Innovation Awards: Cabot's light, bright and right solution

21 October 2013 11:10  [Source: ICB]

Cabot’s development of aerogel and its many applications has unleashed the potential to transform the energy efficiency of buildings and industrial sites around the world

Cabot’s breakthrough aerogel is a clear winner. The silica-based product, which gives premium energy-savings performance, is starting to make significant progress in Europe’s building and construction industry and other world regions such as North America and China are not far behind.


 Raj Chary (left) and Nick Cross are working to formulate a superior product using aerogels

Thrilled at winning the award, as well as with the initial success of aerogel in the market, Nick Cross, president, Advanced Technologies & EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Africa), says Cabot is in a unique position. “We have a broad portfolio of patents and know-how developed over the years, and we are the only producer of particulate aerogel in a continuous ambient process at commercial scale,” he says.

Aerogel, sometimes called “frozen smoke”, is the lightest and best insulating solid in the world, according to Cabot. Sold under the names Cabot Lumira and Enova aerogel, Cabot’s product is a hydrophobic, or water-repellent, aerogel produced as particles. Each particle consists of more than 90% air contained in a silica microstructure with pore sizes less than the mean free path of air molecules, which severely inhibits heat transfer through the material.

Raj Chary, vice president and general manager, Aerogel, says the challenge has been to produce at a commercial scale and in a cost-effective and safe way. He explains that Cabot decided to pursue a continuous process at ambient conditions that lends itself to being scaled up more effectively than a batch process.

“Working through the challenges to make the process operationally successful has been the most important development, and one that sets us up to make aerogel a widely used material rather than a novelty product,” says Chary. He adds that the process has seen some very significant modifications during the past 10 years, culminating in Cabot’s ability today to make aerogel continuously, in a safe and reliable way, while maintaining a high level of quality.

Cabot’s facility in Frankfurt, Germany, is its sole manufacturing base at present but the company has plans to build additional plants in the future. Chary says the existing plant is structured to make specialised grades at very high quality levels, but this means lower levels of production at a relatively higher cost.

He says: “Looking to the future, we see enormous potential for aerogel in the building and construction (B&C) markets, which require higher volumes and lower costs. We have already completed a fairly detailed design for a larger-scale plant, which will allow us to scale our manufacturing process, reduce our costs, and meet these B&C needs. We have also scoped out a few locations for this future plant.”

Europe is leading the way in market trends for building and construction where legislation is demanding significant reductions in energy demands; approximately 40% of the global energy usage is in buildings, according to Cabot. “If you juxtapose this trend with the potential to bring down aerogel prices, the potential is very significant and this is what we are well poised to capitalise on. We are getting a strong level of interest from potential partners to jointly invest in our business, and we are hoping that we can validate the market potential in the near future and then move ahead with building the scaled up facility,” says Chary.


Cabot plans to build additional plants

The demand for aerogel is still relatively small, because its applications are fairly specialised. Cabot has a broad portfolio of applications from insulation for sub-sea pipe-in-pipe, daylighting in polycarbonate (PC) panels, fibre-reinforced polymer and glass units, tensile roofing membranes, to speciality ones like personal care and highly insulating thermally insulative coatings (HiTICS).

Chary says: “We expect some of these applications like HiTICS to grow substantially over the years, and we are really excited about the application in building and construction, with board and plaster products, that are showing excellent promise. Penetrating just 1% of the B&C insulation market in Germany, Switzerland and Austria will require us to produce aerogel at a much larger scale than we can today.”

Cabot’s expectations are that select markets like B&C and HiTICs will grow at an annual rate of more than 50% over the next few years. In Europe, insulation needs have increased dramatically to meet stricter environmental standards which are calling for a 20% reduction in energy consumption by 2020. Chary says there is a growing need to find alternate materials rather than add 15cm of insulation and compromise on building space, particularly in areas where real estate is expensive. The US, on the other hand, has seen the strongest development in industrial applications, which are better suited for HiTICs.

