This stuff definitely insulates.
Aspen Aerogels sent us a sample of SpaceLoft, insulation for commercial buildings and homes made from aerogels. Aerogels are essentially blankets of air pockets. Air doesn't transmit heat well, so materials that can capture and isolate air bubbles tend to insulate fairly well. The company has a famous demo where a blowtorch is applied to one side of an aerogel blanket.
We didn't have a blowtorch, but we did have a gas-burning stove handy, so we flicked a burner on high, held the SpaceLoft sample just above the flame, and touched the other side. I didn't feel a thing. The heat was searing where the flame was peeking over the side of the sample, but the surface of the material remained essentially at room temperature. The sample is only a centimeter thick and the filming took almost five minutes.
By the end, the kitchen smelled like an industrial site that had caught fire (insulation buyers won't have to worry about smells if they do the sensible thing and avoid the flame test), but my fingers were not burned.
Aerogels historically have mostly been used in industrial applications like deep sea pipelines because of their high costs. Aspen, however, has kicked off the long, arduous push to get the material into buildings. Last year, BASF and others invested $21.5 million into the company. It has also worked with Serious Materials on an insulating drywall. Besides insulating quite well, aerogels are easy to install.
"In the U.K., there are 6.5 million solid-wall dwellings," he said. "We take a minimal amount of space and are in and out in a day or two," CEO Don Young told us in an earlier video.
The company could also benefit from green housing regulations passed in North America and Europe. California aims to require builders to build only net-zero-energy homes by 2020 and net-zero-energy commercial buildings by 2030. While these net-zero structures will achieve that target with solar panels and fuel cells, a good portion of the energy savings will come from better insulation.
It's not the only new age insulation on the market. Panasonic has begun to examine ways to deploy insulation used in household appliances, thin by nature and design, for walls. Many green builders currently tout the benefits of open cell insulation. But the flame test shows that when it comes to keeping heat in or out, aerogels are tough to beat.