Insulation… OF TOMORROW

By Phil Plait | February 10, 2010 12:13 pm

This is cool: recent tech advances have lowered the cost of making aerogel sufficiently that it can be used for home insulation!

I’ve written about his bizzaro stuff before: it’s a silica gel that has so many air pockets in it it is essentially barely more dense than air itself. It has a lot of uses, like putting on board spacecraft to catch particles from comets. But it’s such a good insulator that it may very well revolutionize the industry.

It’s been around since before the space program, so we can’t attribute this invention to space age tech, but it does have a lot of uses, and I bet as the price lowers people will find lots of other ways to use it.

I love living in the future.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff

Comments (66)

  1. IVAN3MAN AT LARGE

     
    YOU WROTE A BOOK?!
     

    :mrgreen:

  2. @IVAN3MAN

    You forgot to make the text a different color, in comic sans and flashing. I’m disappointed in you, sir.

  3. IVAN3MAN AT LARGE

    @ Todd W.,

    I did the above at short notice; I’ll work on something more fancy the next time!

  4. Scott Romanowski

    According to the article, you could heat a house with a candle if it was insulated with aerogel. But it would get too hot. What would the typical refrigerator do? How hot would your house get?

  5. I’d read something recently about nearly-transparent aerogels that could be used for insulating windows. Can’t find the article right now but I think it said aerogels created in microgravity are more uniform and therefore exhibit less Rayleigh scattering.

  6. Heat insulation is all well and good, but I’m looking forward to better SOUND insulation. My upstairs neighbors’ bed is right over where I keep my computer, and their springs are rather squeaky…

  7. DIY aerogels:

    http://www.aerogel.org/?cat=41

    I honestly don’t know how feasible any of the ideas on that web site are, but I still wouldn’t mind giving it a go.

  8. Becca Stareyes

    I’d imagine that an aerogel insulated house would just lose most of its heat via doors and windows (either just opening/closing them or just the fact they tend to be less well insulated than the walls). There’s also things like pipes carrying water into and out of the house.

    (Which is an interesting question — what’s the average heat flow from a house and where does it come out — in other words, does improving the wall insulation by a factor of four help when you still have windows and doors?)

  9. @Scott Romanowski, I think you’ll find that that example relies on a hypothetical sealed environment, as opposed to an actual house (that has doors, windows, etc.)

  10. Cheyenne

    I prefer my Aerogel saturated with Helium. When a solid is lighter than air it’s just so much easier to move around.

  11. Some thermographic images of houses: http://images.google.com/images?q=thermography+house Really need to do something about those windows.

  12. Nekura

    I want to own a piece of aerogel.

  13. @Becca Stareyes

    (Which is an interesting question — what’s the average heat flow from a house and where does it come out — in other words, does improving the wall insulation by a factor of four help when you still have windows and doors?)

    I did a little bit of looking around when preparing for this winter, since my place is a bit drafty. A lot of the info I came across from HVAC types was that it was much more cost effective to seal up holes and gaps around windows and doors than it is to reinsulate the walls. Simply using that plastic shrink wrap over windows helps immensely in my place. Very noticeable improvement.

  14. pcjohnson

    Insulating a house better is an easy (though costly) thing we should have had in our building codes for a long time now.
    Back in the 1980′s a test house was built in Saskatoon with R40+ wall and R60+ roof insulation and it was sufficiently heated just be the normal activity of a family of 4 – body heat, cooking, washing clothes,…

    We can build them, consumers just choose not to (or are unable to) buy a house for 20-30% more than a conventional home,…

  15. Nekura: United Nuclear sells samples.

  16. John

    I just check the DoE site (http://www.ornl.gov/~roofs/Zip/ZipHome.html) to find out what R value they recommend for attic in my area. They suggest right around 50. 5 inches (10R/inch) of this new Aerogel blanket seems like overkill. Am I missing something?

