Spinoff is NASA’s annual publication featuring successfully commercialized NASA technology. This commercialization has contributed to the development of products and services in the fields of health and medicine, consumer goods, transportation, public safety, computer technology, and environmental resources.
Jon Rosenberg, who worked in the outdoor gear industry, learned the hard way that the outdoor gear market still didn’t entirely take extreme conditions into account. In just one day, the cold killed the batteries in the camera he brought when camping in the Rocky Mountains.
But he knew of a class of high-performance insulation pioneered by NASA to keep cryogenic rocket fuel chilled to -423° F in the Florida heat. The key to these insulators is a substance called aerogel, which was invented before NASA existed. It’s made by removing all the moisture from a gel — usually made of silica — while leaving the solid structure intact. The resulting material is almost entirely air, pocketed in tiny chambers. It weighs next to nothing and is nearly impervious to heat. However, until NASA got involved, it was also too fragile to use.
In the 1990s, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center was looking for better insulation to maintain the frigid temperatures needed for storing space shuttle fuel. The best cryogenic insulations at the time were layered metallized thin films that reflected radiated heat and could be placed in a vacuum to prevent heat conduction or convection. But they were relatively expensive and heavy, and their ability to conduct heat along their surfaces caused complications.
A company called Aspen Systems had an idea for incorporating aerogel into flexible insulating blankets. They developed a process to coat insulation fibers with aerogel to trap air while also stopping heat conduction. The process was developed and honed over about 10 years. Today, NASA uses aerogel in myriad ways and Aspen Aerogels has spun off to specialize in what became one of the most successful, widespread spinoffs in NASA’s history, incorporated into outdoor wear, building and industrial insulation, and more.
PrimaLoft is a brand known for high-performance insulation since the 1980s. After PrimaLoft employees toured the Aspen Aerogels manufacturing facility and became inspired, the company began developing two new lines of aerogel insulation. PrimaLoft began purchasing aerogel blankets from Aspen, enclosing them in a film to trap any dust and make them easily manageable, and cutting them down to fit in boots and other gear to meet client demand.
This became the PrimaLoft Gold Insulation Aerogel line and it’s what Rosenberg chose for his new startup, Cold Case Gear, through which he aims to build a line of pouches that will protect small essentials like batteries, electronics, and snacks. Because it traps air more effectively than traditional materials, the insulation can be thinner while retaining performance. In 2021, Cold Case Gear moved into full production of its first product: the West Slope smartphone case.
Another outdoor company that uses this new iteration of aerogel blankets in several products is Outdoor Research, which began making footwear for the most extreme winter climbing and in 2019, updated that product line with aerogel insulation, also adding the material into gloves, campsite footwear, and a beanie.
PrimaLoft recently created a new line called Cross Core for general-purpose use in outdoor apparel. This started with a bucket of aerogel dust created as a byproduct from the manufacturing process Aspen developed with NASA. Rather than fixing aerogel around and between fibers, PrimaLoft figured out how to infuse the Aspen aerogel particles into the inside of ultra-fine fibers. The result is a fluffy, soft, breathable insulation with 15 to 20% better thermal performance than synthetic fibers without aerogel. Dozens of apparel companies are already incorporating this new aerogel-infused insulation into consumer products.
Read this and other NASA Spin-Offs at NASA.gov .