Chairman of the Board, and one of the founders of Svenska Aerogel, Professor Christer Sjöström has been vital for the development of the company. He continues to maintain a central and driving position in the company as it enters a more commercial phase.
Aerogel has long been regarded as a super material, not least by NASA, but has been too expensive for wide usage. Could you briefly tell us how Aerogel got your attention?
Aerogels have always aroused my interest, and that of other material researchers due to the material’s exciting properties such as low weight and great porosity, which mean groundbreaking possibilities.
In 1996, Lars G. Lindahl, who worked with air filtration and later became co-founder of Svenska Aerogel, commented that aerogel could technically be the perfect material to purify air from molecular pollution such as gases from incineration that cause corrosion and that are generally harmful to humans and the environment. We agree on the purely technical advantages, but also that the cost of producing traditional aerogel was too high, in part due to expensive chemicals and a difficult and expensive production process.
The research group I led took on the challenge to try using common chemicals and to manufacture a aerogel structure at room temperature using normal pressure.
The research and development work started at the Royal Institute of Technology in Gävle in 1997.
We are happy to report that we not only succeeded in producing a cheaper aerogel, but also improved a number of its properties.
And with that, the foundation to today’s Svenska Aerogel was established.
In what way does Svenska Aerogel with its variety of the material, Quartzene, ensure that we will see aerogels more widely used?
Our material – Quartzene®, what you could call a second-generation aerogel – and the production method, open up to totally new markets thanks to lower manufacturing costs, production flexibility and increased functionality.
Quartzene makes the use of aerogel feasible in areas where, earlier, it was not financially viable.
Our process is highly adaptable. Unlike traditional aerogels, Quartzene can be used in contexts requiring water absorbent (hydrophilic) or water resistant (hydrophobic) properties. The process also facilitates adaptation of the material to capture particular types of pollutants in gas or liquid filtration.
Its hydrophilic properties are normally a great advantage when Quartzene is to be used in manufacturing processes requiring the use of water, such as in water-based paint production. The trend in manufacturing is also to avoid using environmentally harmful solvents whenever possible and to instead develop water-based processes. We have an important role to play in this.
Will Quartzene be a material that the general public will have a relationship to, like plastic or velcro?
Maybe not quite, but I believe we will all benefit from the fantastic attributes of the material. Everyone knows plastic, from knife sheaths and plastic bags to plastic wrap, and even velcro. Quartzene has the possibility to radically improve the properties of plastic products, just to give an example. With environmentally adapted methods and attractive prices, we have proven that it is possible to produce a material with very low density and extremely high porosity that can bring new or improved properties to other groups of materials and products.
So we have the opportunity to create new and improved products and technologies in Svenska Aerogel’s focus areas of application. Perhaps the general public will then benefit from a refined end product or technology in accordance with the motto, ”Quartzene inside it”.
What has been your personal driving force in developing Svenska Aerogel?
My curiosity was triggered by an interesting question or statement about air filtration. And my interest was shared by representatives of Swedish industry, among others.
When we saw the technical possibilities of our solution, there was no turning back. The material was just too good to collect dust on a shelf! It’s this journey I’m so enthusiastic to be a part of.
How has interest in Svenska Aerogel’s solution changed during the years?
Interest has increased radically. Commercially, the fastest developing area is paint and coatings. In the area of insulation, we have not only seen interest in thermal insulation, but also in acoustic insulation. Naturally, we are also focusing on air filtration, an area in which we have added entirely new applications, and, we are even looking at liquid filtration to a greater degree.
Has progress been quicker or slower than you thought?
The basic research and development period, stretching from idea generation in 1996/1997 to commercialization in 2010, may seem long, but we have worked according to the resources at our disposal and we must respect that such a process requires a level of maturity and that it gains a degree of foothold. The period between 2010 and now has been a quick one for Svenska Aerogel and we now have a foundation for an even quicker progression.
What is your view of Svenska Aerogel’s potential?
I am optimistic. Svenska Aerogel will continue to develop as a desirable supplier of technology and material to other industries that manufacture material and products.
Do you see competition as a risk? If so, please elaborate.
We should expect competition. This need not be a bad thing since it can help raise awareness of the potential of products such as aerogels. Our competitive advantage is the Quartzene process, which now has a good technical foothold, and, we have received international acknowledgement from the EU program Horizon 2020 and the American Chemical Society, to name a few.
Currently, I see no competitor who can fully compete with Quartzene.
We also have strong portfolio of IP rights, which basically gives us a considerable head start.
What is your ”dream deal” for Svenska Aerogel?
I have a number of dream deals. But I am greatly interested in establishing a Quartzene process in another manufacturing industry to provide that industry with Quartzene’s benefits to improving the end product’s performance and price.
Christer Sjöström, Founder and Professor of Materials Engineering