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Foam's Future Seen in Space and Industry

Image above: The thermal insulation system called AeroFoam was developed at the Cryogenics Testbed Laboratory at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The AeroFoam insulation is made of constituent materials, aerogel particles, aerogel blanket and polymide microballoons. Photo Credit: NASA/James Fesmire
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Materials designed with specialized thermal properties have been integral components of NASA's space shuttles and other launch vehicles for many years. Now, two thermal insulation systems developed by scientists at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida may have application for future exploration programs, as well as the commercial world.

The thermal insulation system known as layered composite insulation, or LCI, and the foam-aerogel composite material, also known as AeroFoam, were assigned U.S. Patent numbers in 2005 and 2010 respectively. Just recently, exclusive research licenses for these technologies were granted to Flexure LLC.

Cody Bateman, the chief executive officer of Flexure, said there are numerous applications and industry crossovers, particularly in transportation and construction, which could benefit from these technologies.

"Flexure has a strong working relationship with NASA at Kennedy and Goddard Space Flight Center," Bateman said. "Since we specialize in cryogenics engineering, we are exposed to many of the best technologies in the world and understand applications where they can best be used."

Jeff Kohler is the business manager for QinetiQ North America and supports Kennedy's Technology Transfer Office. He said an exclusive research license is a short-term license that allows a company to look at technologies and determine how they want to develop them.

"Companies can commit significant resources during their evaluation of NASA technologies," Kohler said. "A short term exclusive research license helps protect their investment by granting them exclusive rights to the intellectual property associated with the invention"

LCI was developed by senior principal investigator James Fesmire, and senior principal scientist Dr. Stan Augustynowicz, co-founders of the Cryogenics Test Laboratory (CTL), with the idea for it dating back to 1998.

"The LCI system is the world record holder for the lowest thermal conductivity insulation system in a soft vacuum environment," Fesmire said. "It is made into blanket forms like multilayer insulation, but includes a third element of a high surface area material such as aerogel powder."

The AeroFoam technology, with origins back to 2002, was developed jointly by Fesmire, Trent Smith, who is now strategic communications manager for the Commercial Crew Program, lead polymer scientist Dr. Martha Williams in the Polymers Science and Technology Laboratory, lead engineer Jared Sass at Kennedy's CTL, and Dr. Eric Weiser, who was a senior materials engineer in the Research Directorate at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

According to Fesmire, AeroFoam is a composite of polymeric foams and aerogels.

"The foams and aerogels can be in different forms and be put together in many different ways," Fesmire said. "It is currently made in molded forms using heat-oven equipment."

Fesmire said both technologies could be tailored for a wide range of different applications, including cryogenic piping and tanks, building construction, superconducting power cables, hydrogen cars and space exploration habitats.

Kohler said the licensee may investigate a combination of the AeroFoam and the LCI in a soft vacuum for aerospace and military commercial applications, and in the food storage and transportation industries.

"While independently, each of these two technologies are truly innovative, combining the two technologies creates a system that Flexure believes will revolutionize the entire thermal and acoustical insulation industry," Bateman said. "The number of applications in industry is almost limitless."

Bateman added that there is still a significant amount of research required to commercialize these technologies. The first commercial use is scheduled for 2013, as several corporations have shown significant interest.

Linda Herridge
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center