There is also strong interest from Asia, Japan and China in particular, across both B&C and HiTICs applications. The Fukushima nuclear disaster resulting from the tsunami in March 2011 has intensified Japan’s push towards energy conservation, and Cabot is seeing a dramatic interest in the commercialisation of aerogel-based products there. Chary adds: “I would not be surprised if China leapfrogs ahead on energy conservation – the interest in China is coming from very large companies and the development work seems to be taking off strongly.”

Cross says Cabot’s strategy for aerogel is to continue to partner with leaders – both in application areas like plasters and coatings, where a partner can formulate a superior product using aerogels, as well as in the manufacturing of aerogel, where partners will co-invest and build on its technology capabilities.

Cabot’s current B&C portfolio comprises five specific aerogel products: plaster, boards, daylighting systems, tensile roofing, and coatings used in commercial and residential building and construction projects. The company says these products are key enablers in the support of efforts to meet even the most stringent regional and industry standards and energy codes. They can significantly improve thermal efficiency and indoor air quality, reduce heating, air conditioning and ventilation (HVAC) and lighting/electrical system loads, protect systems and personnel, enhance productivity and increase occupant comfort.

To date, collaborations have been undertaken with Danish stone wool producer Rockwool, German company Sto, specialising in exterior insulating and finishing systems (and a previous winner of an ICIS Innovation Award), Swiss building products company Fixit, US-Japanese tensile architecture contractor Birdair-Taiyo, and US architectural and industrial coatings firm Tnemec.

A two-year joint development project with Rockwool resulted in Aerowool/Aerorock, a high-performance composite of aerogel and mineral wool in a rigid board for use in building insulation. Sto has combined Cabot’s aerogel particles with its binder and composite technology to make a super slim composite board, called StoTherm In Aevero, that offers greater energy efficiency than traditional materials. Birdair-Taiyo has incorporated aerogel into their tensile roofing products for a highly insulative membrane. The partnership with Tnemec uses Enova aerogel in a new insulative coating that is designed for pipes, tanks or steel in industrial facilities such as refineries and processing plants.

A new aerogel-based plaster, Fixit 222, was developed as part of a publicly funded project with the Swiss research and services institution, EMPA, for the renovation of historical buildings to significantly enhance energy savings. Switzerland has more than 1.5 million historic buildings, and a solution was needed that could help owners insulate their buildings, cut energy consumption and protect historical facades. Developed by Fixit, the plaster provides more than twice the insulation capabilities of existing insulating plasters using polystyrene (PS), and also exhibits superior European fire class A performance.

“Cabot has a long history of investing in technologies and products that provide step-change performance opportunities for customers ready to drive innovation, and we believe that the aerogel business has the potential to become a strategic pillar for Cabot in the future,” says Cross.

Both Cross and Chary are very optimistic about aerogel’s growth prospects and its future contribution to Cabot, and as Chary points out, even more important is the impact the aerogel business and technology can have on sustainability and the environment. “That will be the ultimate contribution,” he says.

Cabot’s development of aerogel is testimony to the many years’ hard work and tenacity of the company in persevering where others have tried and failed. Aerogel is not new; the product has been around since the early 1930s when it was developed by Samuel Kistler as a research project. Kistler went on to evaluate the remarkable properties of silica aerogels and published several papers on the topic. His approach was based on a supercritical drying process.

In the following decade, Monsanto used this process to build the first commercial aerogel plant. Sold under the name Santocell, it was used in insulation-based applications, or as a thickening agent and flatting agent for paints. However, Monsanto abandoned its operations in 1970.

Later, in the mid-1990s, Germany’s Hoechst, which had a silica business, became interested in the product. Around that time, academic research had discovered aerogels could be made by using ambient pressure drying. Hoechst adopted this approach and built a pilot facility.

In parallel, Cabot, which had a close business relationship with US chemical manufacturer Dow Corning, had also been working on aerogels for silicone reinforcement.When Hoechst decided to exit the aerogel business, Cabot acquired the intellectual property, combined it with the technology from Dow Corning, and built a semi-works plant in Frankfurt, Germany, that became operational in 2003.

By: Elaine Burridge
+44 20 8652 3214

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