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Aspen Aerogels execs: 250 jobs, $325M investment just Phase 1 for Bulloch plant
Company anticipates rapid growth in electric vehicle market, need for batteries, insulation
Illustration Courtesy Aspen Aerogels
A rendering of the 500,000-square-foot plant Aspen Aerogels plans to build in Bulloch County is shown above. The Rhode Island-based company made the announcement Feb. 17 of its plans to invest $325 million in the facility and hopes to be up and running in late 2023. (Illustration Courtesy Aspen Aerogels)

Aspen Aerogels has planned the $325 million factory it will build in Bulloch County’s Southern Gateway Commerce Park to be expandable, so the prediction of at least 250 advanced manufacturing jobs reflects only the first phase. The job count could nearly double over time, top company executives said Thursday.

“We’re building this first phase of it, and we are building it in anticipation of a significant second phase as well,” said Aspen Aerogels CEO Don Young, “and in fact we’re building the infrastructure that will support not only Phase 1, which we’ve talked about already, but Phases 1 and 2.”

Aspen CEO Don Young.jpg
Don Young

Both the prediction of at least a $325 million investment and the 250-job count are “first phase kind of numbers,” he said.  The company, which expects to have the plant in operation by late 2023, is banking on rapid growth in demand for electric vehicles and their batteries. Aspen doesn’t make either, but it makes an aerogel thermal insulating material that helps prevent lithium-ion batteries from overheating and catching fire.

The company, the Development Authority of Bulloch County and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp in February announced the planned construction of the plant, with what turns out to have been the more certain Phase 1 numbers. Because of rain and predicted storms, a groundbreaking ceremony planned for Thursday afternoon at the site, which is off the Interstate 16 interchange on U.S. Highway 301 in the southern part of the county, was cancelled, along with Kemp’s plans to attend it.

But Aspen Aerogels officials were already in town, and Young and Senior Vice President for Operations and Strategic Development Gregg Landes gave the Statesboro Herald a phone interview. Later, the Development Authority and county and city officials gathered with Aspen representatives for a reception and dinner at Georgia Southern University’s Center for Wildlife Education.

 

An 11-acre building

Attendees saw a slightly more detailed rendering of the plant than the one released in February. One thing that probably would not expand for a future Phase 2 of the factory’s development would be the area under roofs. The complex is expected to cover 500,000 square feet, which is more than 11 acres.

“We’re building the first phase with all of the utilities and infrastructure necessary to accommodate the expansion,” Landes said. “So we’ll build the full-sized building to start, and then for the most part the additional expansions will involve process, equipment and people, and so forth, to get to the required level of capacity.”

The executives aren’t making any predictions yet on when the second phase could be added. When asked if it might be in two years or five years, as possibilities, Young said that is “the correct timeframe” but that it would be difficult to be more specific.

 

Growing company

Currently, Aspen Aerogels Inc. has just one production facility, in East Providence, Rhode Island, which also employs about 250 people. The 20-year-old company, headquartered in Northborough, Massachusetts, has about 400 employees overall, including those working in research and development and an international sales force.

Its stock is publicly traded, symbol ASPN, on the New York Stock Exchange, and multiple online financial sites show that the corporation’s market capitalization value has recently exceeded $1.15 billion.

“We are growing much faster than we might have anticipated. …,” Young said. “I think a lot of it will be the pace in which the electric vehicle market comes at us. These are fairly large chunks of demand as opposed to small, incremental changes, and so we want to stay our ahead of that.

ASPN VP Gregg Landes.jpg
Gregg Landes

“So it’s a little hard to tell right now, but we’re focused on the planning, the engineering and the execution of the first phase, today,”  he said.

 

Second site

Aspen Aerogels had first announced plans to build in Bulloch County, but a smaller plant at the original Gateway Industrial Park, which is on the other side of U.S. 301 and a little closer to Statesboro, in 2015. That was to have been a $70 million plant with a few more than 100 jobs. It would have made Aspen’s traditional aerogel product, used to insulate petroleum industry facilities such as pipelines and liquified natural gas terminals.

“We have served the more traditional energy markets,” Young said.  “We’ve installed over $1.25 billion worth of our materials in those kinds of facilities – refineries, petrochemical plants, LNG terminals – all around the world, two-thirds of it outside the United States.”

The 2015-2016 plan to build a factory here was postponed because of economic factors such as a temporary drop in oil prices.

“Those traditional end markets are still important to us, but like a lot of companies, we’re participating in this energy transition, and for us, that is taking that safety, and in particular fire safety, attribute of our products and  using it to enhance battery performance and safety,” Young said.

Specifically, the company has moved into making new aerogel products under the registered trademark PyroThin, to serve as thermal barriers in electric vehicle, or EV, batteries.

Placed between the cells of a lithium-ion battery, this material can isolate a “thermal event,” or overheating incident, to a single cell, preventing it from cascading to involve the entire battery, which can cause a fire, Young explained.

 

Half of all cars

Meanwhile, Aspen Aerogel’s market research has taken note of predicted rapid growth in electric vehicle sales.

“As we know, in the United States in recent years they have been 2 percent, 4 percent, 5 percent of total vehicle sales, but all of the major automotive (manufacturers) are suggesting that as much as 50 percent of their fleet will convert over to electric vehicles in the 2025 to 2030 timeframe, and that’s a significant number of vehicles worldwide,” Young said.

Georgia has recently become home to some large EV battery manufacturers, including SK Innovation and Rivian, which are both expanding with additional factories near Atlanta.

Aspen Aerogels does not have ties to either of these companies.

 

Dublin connection

But it does have a business relationship with a raw material supplier that happens to be located in Dublin, Georgia. The Saint-Gobain ADFORS plant, not far off I-16 at Dublin, makes “needle mat,” a fine, woven fiberglass fabric, or “batting.”

“Every roll of aerogel that we make requires that we utilize batting, and a good percentage of it will hopefully come from Georgia,” Landes said. “Saint-Gobain has been a great partner to us, and we’re in discussions with them on an ongoing basis for supply to our plant in Statesboro.”

So the Aspen plant’s location in the Southern Gateway Commerce Park places it beside I-16, which leads in one direction to a raw material supplier and in the other direction to the Port of Savannah.

Corporate executives considered possible sites in other states and countries before first choosing a Bulloch County location seven years ago, and the decisive factors haven’t changed, Young said.

“The critical things that were interesting to us about this area were related to the port city – we export about two-thirds of our  product – the fact that there’s a strong, capable workforce, it’s a nice place to live, a university and college town – all of those things I think factored into our decision,” he said. “So, all of those things are still true here in 2022.”

The Development Authority of Bulloch County is providing a 90-acre site within the commerce park free-of-charge to Aspen Aerogels. Other local and state incentives provided to the company will we reviewed in a future story.

Although this week’s ceremonial groundbreaking was cancelled, actual work at the site is moving forward, noted Development Authority CEO Benjy Thompson.

“We’re still very excited about the Aspen Aerogels facility and their progress so far,” Thompson said. “If you get a chance to visit the site, you’ll notice that a good bit of earthwork has already been accomplished as they get ready for further construction, so the project is moving right along.”

 

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