The Dell XPS 13 launched at CES 2018 and included the use of a material called silica aerogel for improved thermal performance. Aerogels are often dubbed "space-age technology" with most internet searches directing the reader towards use cases in the NASA stardust probe and Mars Rover, but the history, material diversity, and commercial status are very different.
Aerogels are a class of ultralight mesoporous solids made of an interconnected network. In simple terms, imagine a gel with the liquid component removed leaving just a solid network behind that is predominantly made of trapped air. The solid network can be made with a range of inorganic, organic, or hybrid materials and have been known since the 1930s.
The beneficial properties are numerous, but the main advantage is the exceptionally low thermal conductivity. The small pore size is smaller than the mean free path of air which makes conductivity of around 15 mW/m.K achievable, this is called the Knudsen effect. This conductivity is lower than stationary air (25 mW/m.K) and only vacuum insulation panels can be lower. Other properties include: Low density, flame retardance, light diffusing, hydrophobic, non-corroding, and acoustic and electrical insulation.
Like any emerging material there are drawbacks and commercial hurdles, in this case the most notable are the mechanical properties and cost. Silica aerogels are typically very brittle so are rarely used as panels (monoliths) or pure particles instead they are combined or encased to make a composite part - the most common being blankets. As for the cost, manufacturing process traditionally uses supercritical drying, which can have large costs incurred if not carried out efficiently. In addition, material costs are often overlooked and can represent a significant proportion of the total cost; the market leaders attributing over 40% of product revenue to this. Despite advances in the solvents used, routes to ambient pressure drying, and alternate feedstocks used the cost can remain prohibitively high for many applications.
For more information on aerogel players, properties, costs, manufacturing routes, composite formation, applications, market forecasts, and more see the new report from IDTechEx: Aerogels 2019-2029: Technologies, Markets, and Players.
So how did Dell use this material?
One of the challenges of powerful thin computers or notebooks is, unsurprisingly, heat dissipation. Cooling fans and intelligent designs can have a significant role to play, but there remains a problem with heat pipes and the resultant skin temperature. Silica aerogel was used in an ePTFE liner from Gore to provide superior thermal insulation, the aerogel is believed to be in an ambiently dried granule form. This allowed the heat to be dissipated through controlled routes and ultimately allowed the computer to be thinner but still with an improved power and battery performance.
Where else is this material used?
Consumer electronics is an exciting emerging area for silica aerogels, but do not represent the commercial status. The current predominant use for silica aerogel is in the oil & gas and industrial sectors with extensive applications in refineries, petrochemical plants, and pipelines. IDTechEx expect these sectors to exceed 80% of the silica market in 2019, as seen in the image below.
There are many emerging applications diversifying the industry, this includes: district energy, building & construction, transportation, apparel, cosmetics, and more. This industry has taken a long time to emerge, with many setbacks along the way, but there is a bright future ahead.
Silica aerogel market segregation by application. Source: Aerogels 2019-2029: Technologies, Markets, and Players.
What other kind of aerogels are there?
Silica aerogels have been the most explored type and currently have nearly the complete market share. However, new materials are beginning to reach commercial status most notably being organic variants. Polymer aerogels are leading the way in this area with the ability to make mechanically robust monoliths as panels or films unlike their silica counterparts. A range of polymers have been explored predominantly for the building & construction and transportation sector. This has resulted in interest from the likes of Airbus and Ford.
Aerogel tree by type - demonstrating the range of types and form of aerogel products discussed in the report: Aerogels 2019-2029: Technologies, Markets, and Players
In summary, forget what you may have assumed about aerogels as "space-age materials". The reality is that this is a diverse class of material with great potential and is already in more products than you probably knew.
IDTechEx have been analysing the aerogel industry for many years through extensive primary research. The new report, Aerogels 2019-2029: Technologies, Markets, and Players, goes far beyond what is available online and gives technical depth on the key players, manufacturing processes, applications, and more. Granular 10-year market forecasts are given for each material and applications.