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Aerogel Insulation: The Materials Science of Empty Space

October 11, 2013 - 10:11am

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Aspen Aerogel's innovative insulation material works well under very cold and very hot temperatures. Here, the insulation is held over a flame.<br/>
<em>Photo Courtesy of Aspen Aerogels</em>

Aspen Aerogel's innovative insulation material works well under very cold and very hot temperatures. Here, the insulation is held over a flame.
Photo Courtesy of Aspen Aerogels

Empty space can be good, like a blank canvas for an artist, or it can be bad, like an attic without insulation for a homeowner.  But when a technological breakthrough provides just the right amount of empty space it can save energy, save money, and create 50 full time clean energy jobs for Americans.

Aspen Aerogels is at the forefront of innovation in the world of industrial insulation. Material scientists at the East Providence Rhode Island company have taken fragile, space-age insulation and made it cheap and strong enough for power and energy generation applications like steam piping equipment, chilled water systems, and fire protection equipment. By customizing the empty space in the complex structure of silica molecules, company scientists created a robust insulation material that is less costly, more durable, more thermally efficient than current market competitors and, by-the-way, is also by volume, 97% empty space.

Industrial steam distribution systems—pipes, valves, traps and other system line components—are reported to lose about 950 trillion BTUs of heat energy every year. That's about 1% of total domestic energy consumption and like wasting close to 165 million barrels of crude oil or just over 7,500 million gallons of gasoline. Until recently, mineral wool, a 19th century insulation product with health and safety issues, was the only low-cost way to address these energy losses.

Image showing the thermal efficiency of Pyrogel insulationFrom 2006 into 2011, Aspen Aerogels, with help from the Energy Department's Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO), created Pyrogel® insulation, a line of products targeted for the U.S. power generation market. Pyrogel® is 4-5 times more thermally efficient than currently used insulation products; works well in an industrial setting from temperatures of -40°F (-40°C) all the way up to 1200°F (650°C); thin, requiring a thickness that is 50% to 80% less than conventional insulations; flexible, conforming to different shapes for confined-space applications; and resistant to water and stainless steel stress crack corrosion.  By working with AMO, this company optimized its manufacturing facility, resulting in a 40% reduction in cycle time, a 30%+ increase in plant capacity, and a 25% reduction in energy consumption as measured per unit of product.

The company's resulting success in addressing an estimated $32 billion annual global insulation materials market paved the way for it to add a second manufacturing line in 2011 with approximately 50 full-time jobs at its East Providence, Rhode Island facility, effectively doubling its manufacturing capacity and helping drive sales and revenue in the $4.5 billion in the worldwide industrial insulation market.

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