Although there is a tendency to associate aerogel with more exotic applications, one of the frustrations has been finding ways to incorporate the temperamental material into common large-scale manufacturing and applications, such as insulation.

Some enterprises, however, are plugging away at the problems and are succeeding in making greater use of aerogel. One example is the teamwork between Birdair Inc., an Amherst, New York, based contractor that specializes in lightweight long-span roofing systems and tensile structures, Cabot Corp., a Boston based provider of specialty chemicals and high performance materials, and Geiger Engineers.

With the help of Geiger, Birdair developed an architectural fabric membrane that incorporates what the company calls Tensotherm, a composite made with Nanogel, an aerogel product manufactured by Cabot. Sandwiched between layers of Teflon, the membrane is less than a half-inch thick.

The beauty of a roofing system like this is that it is strong, extremely light weight and dampens sound. It also allows for what Birdair calls “daylight harvesting” – letting a large amount of diffuse sunlight to pass through.

Birdair is going to exhibit its roofing systems at the American Institute of Architects (AIA) National Convention and Design Exposition April 30–May 2 at The Moscone Center in San Francisco, CA.

Nanogel is actually Cabot’s trade name for a whole family of silica aerogels. Cabot says it has been producing Nanogel aerogel since 2003 at a plant in Frankfurt, Germany, and claims to be “the only company to develop a commercialized process that allows continuous production of the material under ambient conditions.” Cabot says it is able to manipulate the aerogel’s porosity, pore size and distribution, and bypasses normal drying methods. Beside architectural and building uses, Cabot is marketing its aerogel for use with oil and gas pipelines, coatings, cryogenic materials handling, outdoor apparel and personal care products.

Birdair, Geiger and Cabot announced their first roofing installation using the Tensotherm Nanogel last May at the Dedmon Athletic Center at Radford University in Radford, VA. Donald Geiger, founder of the engineering company, invented a roofing system that is low profile, cable-restrained and air-supported.