Thin is In: NASA Selects Boston-Based Aerogel Technologies to Commercialize its Flexible Superinsulating Aerogel Thin Films

A new flexible form of aerogel that can be made as thin as a human hair promises to revolutionize 5G antennas, apparel, reusable virus-proof PPE, and battery containment for electric vehicles

Boston-based manufacturer Aerogel Technologies, LLC has been selected by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to commercialize a new form of aerogel that is ultrathin, flexible, and dust-free, with applications ranging from 5G antennas to apparel to transportation.

Aerogels are a fascinating class of ultralight materials known for being the world’s lightest solids and best thermal insulators. Composed of up to 99.98% air by volume, aerogels have previously been used by NASA to insulate the electronics of the Mars rovers from the extreme temperatures of the Red Planet. While commercial forms of aerogels have been available here on Earth for about 20 years, they have been primarily limited to brittle silica aerogels that must be combined with other materials such as fiberglass or resins in order to make them practical for commercial applications. In recent years, aerogel manufacturer Aerogel Technologies introduced a new class of aerogels based on organic polymers instead of silica, extending the range of applications that aerogels can address. Sold under the tradename Airloy, Aerogel Technologies describes these aerogels as being 3-15x lighter than plastics or composites yet exhibiting the durability expected of engineering materials while simultaneously offering 2-3x better thermal insulating performance than Styrofoam and up to 1000x better soundproofing than any other material. Polymer aerogels such as those made by Aerogel Technologies have so far only been available as rigid boards or molded 3D parts, however, and for some applications thin flexible sheets would be a better fit. Astronaut suits are one such application, calling for a material that can protect astronauts from the extreme thermal environments of space while also being thin and flexible enough to permit movement. In support of this, researchers at NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, OH developed a way of producing polymer aerogels in flexible sheets as thin as a human hair, hoping the technology would one day work its way into commercial applications.

Now, NASA has announced Aerogel Technologies as its exclusive commercial partner for bringing this new form factor of aerogel to market. Aerogel Technologies says that it will begin production of rolls of flexible plastic-like polyimide and polyamide aerogel sheets, tapes, and films in thicknesses ranging from 125 microns (5 mil) to 1.5 mm at its pilot plant in Boston immediately, including novel water-repelling products based on a new patent-pending hydrophobic polyimide aerogel formulation developed by the company. Aerogel Technologies expects its new thin-profile aerogel products to find applications in high-gain 5G antennas, ultrawarm winter apparel and footwear, soundproofing, bulletproof vests, thin-profile thermal management for consumer electronics, and lithium-ion battery separators for electric vehicles, among many other potential applications. Additionally, thanks to air pockets 6x smaller than the diameter of the COVID-19 coronavirus, Aerogel Technologies says its new aerogel thin films can even serve as air-breathable virus-blocking barrier films for next-generation personal protection equipment.

“We are honored NASA has selected Aerogel Technologies to become the world’s first commercial producer of aerogel thin films,” said Dr. Stephen Steiner, President & CEO of Aerogel Technologies. “The combination of our unique aerogel manufacturing capabilities and NASA’s materials innovations means that the exciting advances in aerogels made by America’s space program will now be available for the benefit of all.”

Steiner notes that other commercially available porous polyimide thin film products are sometimes marketed as polyimide aerogels but are in fact not actually aerogels, rather, porous polymer films with large multi-micron-sized pores. In contrast, Steiner says the new Aerogel Technologies products are the world’s first truly mesoporous aerogel films, exhibiting average pore diameters on the order of only 10-20 nm. Steiner says this aspect of the company’s products makes them 50% more insulating, significantly more durable and shatter-resistant, and lower in dielectric constant and loss tangent than competing porous polyimide thin film products, enabling a host of new technological applications.

“These new aerogel thin film products will solve important societal problems in industries ranging from communications to transportation to healthcare,” said Steiner. “We’re excited to finally get these disruptive new materials into customers’ hands.”

Aerogel Technologies plans to make its new aerogel thin film products available to the public for purchase through its ecommerce website