Aerogel is the perfect material for many insulation purposes. It is heat-resistant up to 600 degrees, ultralight, non-toxic – and provides excellent thermal insulation. Only its complicated and expensive production causes quite a headache. An Empa start-up is about to revolutionize the manufacturing process. If successful, there will soon be affordable aerogel for everyone.
Needless to say, NASA has already had it for a long time: aerogel, a kind of mineral foam that only weighs around 100 kilograms per cubic meter. Rocket makers soaked the light material in fuel to render rocket stages safer, and space researchers used the supermaterial to collect comet dust in space and brought it back to Earth. But owners of old buildings in Switzerland are also reaping the benefits from its tremendous insulation performance: in 2013 the construction company Fixit brought an innovative aerogel insulating render it had co-developed with Empa to the market, which does not compromise historical façades and even insulates them more effectively than polystyrene foam.
However, the material remains scarce and expensive. Two US-based manufacturing companies dominate today’s global markets. Still, the production process is slow to boot up and accelerate. This is because aerogel manufacturing requires complex processing, a healthy dose of patience – and large quantities of chemical solvents. Until now, that is.