New Material Could Extend Shipments

Naturally black, Aeroblack is wrapped in reflective material. The vacuum insulation panels made with Aeroblack have an insulative value of R 50 per in. Panels provided by American Aerogel Corp.

Thermal insulation may just be rocket science. Aerogels have been used in space to capture comet particles, but Rochester, NY-based American Aerogel Corp. (AAC) has high hopes for the porous foam back here on Earth.

The company has been issued two patents for manufacturing its Aeroblack aerogel and a third for the material’s proprietary composition. Dennis Young, CEO, says that its Aeroblack has an insulation value of R 50 per inch. It can maintain temperatures in the 2–8ÞC range for 120 hours, and it also promises shock and vibration dampening, Young reports.

According to Wikipedia, aerogels can be made from a number of different materials, including silica, metals, and polymers. AAC, however, has whipped up a batch of carbon gel and removed the liquid, leaving the solid intact. The result is a naturally black, open-cell material made up of nanosized pores. “We have created the first commercially viable aerogel monolith,” says Young. “Our focus has been to design the material for manufacturability and to balance cost versus performance.” For example, it can be produced at just a few dollars per sq ft.

AAC is manufacturing Aeroblack for uses as a vacuum insulation panel (VIP), producing 15,000 plus units to date. Young believes that ACC can fare better than Dow Chemical did with its VIP material Instill. “One huge advantage for Aeroblack is that the vacuum needed is 1000 times less than that needed for the Instill product. The consistent pore size of Aeroblack enables the use of this low vacuum while allowing for better performance,” says Young.

AAC offers real-world examples from users demonstrating cost savings. In one, an Aeroblack VIP shipper is compared with a traditional expanded polystyrene shipper. The EPS cooler, packed with 20 lb of dry ice, costs about $189 to ship internationally. The Aeroblack-enabled box, with only 4 lb of dry ice, costs about $131 to ship. Another study compares a 48-hour polyurethane case with 18 lb of dry ice with a 168-hour Aeroblack-enabled box with 8 lb of dry ice, both shipped domestically. Because Aeroblack enabled the customer to reduce shipments from twice per week to once per week, the $68 shipment of the once-weekly Aeroblack solution beat the $142 cost of the twice-weekly polyurethane case. “Our boxes can act like storage containers in addition to shippers,” says Young. “Companies can reduce their number of shipments.”

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Made up of 70–80% of carbon, Aeroblack could also be considered environmentally friendly. During manufacturing, there are no risks of explosion, and virtually all the chemical effluent is recaptured and reused. “After we mix our ingredients, we get a gel, then we extract the liquid and use that liquid to make more material,” says Young. “There is no material waste.” For disposal, the material can be broken up into a dirt-like dust. Aeroblack could be used to replace polystyrene, polyurethane, and fiberglass, the company claims.

Smith & Nephew reportedly put Aeroblack through a long structural validation process. They conducted shake, rattle, and roll tests, and the product did not break down under vibration.

The material could be reused for multiple shipments. “In just five seconds, a handheld device can determine whether the VIP will still work,” says Young.

In the last few months, AAC has been focusing on Aeroblack’s manufacturing technology. Young says that one of the failing points of VIPs has traditionally been manufacturing inconsistencies. “We have developed a technique that we are confident produces a consistent output,” he says. “We are ready to build a production line to make VIPs on a mass scale.”

Kodiak Thermal Technologies Inc. (Houston) currently uses Aeroblack in its R11 refrigerated container. (The firm does source VIPs from a number of sources.)

“VIPs typically have R-factors in the 35-45 range, and AAC’s are always in the low 40s,” says Don Pagel, Kodiak’s CEO. “We ask our panels to be engineered to fine specifications, and AAC always meets them.”

Pagel adds that making VIPs can be challenging, especially with novel materials. “When you pull a vacuum on loose materials, such as those provided by AAC, the core material has to be strong enough to support the integrity of the panel, yet the voids sizeable enough for the vacuum. AAC does a fine job with fairly unique assembly.”

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