New directions for the aerogel market
Jan 06, 2017 Dr Richard Collins
Alternatives to silica aerogel panel and blanket composites are beginning to gain traction. Silica aerogel granule and powder products are becoming more pronounced as progressively more companies emerge. Meanwhile polymer aerogels are a different class of the material, which can have the potential to act as interesting alternatives to traditional plastic and composite products.
Often discussed is the time taken between when a new material is formed in that Eureka moment and when it reaches the market. Of course, for some it is fast like the exponential rise of thermosetting plastics and for others it never happens like buckminsterfullerene, which was swaddled in hype at the time. Aerogels were first discovered in the 1930s and, as was discussed in a previous research article the industry is finally starting to reach a degree of maturity. The silica panel and blanket composite aerogel products have driven this growth and are typically formed by including the fibers in the gelation process. Research by IDTechEx in the report, Aerogels 2017-2027 - Technologies, Markets and Players also identifies an emergence of different forms and types of aerogels. Of note are the silica aerogel powder and granule particles and polymer aerogels.
Arising from the end of very long research lead-in period powder aerogels, often dismissed as the irrelevant lesser of their granule counterparts, are set to have promising medium-term prospects. Although properties are inferior to the large particle size or supercritically dried composites many of the key attributes are maintained and more importantly the cost comes substantially down. Leading the way in this field are companies such as JIOS Aerogel and Svenska Aerogel, both of whom are set to increase manufacturing capacities in the short term to a minimum of 300 and 450 tpa, respectively. The powder and granules particles are used in conjunction with a variety of materials not only the established fibrous blankets and panels, but also concrete, gypsum boards and liquid products such as paints, coatings and pastes. It is these latter products that provide a lot of hype for the short-term in products ranging from cosmetic creams to corrosion resistant insulative paints.
Granule particles have been produced for over a decade predominantly by Cabot Corporation, who overcame the need for supercritical drying by using a solvent exchange process to remove capillary forces that traditionally caused the pores to collapse during ambient pressure drying. They are used in many of the same applications as the powder counterparts, but the larger size also allows for transparency and therefore additional light diffusing applications. IDTechEx analysis expects a period of stagnation for this particle size product, but this will be followed by a resurgence as manufacturing, led by research at Empa in Switzerland, shift to a continuous flow processes causing costs to diminish and new application avenues to arise.
The photogenic monolithic structures instigated a lot of the aerogels fame and glory, but the applications outside of research purposes (such as Cherenkov detectors) are at present minimal. Tiem Factory Inc. could change that with their cheap route in making monolithic silica structures, which are designed to be used in windows. With a pilot plant expected by August 2017 and a significant amount of national funding received, this has become an interesting new company to watch.
Physical characterisation and markets trends for silica aerogels by form. Aerogels 2017-2027 - Technologies, Markets and Players. (Source: IDTechEx, www.enesens.fr , www.jiosaerogel.com )
Polymer aerogels are set to be another type with a very exciting future. Typically formed using addition or condensation reactions polymeric chains form in the gelation stage, subsequent solvent removal can give robust aerogel products. These products include polyamides, polyimides and polyurethanes. Blueshift International Materials and Aerogel Technologies are the main emerging companies and the applications are mostly as lightweight composite and plastic replacements. The potential varies from aerospace to packaging, and in one unexpectedly thermally conductive example consumer electronic casings. The products contain a range of potentially useful properties, but none more significance than their strength as a monolithic block or panel in comparison to the silica based aerogel products. BASF are also due to launch their supercritically dried polyurethane product Slentite in 2020 with a specific target for the building and construction insulation market.
These trends, applications and limitations are discussed in the brand-new report from IDTechEx, Aerogels 2017-2027 - Technologies, Markets and Players
>~Forecasting of main application for polymeric aerogel products. Aerogels 2017-2027 - Technologies, Markets and Players. (Source: IDTechEx)
As mentioned earlier, a promising feature of the aerogel industry is not only the continued emergence of new companies and products, but that university and industrial research continues to challenge the traditional synthetic conventions. Work into organic and inorganic monolith and particulate synthetic processes is still emerging; the most commercially significant of those are highlighted in Aerogels 2017-2027 - Technologies, Markets and Players.