  17. SciGuyJoe

    @Nekura,
    You used to be able to buy small chunks from United Nuclear. Now it looks like just granules are available: http://unitednuclear.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=16_17_69&products_id=89
    I haven’t done an eBay search in a while, but you used to be able to snag some there, too. (With a large overhead, if i recall…)

  18. jcm

    “It’s been around since before the space program, so we can’t attribute this invention to space age tech…” This won’t stop advertisers. They’ll pass it off as space age tech “miracle”.

  19. IT

    [Futurama Voice]Welcome, to the Insulation of Tomorrow![/Futurama Voice ]

  20. Chris

    What is that on top of the aerogel???

  21. MrQhuest

    @Nekura
    I’ve seen sample sized aerogel for sale on Ebay.
    -MrQ

  22. LtStorm

    Some friends and I actually conceived of using it as part of an Arthur C. Clarke memorial after his death year before last. There’s a version called Carbon Aerogel that gives a good matte black look. Couple that with the lightness of aerogels, and you could make one of the monoliths from A Space Odyssey down to the density not being much greater than air.

  23. !AstralProjectile

    I was going to make some as a kid,(Make H2O silica gel, soak in methanol for months, raise to triple point for months as youu reduce the pressure) but decided it wouldn’t be prudent to have a pressure-cooker full of methanol at its triple point.

    Areogels are also used as an “impedance” matching layer for ultrasonic tranducers.

  24. Todd

    Chris: “What is that on top of the aerogel???”
    Kitchen tongs.

  25. LtStorm

    @!AstralProjectile:

    Hell, I’d be hesitant to keep MeOH at its triple point for months in my lab, and I’m a chemist.

  26. John Paradox

    At first I thought the subject was old copies of Bad Astronomy to be used as insulation…..

    J/P=?

  27. jasonB

    “I love living in the future.”

    Yea it’s pretty cool. I was there yesterday…

  28. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Actually it is spacegel, it’s what we do that makes it whatever-you-like-gel.

    Btw, if you want to use it as sound insulation (and assuming there are no bearing balks transmitting most sound), you would probably like to interchange layers saturated with different gases (i.e. sound conductances), separated by say plastic foils, to dampen waves in the hearing range specifically.

    But I would go for active sound dampening instead, as it is hard (and seeing the above, superlatively expensive) to use optimized house thermal insulation for other purposes. Not only will active dampening transmitters cancel squeaky spring, they should be able to add soothing music to your choice…

  29. ND

    Is this aerogel safe? I’m thinking of the inhalation dangers from asbestos.

  30. Adam

    I got a piece of Aerogel from the NASA for doing a site survey a while back. Never forget when I get home to a large envelope from JPL in my mail. It’s proudly displayed on a shelf in the front room now. The stuff is seriously cool.

  31. Douglas Troy

    @IVAN3MAN

    Brilliant.
    :)

  32. Chris

    Todd (24): Yeah I see the kitchen tongs, but that black think that looks like poop, what is that?

  33. I hate to nitpick but . . . “essentially barely more dense”? Could you have made that sentence any harder to parse?

    Still, where can I buy some of this stuff?

  34. T.E.L.

    Chris Said:

    “Yeah I see the kitchen tongs, but that black think that looks like poop, what is that?”

    The black part is just the tip of the tong. It bends downward right where it turns blackish. That’s where the light starts reflecting off it differently.

  35. cool now when can i get some affordable solid smoke?

  36. Charlie Young

    I keep on reading that silica Aerogel is rigid. It looked like the insulation version in the article was flexible. Am I wrong?

  37. It has some applications in chromatography as well.

  38. @The Chemist

    I’m actually curious how it’d do as a stationary phase for GC now.

  39. mike burkhart

    How dose it compare to mylar? I’ve got mylar blankets on some of my windows it holds in heat better than ordnary plastic

  40. Messier Tidy Upper

    This could be the *Genesis* of something! ;-)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genesis_(spacecraft)

    Let’s just hope the aerogel insulation doesn’t come crashing down like the aerogel spaceprobe did :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P_gNU2TLRQM

    Although I guess it wouldn’t hurt too much if it did! ;-)

  41. Pi-needles

    ^ This could be the *Genesis* of something!

