Welcome to the Aerogel Cluster Homepage!
Here you can find all the latest news regarding our work, information on the associated working groups and current trends in aerogel R&D.
In case you want to learn more about recent developments in aerogel technology and find out how the Aerogel Cluster aims at exploiting the potential of aerogel materials, you can find all the information you are looking for below.
Aerogels are nano-structured, porous solids that in principle can be synthesized from any material being able to form a gel, which can preserve its structure when being dried. Amongst others, several metals, metal oxides, and metal chalcogenides, as well as polymers (thermosets, elastomers), biopolymers (polysaccharides, proteins, etc.), carbonates, and phosphates are considered to be such materials. Aerogels exhibit several characteristic features such as extremely large specific surface areas (100-2000 m2/g), pores in the nanometer range, low thermal conductivities, high sound absorption, and large porosities exceeding 90 %. These unique characteristics allow for their application in fields in which conventional materials fail. Especially insulation in extreme conditions is one such field, which is why sensitive biomedical goods are being shipped in aerogel-insulated containers and submarine oil and gas pipelines are equipped with aerogel-based coatings. Furthermore, certain parts in sports cars, subjected to extreme thermal strains are protected by aerogel composites and the performance of outdoor clothing for winter sports can be vastly enhanced by aerogel granules.
Therefore, aerogels are already contributing to the energy efficiency of different processes and materials, today.
The commercial production of aerogels was limited to Europe and the USA until recently, however, at present the number of Asian manufactures is sky-rocketing. Yet, the large scale production of aerogel materials is currently limited to one specific type of material: silica aerogels. Other aerogel materials, in particular the new generation of biopolymer aerogels (based on polysaccharides, polymers, proteins, and renewable resources), have been shown to possess great promise on a lab scale, but are not commercially available, yet. Provided that organic aerogels unite the characteristic of low heat and sound conductivity with outstanding mechanical properties, are biodegradable and offer a large variety of functional properties, the absence of industrial manufacturers is surprising.
Thus, aerogels can become important drivers of growth in multiple industries, especially in fields bridging biotechnology, electric mobility, aerospace technology, material development (esp. in the building sector), and production technology. Here, the deployment of aerogels does not only lead to consumer and producer benefits, since the deployment of “clean” polymers, based on renewable resources, also caters to primary ecological and societal needs (e.g. sustainable and resource-efficient production).
The largest obstacle standing in the way of the commercialization of these materials, is the lack of proof of their functionality in industrial practice (complex mechanical, acoustic and thermal testing in representative conditions). However, this will only be feasible if large scale production techniques will become available. As such processes require elaborate know-how (e.g. in the field of high-pressure technology), they are of particular interest to highly developed industrial locations. Germany has a long history in the field of high-pressure technology, both in industrial processes, as well as in academic research and development. Through the exploitation of this extensive know-how, it would be possible to establish the large-scale manufacturing of several aerogel types, proof their suitability in a number of fields through the synthesis of certain demonstrators, before promoting further product development. This goal requires a long-term strategy (timescale of approx. 10 years), which is based on the close cooperation between industrial and academic partners.
This challenge has already been accepted by individual companies. One example is BASF, which has put the first ever pilot plant for organic aerogels into operation in 2015 at their site in Lemförde (Germany). Supported by further cooperative research projects, the current situation seems to pose the ideal opportunity to establish Germany as one of the key players in the aerogel industry, thereby gaining a crucial competitive advantage over foreign manufacturers.
Apart from that, Germany could profit from the fact that a large portion of the required high-pressure technology is already being deployed on a large scale in the local food industry for supercritical extraction (e.g. drying of biological products, decaffeination, extraction). As small and medium-sized companies make up the majority of the domestic food industry, it provides these businesses, which form the backbone of the German industry, with the opportunity of extending their scope to the high-technology segment, thereby strengthening their position in global markets. Simultaneously, market actors which have already gained critical know-how in the field of large-scale process implementation, gain the possibility of forming synergies, to enhance their product portfolio and thereby establish a competitive advantage over Asian and American firms in the long term.
Although the development of aerogels is being considered as a great opportunity for Germany among experts, substantial financial and technological risks remain to be a challenge for all market players and especially medium-sized firms, before appropriate and competitive products can be realized. This is why the current perspective demands for public funding of this application-oriented area of development.
Most decisive will be the joint development of experimental techniques and process modelling that are common to all aerogel types. Therefore, the pooling of individual projects would facilitate the ideal exploitation of synergies. In the following individual challenges and goals of such a cooperative long-term strategy will be presented.
