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An insulation worker installs argon-filled panels behind the radiators in the LEED Gold-rated New York Power Authority building in White Plains. The unique construction of the gas-filled panels developed at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California are as effective barriers to heat as its pink fibrous counterparts with less material in less space. | Photo courtesy of FiFoil, Inc.
Within weeks of seeing a story online about gas-filled insulation panels, Bill Lippy, the president of Florida-based reflective insulation company FiFoil, was on a plane to California to view the prototype. When he arrived, researchers at the Energy Department’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory showed him a flat, shallow foil bag that, when inflated with air or other gases, insulated as well as the pink insulation common in residential attics. As he found out, the secret was the patented honeycombed, also referred to as baffled, interior.
The Berkeley Lab invention prevents heat from escaping a building in several ways. First, the foil skin of the panel reflects heat back into the building. The patented design means the heat that passes through the skin must warm several layers of air pockets before reaching the other side of the panel and escaping outside. Even if one layer of the air pockets warms enough to heat the adjacent pockets, the act of warming the air in the individual pocket dissipates the heat enough that very little reaches the opposite panel wall, which translates to less heat leaving the living space.
A year after Lippy’s initial visit, FiFoil licensed the technology as a first step toward commercially developing the advanced insulation for industrial and residential buildings. Today, FiFoil gas-filled panels can be found in the LEED Gold-rated New York Power Authority building in White Plains and in an early prototype for the next generation of Army tents. As early as 2012, homeowners will likely even be able to buy deflated FiFoil gas-filled panels from their local home improvement store and inflate them in a layer on their attic floors.
The unique internal construction makes gas-filled panels as effective barriers to heat as its pink fibrous counterparts with less material in less space. The standard panel sits one inch and a half deep, half the average fiberglass of similar thermal rating. The panels ship flattened to a fraction of an inch, which lowers transportation costs. Builders can then inflate the panels on site with compressed air. To improve the panel’s thermal performance the panels can be inflated with compressed inert gas, like argon, xenon or krypton, which doesn’t heat as easily as air. “They had a patent and design. It was our task to take that and develop it into a building application,” Lippy recalls.
The inflatable quality that drove FiFoil towards the do-it-yourself home improvement market also enticed the New York Power Authority to use gas-filled panels in their building’s weatherization project. Coupled with fiberglass insulation, two layers of panels sit behind many of the wall-mounted steam radiators in the 17-story building to lessen heat loss to the outside. Retrofitters placed the deflated panels behind the radiators and inflated them with argon, saving the NYPA from the costly extra step of removing and then replacing the appliance to install the insulation.
On several other floors of the building, another iteration of the commercialized Berkley Lab panel sits in the space between the paneled drop ceilings and the structural ceiling. The end result: A sealed-off open space, which lowers the energy needed to heat or cool the building. Such versatility and ease of use also piqued the interest of Army research laboratory Natick in Massachusetts.
Through a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA), the FiFoil is now developing gas-filled insulation panels for Army tents. Currently, deployed tents are insulated with a spray insulation that renders the shelter virtually immobile upon application. Specially designed gas-filled panels could preserve future tents’ mobility while maintaining the same thermal properties.
“It’s a great thermal solution that’s compact, low weight - and now reusable,” said Doug Finniger, operations manager at FiFoil.
The recent Army research contract marks the third FiFoil application of the Energy Department technology. FiFoil has put significant capital investment into commercializing the Berkeley technology and stands ready with new machines and a trained workforce to deploy it fully.
Gas-filled panels have the potential to impact the 57,000 workers in the insulation trade during retrofits as companies and homeowners attempt to lower their energy consumption and save money. In 2008, the buildings sector accounted for 43 percent of U.S. energy consumption. Gas-filled Army tents could save the armed service millions in transportation and energy costs. Commercially, the $134 billion packaging industry has already seen at least one company emerge based around the reflective, baffled insulator.
In the future there are certain to be more applications, and it’ll be thanks to the technology invented by Berkeley Lab and brought to market by American businesses.