    Don’t you mean the something off Genesis? ;-)

    Hmm .. That was an example of something spinning out of control if ever there was one! ;-)

    Wonder what they *did* do with the aerogel from that once it had all been analysed? How cool would it be to have a solar wind particle captured out in deep space and recovered after crashing down to earth insulating your house somewhere! 8)

  42. AJ

    Re the kitchen tongs in the picture: Yeah, I thought they looked odd too… in fact, I was about to ask why Phil was holding a huge, bizarre-looking insect by the tail :-p

    On aerogels: according to the comments on the article, there’s still some way to go before this is viable insulation, as it’s mixed with other stuff to make it into a flexible sheet, thus reducing it’s efficiency as an insulator.

  43. Vila

    I work at a fiberglass insulation factory, so this really hits home. I hope it isn’t too costly to convert the factory over to make aerogel insulation rather than standard fiberglass. Otherwise my employers will simply build factories outside the US where they can pay the workforce pennies a week and avoid unions.

    Of course, developing aerogel insulation manufacturing processes might still take a good long while. Perhaps I won’t become homeless for a few more years.

  44. Mike

    The thing about house insulation isn’t all a matter of heat though. It’s easy enough to build a house where almost no heat is lost through the outer walls or holes. It’s much harder to build a house where little heat is lost AND where the air and moisture are transferred properly. The building has to “breathe” or else you end up living in a house full of mould. Does the aerogel allow that?

  45. Adam

    Great! Now maybe our Ring Imaging Cherenkov detectors won’t cost so much!

  46. Jess Tauber

    Crushed aerogel wouldn’t be good to breathe- similar problems to asbestos. And handling it at all WILL generate microparticulates. Something to think about?

    I’ve thought that aerogel would make a great base substrate for large aperture ultralight telescope mirrors for amateurs. Imagine a 70 inch mirror that you can pick up with your fingertips. The reflective surface is a big issue, but I’ve got a solution.

  47. Dunc

    It’s much harder to build a house where little heat is lost AND where the air and moisture are transferred properly. The building has to “breathe” or else you end up living in a house full of mould. Does the aerogel allow that?

    Sure, it’s not exactly easy, but it’s perfectly do-able.

  48. Michelle R

    Hmmm didn’t you once say it’s also brittle and dangerous to pick up when it’s broken?

  49. Thomas Siefert

    Busy, just skimming headlines.

    Sorry that BA is in such a fix that he have to shred his many unsold books for insulation in his home. :-)

    @22. LtStorm

    If you live in London, there is a legacy of Arthur C. Clark in St. Katharine’s Dock.
    It’s not exactly made or put there in his honour but if wasn’t for him and Stanley Kubrick, it wouldn’t exist.

    Image and video hosting by TinyPic

    Image and video hosting by TinyPic

  50. MattF

    ND: Is this aerogel safe? I’m thinking of the inhalation dangers from asbestos.

    The danger with asbestos, as I understand it, is that little slivers can break off into little fibers and get inhaled. And when they do, mesothelioma, benign warts, and pleural thickening and plaques. And again, as I understand it, aerogel doesn’t splinter into fibers the same way. I guess it’d be a simple thing to look into, though.

  51. !AstralProjectile

    23. !AstralProjectile

    I woke up in the middle of the night and thought “ARGH! I hope I said critical temperature rather than triple point!” :-(

    Another interesting use is as support “scaffolding” for fiber optic sensors which use the evanescent field for chemical detection. So it is gas permeable.

  52. This is really cool but, damnit, I want my flying car.

    As a child I was told that by now there’d be colonies on Mars, free energy, flying cars and we’d have developed a computer that could sit on a desktop.

    I don’t really care about the other things but damnit, I want my flying car!

  53. T.E.L.

    Thomas Said:

    “I want my flying car!:>/i>

    There have been flying cars for a pretty long time already. Go here to read about them: http://tinyurl.com/oe9uj

  54. Aerimus

    IVAN3 – Most awesome first post ever!

