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Aerogel technologies

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Mechanically Strong, Flexible Polyimide Aerogels

NASA Glenn’s novel material significantly improves mechanical properties of traditional aerogels

A new polyimide aerogel developed at NASA's Glenn Research Center represents a revolutionary advance over the fragile silica aerogels currently on the market. Glenn's aerogel is 500 times stronger than conventional silica aerogels. Unlike current silica-based aerogel products that break down during handling and shed small dust particles, Glenn's organic-based, cross-linked polyimide material is highly flexible and can be made into foldable thin films. This new flexibility further enables the commercialization of aerogels in the thermal insulation market.

 Aerogel Benefits 

  • Thin and flexible: Polyimide aerogels are significantly thinner while offering similar thermal properties and outstanding mechanical performance. Polyimide aerogels can be manufactured in a flexible form and yet maintain excellent tensile properties.
  • Strong: These NASA Glenn-developed polyimide aerogels are 500 times stronger than traditional silica aerogels. Thick panels can be used as multifunctional, structural insulation. 
  • Versatile: Polyimide aerogels can be custom manufactured as molded shapes and thin films. Unsupported, flexible thin films that do not shed particles are unprecedented in the aerogel community.
  • Low thermal conductivity: With a thermal conductivity measure of 14-20 mW/m-K, polyimide aerogels inhibit conductive and convective heat transfer and offer 2-10 times improved performance over polymer foams in ambient conditions and up to 30 times improved performance in vacuum conditions. R values range from 2-10 times higher than polymer foams, which is in line with silica aerogels of the same density.
  • Lightweight: Polyimide aerogels are composed of more than 90 percent air by volume. They are significantly lighter and take up less space than fiberglass, wool, or polyurethane foam insulation, while providing the same insulation quality. They are significantly lighter than steel or ceramic composition insulation commonly used in heat shields. The thin, lightweight character of polyimide aerogels could alter the form factor requirements in a variety of insulated components, allowing them to be smaller, more compact, and lighter.
  • Low density and high surface area: Densities as low as - 0.08-0.2 g/cm3 and surface areas as high as 500 m2/g, polyimide aerogels are comparable to silica aerogels.
  • Heat resistant: Polyimide aerogels withstand temperatures up to 400 ⁰C (250-300 ⁰C in continuous use).
  • Easy to install: Because of the brittle and fragile nature of silica aerogels, they must be incorporated into a composite material or chemically modified in order to function well as insulating products. However, polyimide aerogels can be applied as a thin film or tape to objects needing insulation, such as industrial pipes or automotive frames.
  • Customizable: This NASA Glenn-developed innovation can be formed into whatever configuration is required (for example, wrapped around a pipe, sewn into protective clothing, or molded to a panel to act as a heat shield in a car) so it has an advantage over other aerogels that exist in block form and must be modified or chemically altered to function as form-fitting insulation.

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  • Thermal insulation for cryogenic propellant tanks
  • Insulated shipping containers for transporting temperature-sensitive biomedical and pharmaceutical products
  • Vibration damping materials
  • Ballistic impact absorbing materials
  • Hose insulation
  • Thermal pane skylights
  • Catalytic supports
  • Dielectrics for fast electronics
  • Filtration membranes
  • Fuel cell and battery membranes
  • Optical sensors
  • Aerospace components
  • Building insulation
  • Heat shields in vehicles

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 Technology Details 

Aerogels are extremely low-density materials with excellent thermal and acoustic insulating properties based on their high porosity and small pore diameter. This makes them attractive candidates for many aerospace applications such as insulation for cryotanks and spacesuits, as well as more down-to-Earth uses in construction, refrigeration, and pipe insulation. The main drawback that has prevented aerogels from having a broad commercial impact is their fragility.

