The Johnson Space Center researched methods to coat aerogel insulation in order to make it better able to withstand vibration, mechanical compression and flexure, and other environmental damage. This NASA-developed nanoencapsulated aerogel technology is a method for increasing the strength of the aerogel through a coating process while maintaining its insulating properties. With this ruggedizing process, the coating of the aerogel reduces mechanical damage, enabling its practical use in products that might not be suitable with the more fragile aerogel. The basic coating can also shield it from adsorbing humidity or other gases, which could otherwise bind to the substance and change its properties. Functionalized coatings could be developed to adsorb certain gases if that is desired. Aerogel’s low density and extremely low thermal conductivity make it useful as a lightweight, volume-efficient insulation material. Encapsulating the aerogel expands its ability to be incorporated into products that are exposed to vibration and compression during manufacture, shipping, or use. It can also improve its flexibility, opening up a range of new product uses.
The coating process is done on the microscopic level and can use a variety of monomers. The resulting polymer permeates the aerogel’s microstructure, strengthening it and reducing fragmentation even if the aerogel matrix itself suffers some breakage, thereby maintaining its insulation value and alleviating environmental concerns about the scattering of particles. Through a chemical vapor deposition process, this method can also use titanium dioxide as an additive to retard radiative heat transfer, in addition to the suppression of normal conductive heat transfer. The goal of the encapsulation process is to maintain most of the porosity and insulation value of the aerogel while making the material more rugged. The coating process is expected to increase the material’s strength by 20 percent or more while maintaining its insulating property.
The new technology would allow aerogel to be marketed in previously undertapped areas, for uses such as a space-saving thermal insulator, since the current form has a greater R-value than other thermal materials. Other uses for the technology include gas adsorbents, acoustic insulation, color-changing gas sensors, catalyst supports, fire blocks, high-efficiency filters, and capturing fragments from small penetrating particles.