Silica aerogels and their use in fibrous composite panels and blankets remain the most prevalent form. Key market players and applications have driven this growth; however, this landscape could be about to shift.
Silica aerogels are predominantly synthesised via a sol-gel process, which allows for an ageing period to form a nanostructured network. As was discussed in a previous article and is extensively analysed in a brand new report from IDTechEx Research, Aerogels 2017-2027: Technologies, Markets and Players, the dominant product is a silica aerogel composite. The fibers (typically glass fiber or polyethylene) are incorporated in the gelation process and the silica aerogel become embedded on the fibrous strands.
In the report IDTechEx anticipates that the total manufacturing market will exceed $1 billion within the next decade and the silica aerogel blanket and panel composite to remain by far the leading product. The market leaders Aspen Aerogel, with annual revenue of approximately $120 million for 2016, have developed a continuous process of including the fiber in gelation followed by supercritical drying. Their manufacturing plant is currently running at capacity with a considerable back-order, which reflects the great promise forecast in this industry. Aspen Aerogel, with the assistance of a continued partnership with BASF (providing $23 million), are due to build a new plant with double the capacity and a superior local supply chain processes between 2018 and 2020.
Fig 1. Schematic of the manufacturing process at Aspen Aerogel and an image of the silica composite product. (Sources: www.aerogel.org and www.buyaerogel.com )
Significantly for this market, Aspen Aerogel are in the process of protecting their IP portfolio and are currently suing Nano High-Tech and Guangdong Alison Hi-Tech. Both are accused of infringing 4 patents and there is an additional one for Nano High-Tech. The result of this lawsuit will have a significant outcome both for the openness of this industry and the future revenue forecast for Aspen Aerogel closest competitors.
Fig 2. Global aerogel application forecast by aerogel type. (Source: "Aerogels 2017-2027: Technologies, Markets and Players" www.IDTechEx.com/aerogels)
The applications to date have been predominantly one dimensional, dictated by the Oil & Gas and petrochemical industries. The products are used as insulators in both plants and pipelines with different products depending on the temperature range requirements. The advantages are not limited to the obvious superior insulation and fire retardancy: hydrophobicity is important in preventing corrosion under insulation (CUI) and the lightweight nature means that it can be installed efficiently on land and more can be installed in subsea pipelines in a single boat load (which can cost $500k per day).
These applications are diversifying with roles in building and construction, district energy, apparel and footwear, sporting goods and aerospace and automotive. With the unpredictability of oil prices and the inevitable cut-backs already being observed it is important that aerogel manufacturers do look to broaden their application horizons. Legislative incentives into energy consumption targets and the enormity of the potential market has made applications into the building and construction sector particularly alluring. Silica composite panels and blankets have been used to insulate both new-builds and retrofit pre-existing buildings. Enersens are one such company and are working towards this as part of a collaborative Homeskin project. Their product Skogar is claimed to be 3 times thinner than conventional products. The high-cost of these products will keep this limited to niche expensive inner-city properties in Europe, where space is often a premium, for the time-being. But, as the costs come down and the energy reduction demands increase this radius is anticipated to progressively expand.
For a full analysis of silica composites including their synthesis, cost projections, applications and manufacturer profiles see IDTechEx's new report at www.IDTechEx.com/aerogels.
Top image: Aerogel suspended over a Bunsen burner flame. Source: NASA, Wikipedia, Public Domain