Elise Strobach of AeroShield: a clear (and energy efficient) window to the future

Elise Strobach of AeroShield: a clear (and energy efficient) window to the future

Understory Team
Understory Team

The US loses $40 billion each year due to windows. More than 80% of new windows are focused on meeting the bare minimum of building codes and energy efficiency standards, leaving significant room for improvement. In this episode, we chat with Elise Strobach, CEO and Co-founder of AeroShield. Elise shares how her childhood appreciation for our magnificent world inspired her to study mechanical engineering and ultimately develop a new innovation that protects our environment.

AeroShield develops super-insulating, transparent inserts for windows, bringing state-of-the-art thermal comfort and energy savings to buildings at an affordable price. This solid material is made up of 95% gas trapped inside pores that are so small, the naked eye can’t see them. Elise explains the technology behind AeroShield’s sustainable windows, the supply chain, and the complexities behind product manufacturing. Tune in to learn more about the builttech, energy efficiency, and developing new materials for the window industry.

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Episode Transcript:

JJ (the host of the Understory Podcast): Hello everybody. Welcome to another episode of Understory Podcast. Understory features, innovations, innovators, and technologies that are trying to make our world more sustainable.

Today, I am really excited to have Elise Strobach, the CEO and Co-founder at AeroShield. Elise also has an amazing background with a PhD in mechanical engineering from MIT and has done a lot of interesting work. Elise, welcome to our podcast. Today, we're going to talk about windows and materials. Tell us a little bit more about yourself and the journey so far at AeroShield.

Elise Strobach: Definitely! Excited to be here. In particular, AeroShield is working to develop and manufacture a super insulating sheet of porous glass that's ready to drop into existing window manufacturing so that we can create better window products from the ground up and that's pretty exciting. I was born and raised in a small town in Wisconsin where we really spent a lot of time out in the environment and really saw the appreciation of just how magnificent the world we live in is.

When both myself and my co-founder got started into deciding where we wanted to take our careers, I think we - both myself and my co-founder Dr. Kyle Wilke - had this innate sense of wanting to protect this amazing, natural resource that we had. We also both had this interest in solving problems, so we chose to go into mechanical engineering, independent of each other, and that led us into acquiring more skills towards solving these big problems. The more you learn, the more you realize that these problems are massive and aren't going anywhere. As I got into my graduate work at MIT working with this material that AeroShield is now working to manufacture.

The first moment where I realized that AeroShield was a path that I wanted to take was when we realized that more than 80% of new windows are still focused on just meeting the bare minimum of building code and minimum energy efficiency standards. When you look at the reasons why, there are so many barriers to getting better from a sustainability standpoint, a lifecycle analysis standpoint, but also from inequity of comfort in our buildings because there is a cost barrier and a location barrier. For a lot of reasons, we started to see that particular thermal insulation in windows was something that from a heat transfer expertise, both my co-founder and I had an interest in. It was really this opportunity to translate those skills into solving a massive problem. $40 billion every year in the United States is lost because of our windows. Like I said, 80% of products are not going to be able to change that story anytime soon.

As we started to really understand the technology that we were working on, a super clear, transparent solid insulator really could change this industry. The more that we learned about that problem, the more we became excited about trying to solve it. That really is the story of why we're here today.

JJ: That's really exciting to hear that your mission is to transform the window industry to make windows more energy efficient and sustainable. Yet, there's so much work behind it, especially material engineering, supply chain, and so forth. You talked about thermal insulation and the materials that you are working with, Elise. If you could share a bit more for our audience just to educate our audience on how windows are built today. What are those innovations that you guys are building from a material science perspective that could potentially be economical and accessible for all kinds of buildings?

Elise: That’s a great question. The first place that I would start is kind of challenging -- the concept of what we think is a window. It's really easy to picture a big commercial building with full glass on the outside. In reality, those windows look very similar to the same things that go into our grocery store freezer doors. There's one aspect which AeroShield in particular has sought to understand. Fundamentally, why is it so hard to make our windows more efficient?

It actually comes back to the fact that we really like transparency in our windows. Glass and gases have this great visual experience, but when we think about insulation, glass is not one of our best tools. When we think about durability and cost of manufacturing, gases can create challenges. For our solution, we really looked at all the advantages that glass and gas could bring to a window. Broadly speaking, whether it's one that's going to go into your home or your office, or maybe even something like a car door at some point in the future. We really think about it fundamentally: what do we want to improve?

AeroShield, in particular, has this amazing ability to be very clear, but also provide some of the world's best insulation. It's a material that's made up of 95% air. The airship material is a pane of glass that's made up of 95% air that's trapped inside of tiny little pores that we've engineered to be so small that the wavelengths of light don't interact with them. It allows these tiny little pores to do all the job of superinsulation regardless of your application. We almost always want to keep separation with visual communication. Being able to provide something that was more insulating than a gas in a solid and clear form factor really hits at this fundamental problem of being able to see things, but not lose energy through them. Today, AeroShield’s first product really looks at being able to work with the elements of glass, gases, and codings in order to be able to upgrade what normally is inside of a traditional double pane window, which is more than 80% of new products in the US, which is a pane of glass on either side with a gas sealed inside by just replacing some or all of that with this super insulating glass Styrofoam. If we think about it in those kinds of terms, it can boost the performance of that window made in the same way it is today, except now it has a piece of AeroShield material.

