Small pores, big effect - aerogels are materials consisting of microscopically small pores. This gives them an exceptionally large surface area and makes them an extremely lightweight material that can be used particularly well as thermal insulation, carrier or filter material. The start-up aerogel-it has succeeded for the first time in producing aerogels on a biological basis with properties relevant for industrial use. Three researchers, some of them former members of the Hamburg University of Technology, are also involved in the project.
Until now, aerogels have been produced mainly from fossil and energy-intensive raw materials, starting from silicon dioxide. The start-up aerogel-it has set itself the goal of producing aerogels on a biobased basis. "Among other things, we use the biopolymer lignin. This is a plant raw material from wood that is a byproduct of paper production," says co-founder and managing director Dr. Marc Fricke. He sees this as the unique selling point of his start-up: "We are the first to have succeeded in producing 100 percent bio aerogels from lignin that are sustainable and can be used industrially." And the product also scores points for sustainability in further processing. This is because the aerogels can be used, among other things, as a high-performance insulating material, thus paying for reduced energy consumption.
From by-product to insulating material
During production, the lignin is first dissolved in water. A crosslinking reaction then produces a kind of gel, a fine network structure in which the water is trapped. The water in the gel is exchanged for alcohol. The alcohol is then removed in a special high-pressure process, leaving only the fine network structure as dry material. The result is a granulate, millimeter-sized beads that consist of 90 percent very fine, air-filled pores.
The thermal insulation material can be used as granules or as pressed boards. The field of application for the new technology is wide: the material is suitable for construction applications, but also for refrigerators, transport boxes or - quite differently - as a carrier for fragrances. "We are in exchange with a manufacturer of programmable scented candles. The pore structure of our aerogels makes it possible to absorb a particularly large amount of fragrance and release it again in a constant quality over a long period of time," says Dr. Fricke. Demand is high overall, he adds. After all, the product helps customers to improve their carbon footprint and at the same time increase their product quality. The current task is to find investors in order to be able to set up the first industrial production.
About the founders
Of the seven founders, three are former members of the Hamburg University of Technology: Dr. Raman Subrahmanyam, Prof. Pavel Gurikov and Alberto Bueno from Prof. Irina Smirnova's Institute of Thermal Separation Processes. The idea was born in 2020 from joint work with the chemical company BASF, through which the founders got to know each other. Even then, they worked closely with the TU Hamburg and the institute. Research and further development still take place in the technical center on the TU campus.
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