  55. If this could be produced in large quantities at relatively economical costs, it could also be a great insulation for fuel and oxygen tanks on rockets. Since oxygen and often hydrogen need to be kept liquid, the tanks are usually covered with thick insulation like the orange foam used for the Space Shuttle. It adds a lot of weight. Aerogel has been too expensive to use in those kind of quantities.

  56. ND

    So what did they use for insulation on the Energia when they launched the Buran?

  57. 12. Nekura Says: “I want to own a piece of aerogel.”

    If you’re ever in Livermore, then you should stop by the visitor’s center at LLNL (where the stuff was developed). If you’re by yourself, or in a small group, they have chunks of it in a desk drawer that they will give out if you ask, but not if there are lots of people around.

    The reason for this has been hinted at in some of the posts above. Aerogel is almost pure silica and crushes easily. It is actually classified as a hazardous material since breathing the particles can cause siliconicosis (a lung disease, aka “miners lung”). You’d have to breath a lot of it for quite a while, though.

    - Jack

  58. 41. Messier Tidy Upper Says: “This could be the *Genesis* of something! ”

    Actually, I believe the collectors on Genesis were silicon wafers (like the kind they make chips on). It was trying to capture atomic scale pieces of the solar wind.

    The mission you’re thinking of is “Stardust” which visited comet Wild II and collected particles from the coma. While still microscopically tiny, the dust grains were still many orders of magnitude larger than the He nuclei and other particles collected by Genesis.

    It’s easy to confuse the two missions since they used the same basic spacecraft bus. The problem with Genesis was that someone installed the 1/10 g-switch backwards (the one that detects the beginning of deceleration when it first touches the atmosphere). This switch sends the signal to fire off the recovery system batteries that power everything in the terminal phase of the mission. Since it was in backwards, it never closed, so the capsule just free-fell into the desert.

    The people on the Stardust mission (which and already visited the comet as was heading home when Genesis crashed) had a lot of nervous nights since they knew their spacecraft had the same basic design.

    - Jack

  59. 57. Aerimus Says: “IVAN3 – Most awesome first post ever!”

    I dunno. I think he’s posted a few times previously…

    - Jack

  60. Strangel

    You gonna eat that?

  61. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ 61. Jack Hagerty Says:

    41. Messier Tidy Upper Says: “This could be the *Genesis* of something!”
    Actually, I believe the collectors on Genesis were silicon wafers (like the kind they make chips on). It was trying to capture atomic scale pieces of the solar wind. The mission you’re thinking of is “Stardust” which visited comet Wild II and collected particles from the coma. While still microscopically tiny, the dust grains were still many orders of magnitude larger than the He nuclei and other particles collected by Genesis.

    Er .. yes. Oops. (Blushes.)

    I forgot all about that Stardust mission. Didn’t both missions use aerogel in the wafers /collectors though? I’ll have to check that.

    ***

    ED. – No they didn’t & yes, Jack Hagerty is right, Stardust used aerogel but Genesis didn’t.

    See : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stardust_(spacecraft)

    & from the wiki-link posted earlier :

    A Genesis collector array in the Genesis clean lab at the Johnson Space Center (photo courtesy NASA). Hexagons consist of a variety of ultra-pure, semiconductor-grade wafers, including silicon, commercial “sapphire” (i.e. corundum), gold on sapphire, diamond-like carbon films, and other materials.

    D’oh! I missed that, sorry. :-(

    Nicely spotted Jack H. :-)

  62. MarcusBailius

    Way back in the early 1990s, I helped design and build high-energy bremsstrahlung detectors (looking at Cherenkov light from the scattered electrons) from silica aerogel. The refractive index was so low, that the threshold for detection of scattered electrons was very high – which meant contamination of the signal from background activity in the sample was eliminated. We were using it for X-ray tomography of examples of vitrified drums of simulated highly-active waste, looking for cracks and voids, for example.

    It was fascinating stuff. You had to keep moisture out, though; it has a real affinity for water. and cutting it with a bandsaw created a monstrous amount of rather nasty dust!

  63. 64. Messier Tidy Upper Says: “Nicely spotted Jack H.”

    It’s what I’m here for :-)

    - Jack

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