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Born in NASA labs, Aerogel insulation is finally making it to your wardrobe

Jon Collier, Flickr

Back in 2010, Champion – a company best known for making sweatshirts and underwear – generated quite a bit of excitement in the outdoor gear market by introducing a prototype mountaineering suit for use on Mt. Everest. The company’s so-called “Super Suit” was viewed as quite a breakthrough at the time, eschewing the use of warm but bulky down insulation in favor of a product called aerogel instead. Described as the lightest, thinnest, and warmest insulator known to man, aerogel promised to revolutionize the outdoor industry, keeping climbers, skiers, and polar explorers warm and comfortable even in extreme conditions.

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Originally created back in 1931, aerogel is the result of a process called supercritical drying, which provides the ability to remove liquids from a gel and replace it with a gas instead. The result is a solid substance that is incredibly lightweight and has a very low level of thermal conductivity. In other words, they retain warmth extremely well, making them highly efficient insulators. The down side of aerogels is that they tend to be extremely fragile, can dissolve in water, and don’t allow the venting of excess heat and moisture, all of which has historically made it difficult to use in commercial products.

Following a successful test of the Super Suit on Everest, Champion declared their use of the material a success, but indicated that aerogel was just too expensive to bring to the consumer market. After that, it seemed as if the miracle insulator faded into obscurity, its amazing potential back-burnered  in favor of other synthetic options that were easier and more efficient to work with, even if they didn’t offer the level of performance that aerogel could provide.

Fast-forward to today however, and aerogel is starting to make a comeback. Improvements in manufacturing yields and tweaks to the aerogel formula have allowed it to finally start to become a viable option for outdoor gear manufacturers. Much of the credit for this goes to  a company called PrimaLoft, which specializes in making fabrics and insulation for use in high performance outdoor apparel.

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Researchers at the company found a way to overcome one of aerogel’s most problematic characteristics, its inability to retain its structure when immersed in water. By finding a way to apply a thin waterproof membrane to the aerogel the material gained the ability to resist moisture and avoid falling apart. The result was a new product called PrimaLoft Gold Aerogel, which is making its way into a variety of products now.

PrimaLoft’s breakthrough has allowed some big names in the outdoor industry to begin shipping new products that utilize aerogel in some innovative ways. For instance, the BitterBlaze glove from Outdoor Research integrates the insulator over the palm and wraps around each individual finger, adding extra warmth where it is needed most. Similarly, footwear manufacturer Merrell has introduced a boot called the Thermo Rogue Ice+ that uses aerogel to keep a hiker’s feet warm in cold temperatures.

Aerogel has famously employed aerogel as an insulator in the spacesuits used by astronauts

Other companies, like Helly Hansen and Daehlie are taking a more conservative approach, integrating the insulation into the pockets of jackets and base layers in an effort to keep smartphone batteries well protected from the energy-sapping cold. Meanwhile, L.L. Bean has gone all in on aerogel, launching jackets and sleeping bags that use the material improve temperature ratings.

Another company that has been on the cutting-edge when it comes to using aerogel is Oros Apparel. The outdoor clothing manufacturer was founded by two friends – Rithvik Venna and Michael Markesbery – who met while in college at Miami University in Ohio. When Markesbry went on a climbing trip in the Alps he discovered that he had a hard time staying warm, despite using quality gear from some well known outdoor brands. Upon returning home he voiced his displeasure about the cold conditions and how is clothing performed to Venna, all the while thinking about possible ways to improve the gear that he had used on the trip.

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For most of us, that would probably mean upgrading our gear to the latest product from our favorite outdoor companies in an effort to find insulating layers that performed better. Not the case for Markesbery and Venna however, as the two friends pursued – and received –a scholarship from NASA, which has famously employed aerogel as an insulator in the spacesuits used by astronauts . The two college students then spent the rest of their time at the university looking for a way to use that same material for more terrestrial pursuits, developing their own proprietary aerogel-based insulator called SolarCore. After graduating, they launched Oros with SolarCore serving as the pillar for the business.

Markesbery tells Digital Trends, “The original aerogel used by NASA is the lowest thermal conductive solid in existence, meaning it’s the best insulation in the known universe. By using aerogel in apparel, you can create the warmest outerwear in the world, at a fraction of the bulk.” He is quick to add however, “Traditional aerogel has one challenge though—its super brittle. If you poke it, it shatters into thousands of little pieces. To be able to use aerogel in apparel, you need to make aerogel flexible and durable.”

“We’ve tested SolarCore against over 200 other insulations and have yet to find one that beats it.”

When Oros launched in 2016 its one and only product was the Orion Parka, which Markesbery tells us might be the warmest jacket on the planet thanks to the use of SolarCore throughout. Oros’ proprietary insulation brings some intriguing properties to the market that aren’t found in other aerogel-based insulators, most notably it is flexible and durable, while also being extremely warm. The Orion Parka is rated for use in extreme environments and temperatures dipping down to as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit. It is also wind and waterproof, making it great option for anyone who has to venture out into extremely cold environments on a regular basis.

“We’ve tested SolarCore against over 200 other insulations and have yet to find one that beats it,” Markesbery says. ” Additionally, every other insulation needs loft, or volume, to work. SolarCore doesn’t. It keeps you warm without all the bulk.”

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Over the past few years, Oros has expanded its line of clothing, adding the Endeavor Jacket to the line-up. This weather-proof shell is built for more active pursuits and uses SolarCore more strategically than in the Orion Parka, allowing it to mix both warmth and breathability, with a higher level of mobility for skiers, climbers, snowshoers and other winter outdoor athletes. The company has also introduced a line of affordable mid-layers and accessories such as hats and gloves, which allow outdoor enthusiasts to add aerogel performance to their existing closet without breaking the bank.

“Our mission is to create a long sleeve shirt you can wear in sub-freezing temperatures and still stay warm,” Markesbery tells us. “Aerogel is the key to making that possible.”

If you’re an outdoor winter warrior, you’re going to love the level of performance this jacket delivers.

Oros may not have that aerogel shirt in its catalog just yet, but we had a chance to check out a few of the company’s existing products, including the Endeavor Jacket and the Explorer Quarter Zip, and came away quite impressed.

Both garments are extremely well made, with a nice attention to detail, including high quality fabrics, athletic cuts, and outstanding protection from the elements.

To that end, the Explorer is perfect for use on its own or as a mid-layer while winter hiking, climbing, or even just wearing it around town, making it a versatile choice for just about anyone. On the other hand, the Endeavor is so warm that it’s practically overkill for anyone who isn’t heading out in subzero temperatures. If you’re an outdoor winter warrior who enjoys skiing, snowshoeing, or snowboarding however, you’re probably going to love the level of performance this jacket delivers. It will keep you warm in the harshest conditions you’ll find this side of the Antarctic.

For outdoor enthusiasts who have been waiting for aerogel to finally come of age, it seems the wait is over. With the arrival of these products the promise of lightweight, durable, and extremely warm outdoor gear has become a reality. If you’re someone who loves to be outdoors, but hates the cold weather, you now have some options for high performance apparel for just about any cold weather adventure.

Kraig Becker
Kraig Becker is a freelance outdoor writer who loves to hike, camp, mountain bike, trail run, paddle, or just about any other…
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