Aerogel is a synthetic, porous material derived from a gel in which the liquid component has been replaced with a gas. It is the world’s lightest solid material composed of 99.8% air by volume, therefore, having an extremely low density as well as an extremely low thermal conductivity.
It is a material which has been used in a range of commercial products for years, with it initially being marketed as a thickening agent to be used in everything from everyday consumer makeup and cigarette filters to napalm. In recent years, the use of Aerogel has been recognised more in the solid silica aerogels that were used to insulate the Mars Rover when it first launched in 2003.
It is clear with such examples of aerogel uses that it is a promising material with multiple applications, particularly when it comes to commercial product design for the building industry. The ability to create solid 3D nanoporous structures that are transparent to light and solar radiation whilst having an extremely low thermal conductivity make Aerogel a prime candidate for a number of construction elements.
Aerogels can be made of a range of substances as the term itself refers more so to a geometry which substances can appropriate as opposed to one particular substance. The concept is similar to clothing in how clothes can be made from cotton, wool, silk, leather and many more materials all creating the same geometry. Silica is one of the most common substances Aerogels are often made of, but they can also use transition metal oxides, carbon, carbon nanotubes, metals such as copper, metal oxides, lanthanide and actinide metal oxides, biopolymers such as gelatine and semiconductor nanostructures.
As such, there are many commercial products that can be designed and developed for the building sector using aerogel such as cavity insulation and glazing units. Cladding systems can use granular aerogel which is available commercially under names such as Nanogel. Plus, aerogel particles can also be used to embed opaque and translucent insulation boards, blankets and tensile roof membranes.
Believed by researchers to be the ‘holy grail’, transparent monolithic silica aerogel is thought to be the future of glazing technology. With Aerogel achieving heat transfer coefficients as low as 0.1 W/m2.K as a result of its extremely low thermal conductivity, it is quickly becoming an obvious material choice.
However, the current research and development into aerogel, specifically monolithic glazing, has become limited as a result of unexpectedly long processing times as well as difficulties in creating large samples with complete transparency and most notably, the high production costs of using such vast quantities.
It is without a doubt that Aerogel is a fascinating and innovative material that has a promising future within the world of product design. Despite its early uses in a range of everyday consumer products from freezer insulation to household paint, it would appear that we have barely begun to scratch the surface with the potential of Aerogel. With newfound research and development, hopefully, we should soon begin to see a new era of product design with Aerogel at the forefront.
Take a look at our full article on various futuristic materials and how they’re going to be featuring in product design in the near future.