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Invented between 1929-1930 by Dr. Samuel Stephens Kistler at the College of the Pacific in Stockton, California, aerogel is a solid formed by removing the liquid from a gel through a process called supercritical drying. Using this process, Kistler removed liquid from silica gel under both high temperature and high pressure without damaging the solid component. What remained was a fine porous structural skeleton, which Kistler termed "aerogel."

 

Despite the unique physical nature of aerogel, commercialization remained elusive for almost 70 years. Many companies, including Monsanto and BASF, tried to commercialize aerogel from 1950 to 1990, but failed due to the high manufacturing costs, limited batch production, and safety risks associated with supercritical drying.

 

All of this changed in the mid 1990s:

Cabot Corporation pioneers atmospheric aerogel production
  • In 1992, researchers at the University of New Mexico discovered how to control gel shrinkage via silation of organogels.
  • In 1993, Cabot, Dow Corning, Hoechst and Nanopore all undertook research programs aimed at controlling gel shrinkage through surface modification technology. It was during this time that an alternative drying technique was developed that enabled the production of aerogel at a reasonable cost through a continuous, sustainable, and safe manufacturing process.
  • Between 1996 and 1998 Cabot, Dow and Hoechst all filed a series of patents on direct silation routes to control gel shrinkage – with Cabot then purchasing and/or licensing the patents from Dow, Nanopore and Hoechst.
  • 2003 Cabot begins commercial production of its Nanogel® brand aerogel.
  • 2011 Cabot's aerogel business launches new insulative and specialty additive, Enova® aerogel, and renames its daylighting products, Lumira® aerogel.

 

Using its four decades of expertise in modifying the surface of fumed silica, Cabot revolutionized the manufacture of aerogel – and was the first and only company to develop a commercialized process that allows production of the material under ambient conditions. This process allows Cabot to control the material's porosity, pore size and distribution, and bypasses the high-cost traditional method of super-critical drying. Cabot has been commercially producing aerogel since 2003, and retains an extensive patent portfolio that includes coverage of the manufacture and use of aerogel in a wide range of applications.