American Aerogel Corporation, based in Rochester, NY, develops and manufactures aerogels and related materials for temperature-sensitive shipping and other applications. Its products are used in various thermal insulation applications for the transportation of biomedical, pharmaceutical, diagnostic and other temperature-sensitive items. It is also developing conducting materials for use in electrochemical systems such as ultracapacitors, batteries and fuel cells.
The company’s flagship product – Aerocore® – is the only commercially available organic-based aerogel that exhibits low density, small pore size, extremely large surface area, and high opacity. Furthermore, the properties of Aerocore can be manipulated and optimized for specific applications and it can be manufactured in large volume at a fraction of the cost of traditional aerogels.
Aerogels can be made electrically conductive and, combined with their high surface areas, this allows them to store massive amounts of electrical charge. For this purpose, American Aerogel uses a sol-gel polymerization technique to produce a synthetic carbon material. The properties of this material can be tailored with respect to morphology and porosity and the process yields consistent batch-to-batch properties with no impurities or contaminants.
Carbon electrodes for electrochemical devices are often made from agricultural precursor materials such as coconut husks and other waste products. The raw material costs for these products are negligible. Pyrolysis of these materials yields carbon that is used in the devices, but batch-to-batch uniformity is poor and the properties of the resultant material cannot be tailored. In contrast, American Aerogel’s synthesized carbon material can be optimized to dramatically improve battery life and efficiency in portable electronics and increase the viability of new products such as electric vehicles and fuel cells.
Synthesized carbon materials are well known to have advantages over agricultural products but have generally been uncompetitive due to their cost. American Aerogel’s extensive experience in manufacturing aerogel materials for insulation purposes has given them the ability to substantially drive down the costs of the conducting materials and thereby make them more attractive for commercialization.
What distinguishes the synthetic carbon material that American Aerogel produces from competing materials is the ability to tailor its structural properties. In particular, they can tailor the porosity of the material and even create multimodal porosities. Materials are described as having macroporosity (pores greater than 50 nm), mesoporosity (pores of 2-50 nm size), or microporosity (pores less than 2 nm). Mesoporous materials are generally of greatest interest for electrochemical applications, but more complex morphologies in which both mesoporous and macroporous regions are present (bimodal or “lung-type” morphologies) may offer advantages.
American Aerogel sees electrochemical applications as a major opportunity for expanding the company’s business. Robert Mendenhall, Vice President of Business Development, stated: “We are in a unique position, relative to historical technology innovations, to have both a recognized global need for energy solutions and the tools to address it. The customer demand is even stronger than a ‘need’. Whoever puts the pieces together correctly will make an impact just as large as Edison, Tesla and Marconi at the beginning of the 20th century.”
At this point, American Aerogel is working with a number of partners in the energy storage industry to develop their materials further for use in batteries, ultracapacitors and fuel cells. They have created a library of twenty materials of varying properties for use by these partners. These collaborative efforts are aimed at modifying and tailoring these materials to best address the needs of specific product areas. They are actively seeking additional partners for this effort as well. The company expects the transition of these materials from the laboratory-testing phase to commercialization to take place over the next few years.
American Aerogel was founded in 1999 and spent its first seven years perfecting its aerogel manufacturing process. Its first pilot line came online in 2008 and its manufacturing facility was completed in 2011. It has already established itself as a performance leader in the field of aerogel-based insulation products and is now looking to expand its business into the growing energy storage industry based on its unique capabilities in advanced materials.