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News

Aerogel in insulation - impact, and the future

Melissa Coates : 23 February, 2014  (Technical Article)
Recent years have seen some truly staggering advances into material development and use that promises to change the landscape of how we implement and use technology in a number of fields and applications. Melissa Coates reviews the development of aerogels in insulation.
Whether it’s the recent development and research into materials such as Stanene, which offers 100% efficiency when conducting electrical current, and could drastically alter the composition of computer chips, to newer, more efficient ways of operating industrial scale machinery, such as the recent epoxy coated steel pipe used for the closed-circuit water cooling system at Tata Steel’s Port Talbot Steel Works, new advances are pointing to more efficient use of energy in a number of sectors. This is of course, great news for the environment and sustainability as a whole, and one area that could see real benefit from better material use is the construction market. Construction companies are constantly seeking affordable, yet efficient ways to insulate new homes, and they may just have found it in the form of aerogels. Not only that, but homeowners and consumers are likely to see real benefits too, as well as the environment.
 
Insulation Efficiency
 
R-Value is the key factor when deciding on types of insulation, and there are certainly a large number to choose from. Of course insulation material varies greatly depending on the type of building. Larger, reinforced concrete structures often utilize insulating concrete form for example, where as a variety of types might be utilized for housing, and could include foam solutions, which offer a number of advantages over less permeable alternatives, as well as others such as sprays. In fact,. Most homes are likely to have a combination of insulation materials. Interestingly, in the case of experimental and eco focused builds, straw is seeing a comeback thanks to its high R-Value, cheap cost, and minimal environmental impact. However, for more modern focused builds of a commercial or residential nature, the newest, most efficient form of insulation comes from Aerogel, with an impressive R-Value of R-10 per inch. To put this perspective, the most commonly used insulation materials, such as fiberglass batts (generally used for residential builds), have an R-Value of around R-3 per inch. Polystyrene, and polyurethane foams are a little better at R-5/R-6 per inch, but as we can see, they are effectively left in the dust by aerogel. Of course, better insulation means less energy expended on heating, and this is something that has far reaching impact all the way up from a building’s occupant to the wider reaching global environment.
 
The Impact to Home Owners
 
Although it’s still early days for aerogel, some countries are already starting to reap the benefits, especially in locations that have a large concentration of old houses and buildings which are notoriously hard to insulate effectively. This could be especially welcome news for a number of countries in Europe, and the colder States in the US, not to mention the world over, as once aerogel use gains more traction, we’ll likely see a huge reduction in the amount of heat needed to keep people warm at home and at work. The building sector itself currently accounts for around 35% of the worlds energy demand, and 75% of this demand is for both space and domestic water heating, according to the International Electrotechnical Commission. While there are proposed solutions to water heating and space heating proposed, aerogel looks likely to go a long way to reducing this percentage in both commercial and residential buildings. What is the real benefit to home owners themselves though? Firstly, there is the obvious advantage of having a warmer home, but this also translates into less energy required for heating, and as a result could drive heating costs down, especially for those living in colder climates. Currently, in countries such as the UK for example, fuel prices are a controversial topic, with energy companies hiking prices frequently due to demand and import costs of raw materials. While there are plans in place to increase domestic energy output, lessening the need for such intensive use through more efficient insulation is sure to make a positive difference in costs, and perhaps choice of energy company, for the average consumer. While general consumers will no doubt continue to rely on cost-saving advice provided by domestic sites, aerogel insulation could certainly alleviate some of the financial pressure facing consumers thanks to much more efficient energy when it comes to heating the home. This is a scenario not limited to the UK alone of course, and the impact on reduction of energy use worldwide could have far reaching impact. Better insulation, cheaper fuel costs for consumers, and lowered energy demand all pave the way for a more sustainable, environmentally friendly future. 
 
Insulation is Just the Beginning
 
Aerogel is already having a profound impact, as we have seen, but perhaps the most remarkable thing about the material is its wide reaching versatility. Often referred to as ‘Frozen Smoke’, the material already holds the accolade of world’s lightest material, being able to be supported by a few blades of grass. The fantastic insulation provided by the material could well see it’s way into clothing in the near future, especially cold weather survival gear, but the applications are almost endless. Chalcogels for example, have proven extremely effective at absorbing heavy metal pollutants in water, such as cadmium, mead, and mercury. Current possibilities range from chemical adsorber, catalysts, and thickening agents, and even as a potential drug delivery system thanks to the inherent biocompatibility in the substance. With such a huge amount of possible impacts to a wide range of industries and practices, it’s very likely aerogels will become the most used and popular material since plastics. Of course, some applications are closer to being realized than others, but the reality of aerogels is one that can certainly be celebrated in the construction industry, and as the process and application of aerogels are further advanced, we could see a real, and large reduction, in the amount of domestic energy use in our homes and at work, and who knows what the future may hold for this exciting material.
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