All current aerogel products on the market today are silica-based, break down during handling and use, and shed small dust particles. Therefore, they must be encapsulated for most applications. In addition, insulation properties degrade over time as these small dust particles settle. In particulate form and within composite blanket, these aerogels have very little compressive or tensile strength and exhibit poor resistance to solvents. In addition, hydrophobic treatments that are necessary to keep the silica aerogel pore structure from collapsing in humid environments lower the thermal stability and cause out-gassing beginning at 350° C. 

aerogelNASA Glenn sought to improve the mechanical properties of aerogels by reinforcing their nanoparticle network, especially in the neck regions between particles. NASA Glenn first accomplished this particle framework strengthening in 2006, resulting in polymer-reinforced aerogels. Use of these polymer-reinforced silica aerogels is limited by the type of polymer reinforcement used. Typically, use of the cross-linking polymers is limited to applications where temperatures are well below 200° C. Many aerospace applications require a higher temperature performance. In addition, though the polymer reinforced aerogels are stronger than conventional silica aerogels, they are still stiff materials. For many applications, and for easier installation/deployment, a flexible, foldable insulation is more desirable. 

Polyimides are widely used as matrix resins for fiber-reinforced composites for aircraft engine applications because of their high-temperature stability. Organic aerogels made from linear polyimides have been reported, and while the mechanical properties for these aerogels are as good as previously reported polymer reinforced aerogels of similar density, they tend to shrink during the fabrication process because they do not possess a covalently bonded network structure.

How it Works

The NASA Glenn team is the first to synthesize three dimensionally bonded polyimide aerogels by cross-linking through either an aromatic triamine or polyhedral oligomeric silsesquioxane, octa-(aminophenyl)silsesquioxane (OAPS) and chemically imidizing at room temperature. Gels formed from polyamic acid solutions of a variety of dianhydrides or diamine and the polyamine cross-link were chemically imidized using pyridine and acetic anhydride and dried using supercritical CO2 extraction to produce aerogels with densities ranging from 0.08 to 0.35 g/cm3.

aerogel supporting carThese aerogels are 75-95 percent porous, have high surface areas (from 230 to 500 m2/g), and thermal conductivity as low as 14 mW/m-K at room temperature. Notably, the cross-linked polyimide aerogels have higher modulus than polymer-reinforced silica aerogels of similar density and can be fabricated as both monoliths and thin films. Thin films of these aerogels are flexible and foldable, making them ideal insulation for space suits, inflatable structures for habitats, and decelerators for planetary re-entry, as well as terrestrial applications. Thicker parts are stiff and strong.

With tensile modulus of 20-100 megapascal (MPa) and tensile strength of 9 MPa, the polyimide aerogel thin films are usable in automated equipment for wrapping around pipes. They are also flexible enough to be sewn into clothing and tents, layered into building materials, and molded into vehicle compartments.

Why it is Better

Conventional silica aerogels are fantastic insulators but crush easily and are difficult to work with. NASA Glenn has developed exceptionally strong polyimide aerogels that are up to 500 times stronger and have equivalent insulation ability to silica aerogels. As thin films, these polyimide aerogels are highly flexible, lightweight, and porous. Notably, the ability to fabricate the polyimide aerogels into thin films is a revolutionary advancement over silica aerogels. The innovation is technologically significant and unparalleled in the aerogel marketplace, as no other aerogel possesses the compressive and tensile strength of the NASA Glenn polyimide aerogel while it simultaneously can be flexibly folded to contour to whatever shape is needed.

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The polyimide aerogel has three patents pending:  LEW-18486-1 “Polyimide Aerogels With Three Dimensional Cross-Linked Structure”; LEW-18864-1 “Polyimide Aerogel Thin Films”; and, LEW-18893-1 “Novel Aerogel-Based Antennas (ABA) for Aerospace Applications."

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 Technical Papers and Presentations 

Technical Papers:


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 Licensing and Partnering Information 

For information and forms related to the technology licensing and partnering process, please visit the Working with GRC section of our Web site.

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If you would like more information about this technology, please contact:

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  • Page Updated: February 2, 2015
  • Page Editor:
  • NASA Official: Kim Dalgleish-Miller