to this new manufacturing technology, aerogels can now be thought of as ultralight plastics replacements that simultaneously provide super-insulating 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 percent 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 said that 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.

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