We envision them being able to make that 50% more insulating than it was before by just having that layer. There's windows everywhere. They're made in all kinds of different ways. How, fundamentally, can we provide something that makes a difference now?

JJ: In your mind, is it mostly for new buildings or would it be easy to be embedded in retrofits and renovations to make existing buildings more energy efficient? For existing buildings is it easy to get the contractors and construction firm or the designers to take out the existing window and put in the AeroShield material and then put the window back in?

Elise: I would say we've focused initially, on new windows and new windows for the residential market. There's a full period of size and value decisions that have gone into that. We’ve really focused on what we consider to be the new window market, which is mostly focused on any point in time at which you have a lot of construction happening on the envelope of your building. That's typically like renovation, remodeling, and new builds. We kind of view it because we're so early in the integration process, so we actually go look at dropping into the existing process today where they cut one paint of glass and seal it with another with that gas in between. You look at actually dropping in that process before the window has even gotten it's framing elements, or officially decided that it's going to be a Northeast style certification or something from the Southwest.

JJ: The material that you're using or the engineering that you're doing, do you have a robust supply chain for these materials? Or, does the world have a robust supply chain for these materials to accommodate every new building that will go up in the next 20 to 30 years?

Elise: That's a great question. We're pretty early in our manufacturing development. We're actually hoping this year to set up and demonstrate our pilot manufacturing line in Hyde Park, Massachusetts. In particular, we've had the honor of coming after some really great giants in the aerogel space. For example, like Aspen Aerogel is a massive manufacturer of a material set that's similar to ours. In a lot of ways, some of the chemical supply chains have already been used and developed specifically for our material. The other piece that I'd say is right now the way that we look at expanding our production, we use chemicals that are actually used pretty ubiquitously across the manufacturing industry. For example, the chemicals that we know for sure will be part of the mix right now are water, ammonia, and methanol which is really readily abundant and actually, can be recycled. We're pretty optimistic with a very small amount of material, you can have a big energy impact, and that means that with a small amount of material in a small amount of supply chain input. We certainly feel that AeroShield could be a part of every window at some point in the future.

JJ: What does the manufacturing design process look like? For the audience to understand, what are some of the considerations that you have to think about now as a CEO and Co-founder as you plan the manufacturing and designing. Is it sourcing? Is it sustainable manufacturing? What are some of the considerations?

Elise: I would say that our biggest role right now is being a hub for a lot of different ideas to come together. We certainly have our manufacturing process. It's a little bit like a freeze dried jello in the sense that we start with chemicals and we mix them up together and we mold them. Then we have to link this kind of jello-like glass nanostructure that's been filled with a solvent during that chemical reaction. What you've got sitting in this mold is a piece of this material with this unique nanostructure that could allow it to be super insulating that's all filled with liquid. The trickiest step in our process is being able to extract all that liquid without damaging all those great properties of this highly, nanostructured material. That's really this step in the process. We do that not with freeze drying. You think about a freeze dried strawberry from the grocery store, they're able to take the liquid inside the strawberry, freeze it, and then sublimate it out so that that strawberry remains intact but the liquid is gone. We do the same thing, but instead of freezing, we actually bring that liquid inside up to something called supercritical conditions where above a certain temperature and pressure, the liquid no longer has surface tension or that little meniscus that likes to climb up on our glasses of water.

The good news is that that's actually a process that, for example, like Aspen Aerogel has already been used and developed. This aerogel material was invented almost 100 years ago. For us to have a form factor that is a sheet that can be clear and with a cost that really starts to change buying behavior in terms of thermal performance, that's really where we have the biggest challenges. I would say that we're kind of looking at it as an opportunity to say: what parts of our process can we make better to serve the window industry and windows in general? It's pretty exciting. As I mentioned, we're setting up our pilot line around this core piece of equipment that does that kind of extraction is supercritical liquid extraction. That’s where we've focused our first development to be able to make these sheets and really begin to test full window prototypes because we're really excited to get to that phase and concretely prove that performance.

JJ: That’s really exciting. It's especially exciting that we're able to talk to you and your company at such an early stage as you're putting everything together and we're really excited to see what’s to come. For construction firms or architectural firms or designers who I think should be interested in what you're doing, how can they find you and find the company to learn more? Or, maybe even participate in the pilot?

Elise: Of course. There's many layers that we love to engage in. One of the base ones is that we actually just really love to learn more about the industry. For that, we would love to get any kind of engagement. Feel free to reach out to us. We have contact information on our website which is AeroShield.tech. Then there's also our contact email address which is contact@AeroShield.tech. We'd love to have a conversation with any problems that you're seeing that would be helpful from windows, but also learning more about trends and anything building. We’d love to hear about it.

JJ: Great! Elise, thank you so much for sharing your perspective and we are really excited to see more from AeroShield. Elise Strobach, CEO and Co-Founder of AeroShield. Thanks Elise.

Elise: Thank you.

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