For decades, aerogel has been used as insulation in oil refineries, industrial buildings, refrigerators, jackets, even shoe inserts. NASA has used it to keep rocket fuel at extremely low temperatures.
It hasn’t been used as insulation to keep homes warmer in winter yet, but Dr. Sungwoo Yang believes it can.
It’s his confidence, a well-constructed PowerPoint presentation and easy-to-understand answers to questions that earned Yang, assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Chemical Engineering at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, the first-place finish in the second annual Fly for Researchers Pitch Competition. By winning, he will receive $20,000 to apply to research on what he calls Aerogel 2.0—“the next generation of aerogel”—with the hope of eventually making it available on the commercial market as insulation for home windows.
Aerogel is a porous gel in which all the water has been removed, leaving a translucent, ultralight material that is very insulating and heat-resistant. It can be made from several chemical compounds; Yang’s is created from silica, the primary element in sand.
“The prize money for this competition will be mainly used for scaling up development,” he said. “Every step matters, so there’s room for us to play. There’s so many parameters we can play with.”
On Wednesday, April 19, in the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE), five teams of UTC faculty members and students were given five minutes to present their research ideas, then eight more minutes to answer questions from a panel of three judges.
Yang, who worked on aerogel development as a faculty member at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—“This new gel is made by the recipe that I developed at MIT”—said his Aerogel 2.0 would provide thermal insulation for about $1 per square foot.
Aerogel 2.0 will come in flexible sheets that can be cut easily to fit different sizes of windowpanes, he said, and its adhesive will be strong enough to hold it in place, but not so sticky it will be difficult to remove.
“What I’m thinking is you, as a customer, go to Home Depot, you buy this product, put it in the trunk and come back home,” Yang said. “With the knife you cut it, then you apply it to the adhesive or maybe it has a magnetic system. It’s easy to apply.”
While Aerogel 2.0 is his focus now. “I’m already thinking about Aerogel 3.0,” Yang said.
Second place and $10,000 in the competition went to SolarEagle, a drone-based artificial intelligence system that will detect and assess damaged solar panels—cracks, corrosion, thick layers of dust, for example—to ensure performance and longevity. Manual labor will not be needed, said team leader Dr. Abdul Ofoli, UC Foundation associate professor of electrical engineering.
Dr. Vahid Disfani, assistant professor of electrical engineering, was the other team member.
Third place and $5,000 went to a team headed by Dr. Erkan Kaplanoglu, associate professor in the Department of Engineering Management and Technology, which is developing PactBB, a machine-operated platform that measures the muscular control of patients with balance and mobility problems due to chronic low back pain. Data from the platform can be used to treat the physical issues.
Along with Kaplanoglu, the rest of the team is Dr. Max Jordon, assistant professor of physical therapy; Dr. Lynette Carlson, assistant professor and athletic training clinical education coordinator; Dr. Jeremy Bruce, orthopedic surgeon at Erlanger Hospital; and Dr. Ahad Nasab, professor and head of the Department of Engineering Management and Technology.
The three monetary prizes were funded by the UT System and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research.
In addition to the main Fly for Researchers Pitch Competition, audience members voted for their choice as the best project, with the winner receiving $2,000. Aerogel placed first in that competition, too.
The Audience Choice award was funded by the Clarence E. Harris Chair of Excellence in Entrepreneurship in the Gary W. Rollins College of Business and LaunchTN.
The Fly for Researchers Pitch Competition is not just a feather in the cap of UTC, it involves Chattanooga as a whole, said Dr. Joanne Romagni, vice chancellor for research and dean of the graduate school at UTC.
“It really shines a light on the idea that Chattanooga itself is an entrepreneurial, innovative city, and it also really says the University is part of that innovation and entrepreneurial spirit,” she said.
Judge Rebekah Sharpe, founding partner of Transparency Health, a venture capital company, praised all five projects and said each had potential for commercialization.
“We are people who are always looking for commercialization opportunities and things that have high-growth potential,” she said. “I think all your projects have a lot of promise, so keep going.”
The other judges were Kristina Montague, managing partner of The JumpFund, an all-woman investing firm and Tasia Malakasis, CEO of CO.LAB, a nonprofit business management consultant.
Taking research projects beyond the laboratory is a goal of the Fly for Researchers Pitch Competition, said Jennifer Skjellum, UTC commercialization counselor and organizer of the competition.
“It’s not just about basic research or a paper,” she said, “but figuring out, ‘How is the work that I’m doing going to have an impact on my community, on society, on the world?’”