Long Term Strategy
To devise a long term strategy regarding aerogels and high pressure technology, experts have met with representatives of BMWi (Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Energie) and PTJ (Projektträger Jülich). The first work shop on ‘High Pressure Technology as a Key Technology for Energy Efficient Processes – Potentials for (in)direct Energy Efficiency Enhancements’ took place in March 2015 in Darmstadt (Germany). At this event, current research topics, which should be addressed in cooperative projects by industry and academia, were identified. Special focus was placed on the large potential of manufacturing innovative materials by using high pressure technology, as the utilization of such processes yields material properties which cannot be obtained using conventional technologies. Based on these findings, a second working group has been established, which primarily focusses on the synthesis of new aerogel materials. On July 2 2015, a succeeding workshop dealing with the topic of aerogels was organized, to which selected representatives from industry and academia were invited. In the course of this workshop, the state-of-the-art, bottlenecks, and perspectives in the field of aerogels were discussed, in corporation with PTJ. All participants agreed that aerogels are a highly relevant and auspicious topic, for which the number of applications increases by the minute. Furthermore, it was identified that the know-how on this topic available in Germany is unique and therefore poses an ideal basis to further diversify the high quality production of aerogels on German soil.
Based on the present findings, industrial and academic representatives have planned joined projects in several working areas.
Current Work & Goals
Besides the described characteristics of silica aerogels (i.e. nano-porosity, larger surface area, low thermal and acoustic conductivity), organic aerogels exhibit various additional properties, which can be tailored accurately. One special advantage for further processing is their superior mechanical resilience, resulting in a significant decrease in dust formation. The tremendous range of different aerogels materials which can be synthesized, possessing a spectrum of properties that cannot be achieved by conventional materials (e.g. large functionalized surface areas, ultra-high flexibility), is based on the large variety of chemicals suitable for aerogel manufacturing (ideally renewable resources). Here, the following applications are especially promising:
- Thermal insulation with organic aerogels
- Bio-aerogels as carriers for active substances and super-plasticisers in life science
- Aerogels as building materials
- Aerogels in furnace construction
- Aerogels in foundries
- Aerogels for lightweight construction
- Aerogels as absorbent and membrane materials
- Aerogels for applications in fuel cells
Overall, aerogels open up a large range of new markets and have the potential to revolutionize existing markets through the emergence of novel opportunities (e.g. insulation materials). This particularly holds true for the new generation of aerogels (organic and functionalized silica aerogels, as well as hybrids). The suitability of aerogels for the proposed processes has been demonstrated on a lab-scale. Additionally, it is possible to tailor aerogel properties for specific applications, through the deployment of various raw materials. Furthermore, the utilization of common (renewable) resources such as starch, cellulose or proteins facilitates significant savings and thus boosts the sustainability of these functional materials.
At the same time, new synthesis routes for the fabrication of aerogel fibers and particles have been developed. This allows for vast reductions in the required processing times, cutting the attributed costs and energy requirements for aerogel manufacturing. Although high pressure technology is indispensable for the majority of aerogel types, since it poses the only option to preserve the delicate nano-structure of the materials, extensive research is concentrated on the synthesis of aerogels, which can be dried in ambient pressure, not requiring supercritical conditions. Thereby, low-priced aerogels can potentially be manufactured on a large scale.
Summarizing, it can be expected that a considerable diversification in the aerogel technology will occur in the near future, through the described developments. However, their implementation requires extensive know-how on the governing chemistry and the suitable (high-pressure) technology.
Based on this prognosis, several bottlenecks, which can be divided into the categories material development and process development, have been identified:
- Further diversification and evaluation of raw materials for aerogel manufacturing is required.
- The relation between raw material quality and aerogel properties is highly complex and therefore only partially known.
- The manufacturing of organic aerogels on a large scale is not established, yet. Consequently, there is a lack of industrial tests, allowing for strategic investment decisions.
- The technology for producing aerogels in the form of particles or fibers in the desired dimensions is lacking.
- Currently, aerogels are synthesized in batches. A continuous mode of operation, integrating all required process steps is desired to diminish energy requirements.
- A robust modeling of the relevant high pressure processes (e.g. solvent extraction with supercritical CO2), which is required for the process scale-up, is not available.
- Production of high pressure devices is not harmonized with requirements for aerogel manufacturing.
- Potential integration of aerogel production into chemical industry clusters is not investigated.
On the basis of the stated bottlenecks, the following goals, which can only be achieved by close cooperation between industry and academia, were defined:
- Investigation and assessment of the opportunity to manufacture aerogels with low-cost, sustainable raw materials and blends of these (esp. renewable resources).
- Adjustment of product quality to fulfill specific application requirements with regard to the energy efficiency of material synthesis.
- Development of online process surveillance techniques
- Scale-up of existing processes to manufacture organic and hybrid aerogels, based on suitable models. Establishing of pilot plants including plant certification and proof of their secure operation.
- Leap from batch to continuous processes
These goals should be pursued in joint long-term efforts, to make use of the achieved synergies in the best way possible. At the Aerogel Cluster work shop on July 2 2015, several industry directed projects have already been introduced.
- BASF Polyurethanes GmbH
- Bosch Rexroth
- Projektträger Jülich
- TU Dresden
- ZAE Bayern