A Quantum Leap In Insulation
Oros tames aerogel for use in apparel
By: Ernest Shiwanov
Referring to Oros’ SolarCore as “out of this world” is fairly apropos. That’s because SolarCore proprietary insulation for apparel utilizes aerogel, and NASA uses aerogel regularly in space: from insulation on the Mars Pathfinder Rover vehicles and space suits to the capturing of Comet Wild 2’s dust by the Stardust space probe.
The outdoor industry has been using aerogel for some time too. The Vasque Radiator double boot, Pacific Outdoor Equipment’s Hyper Elite camping pad and Camelbak’s Podium Ice bike bottle all use aerogel insulation. Yet aerogel’s use in apparel up to now has been minimal. There are several reasons why, one of which has to do with the nature of this highly intriguing material.
Aerogel, in a typical iteration, is a very inflexible solid. It starts as a gel, hence the name, but through special processing, the liquid is dried out often using supercritical CO2 drying (see “Dyeing to Be Clean,” Inside Outdoor Summer 2014 on supercritical CO2). This leaves behind a solid that is extremely rigid with a lightweight nanosized pore structure. Even though its density is that of air, it is still extremely strong. However, when stressed to a breaking point, it shatters like glass. For apparel, the trick is to get this uncooperatively stiff material to conform to the compound curves of a human body without leaving shards.
Despite that giant hurdle, the Oros crew was determined to harness aerogel’s formidable insulating prowess that knows no insulator remotely as effective. The key to its amazing insulating properties lies in its nanoporous structure. With pore sizes that small, gases cannot easily move from pore to pore, a major cause of heat loss through convection. Again, due to the minuscule size of the pores, aerogel is virtually all gas and, as nature would have it, gases do not conduct heat well. That characteristic magnifies its ability to insulate tremendously. Additionally, most aerogel is made with silica (silicon dioxide), the main component of beach sand, which is also a poor heat conductor (as an added bonus, silica, one of the most abundant compounds on earth, is also eco-friendly).
Oros co-founders and college students, Mark Markesbery and Massimiliano “Max” Squire, similar to many other inventor/entrepreneurs before them, started down the path of a better mousetrap as a result of a less-than-perfect outdoor experience. While on Santis, a mountain in Northeast Switzerland, Markesbery and Squire were cold.
As Markesbery recalls, “with all the layers of gear, we looked like the Michelin man. Even worse, we were still cold. We got to thinking, why does anybody put up with this shit?” Back in school a few months later, Markesbery landed a NASA scholarship while conducting research on possible cancer treatments. It was through this award he became aware of aerogel.
“A big lightbulb went off in my head. ‘Hey! Just a few months ago, I had a miserable time summiting this mountain because of the bulky layers and intense cold. You’re telling me there’s this aerogel stuff that could fix all my problems?’” declares Markesbery. With that, Markesbery, Squire and other Oros co-founder Rithvik Venna jumped down the R&D rabbit hole, sourcing aerogel and experimenting with its properties.
They saw a fourfold problem with aerogel use in apparel.
“One, it was incredibly expensive, not leaving a whole lot of margin for the brand,” Markesbery recounts. “Two, the aerogel particles were embedded in a fiber. With movement, the aerogel particles would come loose from the fiber (meaning, every time you’d move, you’d lose thermal performance from your garment). Three, if these particles came in contact with your skin, it would dry it out like you wouldn’t believe. To prevent this, manufacturers put aerogel through a process called encapsulation. But encapsulation cut down heavily on the garments breathability. Four, if the encapsulation was ever ripped, aerogel particles would go everywhere, ruining the garment in the process. Between the expensive nature of aerogel, the consistent loss of insulation, the lack of breathability, and lack of durability, aerogel wasn’t suited to disrupt the apparel space.”
Their efforts finally paid off with the development of SolarCore, a flexible, aerogel-infused closed cell polyfoam. Markesbery and his partners succeeded in addressing all of the issues listed above with a material only 3 millimeters thick and cold rated to -50C/-58F. Despite its thin profile, SolarCore still maintains 95 percent of its insulating capacity at a pressure of 15 pounds per square inch/104 KPa. Under the same conditions, down or any synthetic insulation would lose most of its insulating ability. It is also hydrophobic, unlike untreated down, which is famously not. SolarCore also has four-way stretch, important for garment performance, and can be machine washed and dried.
With Oros’ unmatched high performance insulation and apparel design, Markesbery believes layers are redundant. For that reason, Oros apparel is true-to-size versus a traditional, sized-for-layering fit.
“Our philosophy is centered around thinner, lighter and warmer. We want to give our customers the ability to boldly go where they haven’t gone before,” he says.
In other words, do not choose your size for layering unless you are doing the Iditarod or a winter ascent of Mt. Everest. Everyone else goes by street size: one and done.
Oros’ 2016 Orion line is a complete, head-to-toe, outdoor environmental protection system. This competitively priced ensemble has all the bells and whistles high-end shell garments are expected to have. Beanies, gloves, jacket and pants for men and women make up the range.
The Orion jacket has been improved to have 100 percent SolarCore insulation throughout, 33 percent lighter, a media pocket and a removable powder skirt. The helmetcompatible hood was dropped per customer input – definitely not climbing customers. With the jacket, gloves and pants, all feature 20,000mm waterproofed shell material with DWR for its first line of defense.
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