Transforming the Cardboard Box

An inexpensive, advanced insulating material developed by Berkeley Lab researchers has been licensed by San Diego start-up Cargo Technology Inc. for use as a thermal packaging.

An inexpensive, advanced insulating material developed by Berkeley Lab researchers has been licensed by San Diego start-up Cargo Technology Inc. for use as a thermal packaging to ship perishable cargo such as seafood, meat, fruit, prepared foods and pharmaceuticals.

The Cargo Technology product, AirLiner, is an inflatable, insulating bag that converts an ordinary corrugated box into a cooler to keep perishables cold and fresh during shipping. AirLiner can be inflated with ordinary air or to further prolong its thermal performance, with inert gases.

Cargo Technology says the markets for insulated packaging materials for shipping perishable cargo by air are growing and estimated at about $500 million annually. The company says that about 5.5 billion pounds of perishables are shipped outside of refrigeration by air annually in both the U.S. domestic and import/export markets in nearly 100 million containers.

Currently, most of these shipments are kept cold in expanded polystyrene foam containers. Polystyrene is 30-year-old technology that is bulky, cumbersome and prone to cracking and leaking.

AirLiner is produced from plastic films with internal baffles that create a construction that inhibits heat transfer. AirLiner can be transported to shippers in flat, space-efficient packages, saving warehouse space and delivery expenses for shippers who use foam boxes. About 50 AirLiner bags fit into the space now taken by only one similarly sized foam container. The bag is inflated using a nozzle.

Researchers in Berkeley Lab’s Environmental Energy Technologies Division developed the gas-filled panels used in Airliner back in the 1980s as a spin-off of research on superwindows. Superwindows are double- or triple-paned energy-efficient windows with infrared-reflective (low emissivity) coatings and inert gases filling spaces between panes for extra insulation capacity.

The gas-filled panel technology was developed and patented at Berkeley Lab, and extensively tested at Oak Ridge National Laboratory to confirm its insulating performance. Since then, these panels have been used as thermal insulation in a variety of applications, notably in studies of prototype energy-efficient cars and appliances, and as a potential insulating material in building construction. Gas-filled panels are made of multiple, honeycombed layers of thin, aluminised plastic filled with a gas, either air, or an inert gas: argon, krypton or xenon. The insulating value of the panel depends on which gas is used as a fill — it ranges from R-5 per inch (air-filled) to R- 20 per inch (xenon-filled). By comparison, fibreglass insulation for buildings is rated at about R-4 per inch. In 1991, gas-filled panels won the Grand Prize for Home Technology in Popular Science’s ‘Best of What’s New’ awards.

‘We are hopeful that this market success will motivate others in the building and appliance field to look again at this promising, high performance insulation technology,’ says Stephen Selkowitz, Head of the Lab’s Building Technologies Department.

In the early 1990s, the U.S. Department of Energy co-funded gas-filled panel development with California state utility funds managed through the California Institute for Energy Efficiency.