Research News

UB researchers’ manufacturing innovation recognized by NASA

By ROBBY JOHNSON

Published October 24, 2018

headshot of Shenqiang Ren
“We are expecting a 90-percent reduction of the manufacturing cost of silica aerogel. The impact will be huge for many applications, buildings, industry and NASA missions.”
Shenqiang Ren, professor
Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

An innovation in the manufacturing process of cost-effective thermal insulation silica aerogel developed by UB researchers Shenqiang Ren and Chi Zhou earned a spot among the top 25 semifinalists in the third cycle of the NASA iTech competition.

NASA iTech is an initiative developed by NASA to promote creation of innovative ideas that address challenges in future space exploration and on Earth. Ideas may come from business, academia or government organizations.

“NASA iTech is a one-of-a-kind agency activity,” says Kira Blackwell, a NASA iTech program executive. “Our top 25 semifinalists represent proposed technologies with the greatest technical viability, likely impact on space exploration and potential for commercialization.”

Ren, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and a RENEW Institute faculty hire, and Zhou, assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering, collaborated on a project to reduce the cost of producing silica aerogel, a synthetic gel that features low thermal conductivity.

Having low thermal conductivity means that silica aerogel can be an effective insulator. NASA has used it for the Mars Rover, its space suits and for trapping space dust particles. It can even be implemented in skylighting.

 But, despite its usefulness, widespread use comes at a price.

“The major drawback for large-scale adoption of silica aerogels as a standard thermal-insulation material is their high production cost,” Ren says. “As a result, current aerogel production is mostly used for industrial applications, such as pipeline insulation, or NASA space explorations.”

After undergoing the most common drying process, a supercritical drying approach, during manufacturing, silica aerogel costs a steep $16 per square foot, making it unfeasible for frequent use. Ren and Zhou have developed a different, ambient-pressure drying approach that reduces costs substantially.

“We are expecting a 90-percent reduction of the manufacturing cost of silica aerogel,” says Ren. “The impact will be huge for many applications, buildings, industry and NASA missions.”

The biggest difference in the two drying processes is that supercritical drying is a long, expensive and complicated method. By creating a simpler, quicker drying process that’s done on site, rapid manufacturing and cost reduction are both achievable.

The ambient-pressure approach also leaves a much smaller footprint on the environment. Water is used as the main solvent in the process instead of toxic chemicals, creating a reduction in emissions that is higher than the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2030 target.

Ren and Zhou say their next steps are to collaborate with Mark Swihart, UB Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, and Unifrax, a Buffalo thermal management solutions company, to integrate their findings with Unifrax’s thermal insulation products. They also hope to apply their work to 3D printing.