After five years’ work, an MIT team can now fabricate a transparent version of a silica aerogel, an ultralight material that blocks heat transfer. They have used their aerogel in a solar thermal collector to generate temperatures suitable for water and space heating and more—without using the expensive concentrators, special materials, and vacuum enclosures that have kept current solar thermal systems from being widely adopted. They have also demonstrated that inserting an aerogel into the gap in a double-pane window will make a product that’s both affordable and highly insulating. Finally, their work has generated guidelines that will help innovators design and fabricate aerogels with nanoscale structures tailored for high performance in other critical technologies.
In recent decades, the search for high-performance thermal insulation for buildings has prompted manufacturers to turn to aerogels. Invented in the 1930s, these remarkable materials are translucent, ultraporous, lighter than a marshmallow, strong enough to support a brick, and an unparalleled barrier to heat flow, so ideal for keeping heat inside on a cold winter day and outside when summer temperatures soar.
Five years ago, researchers led by Evelyn Wang, a professor and head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Gang Chen, the Carl Richard Soderberg Professor in Power Engineering, set out to add one more property to that list. They aimed to make a silica aerogel that was truly transparent.
“We started out trying to realize an optically transparent, thermally insulating aerogel for solar thermal systems,” says Wang. Incorporated into a solar thermal collector, a slab of aerogel would allow sunshine to come in unimpeded but prevent heat from coming back out—a key problem in today’s systems. And if the transparent aerogel were sufficiently clear, it could be incorporated into windows, where it would act as a good heat barrier but still allow occupants to see out.
When the researchers started their work, even the best aerogels weren’t up to those tasks. “People had known for decades that aerogels are a good thermal insulator, but they hadn’t been able to make them very optically transparent,” says Lin Zhao PhD ’19 of mechanical engineering. “So in our work, we’ve been trying to understand exactly why they’re not very transparent and then how we can improve their transparency.”
Aerogels: Opportunities and challenges
The remarkable properties of a silica aerogel are the result of its nanoscale structure. To visualize that structure, think of holding a pile of small, clear particles in your hand. Imagine that the particles touch one another and slightly stick together, leaving gaps between them that are filled with air. Similarly, in a silica aerogel, clear, loosely connected nanoscale silica particles form a three-dimensional solid network within an overall structure that is mostly air. Because of all that air, a silica aerogel has an extremely low density—in fact, one of the lowest densities of any known bulk material—yet it’s solid and structurally strong, though brittle.
If a silica aerogel is made of transparent particles and air, why isn’t it transparent? Because the light that enters doesn’t all pass straight through. It is diverted whenever it encounters an interface between a solid particle and the air surrounding it. The diagram below illustrates the process. When light enters the aerogel, some is absorbed inside it. Some—called direct transmittance—travels straight through. And some is redirected along the way by those interfaces. It can be scattered many times and in any direction, ultimately exiting the aerogel at an angle. If it exits from the surface through which it entered, it is called diffuse reflectance; if it exits from the other side, it is called diffuse transmittance.
To make an aerogel for a solar thermal system, the researchers needed to maximize the total transmittance: the direct plus the diffuse components. And to make an aerogel for a window, they needed to maximize the total transmittance and simultaneously minimize the fraction of the total that is diffuse light. “Minimizing the diffuse light is critical because it’ll make the window look cloudy,” says Zhao. “Our eyes are very sensitive to any imperfection in a transparent material.”
Developing a model
The sizes of the nanoparticles and the pores between them have a direct impact on the fate of light passing through an aerogel. But figuring out that interaction by trial and error would require synthesizing and characterizing too many samples to be practical. “People haven’t been able to systematically understand the relationship between the structure and the performance,” says Zhao. “So we needed to develop a model that would connect the two.”
To begin, Zhao turned to the radiative transport equation, which describes mathematically how the propagation of light (radiation) through a medium is affected by absorption and scattering. It is generally used for calculating the transfer of light through the atmospheres of Earth and other planets. As far as Wang knows, it has not been fully explored for the aerogel problem.
Both scattering and absorption can reduce the amount of light transmitted through an aerogel, and light can be scattered multiple times. To account for those effects, the model decouples the two phenomena and quantifies them separately—and for each wavelength of light.
Based on the sizes of the silica particles and the density of the sample (an indicator of total pore volume), the model cal