Insulation may not be sexy, but it is important. Over the past years we’ve seen leaps and bounds towards creating cheaper, thinner, more breathable materials with higher R-values. There still isn’t “one” insulation out there that has all the best characteristics, but Aerogel is one of the top contenders. This space-age material has the lowest bulk density of any known porous solid as well as some incredible insulating qualities, and recently two companies rolled out Aerogel sheets that make installations a breeze.
You may think Aerogel was invented by NASA for use in their spacecrafts, but it was actually invented in 1931 by Samuel Stephens Kistler after a bet with his friend. It is made up of a gel that has had its liquid component replaced by air — in fact the material is 99% air. It’s quite thin, breathable, fireproof, doesn’t absorb water, and is very strong considering it doesn’t weigh much. What makes it such a great insulator is its low thermal conductivity (14 mW/m-K) and results in an R-value of 10.3 per inch, which is twice as much as rigid foam board. In fact you can light a blow torch on one side and it won’t burn a hole through it or even get hot enough to light a match sitting on the other side.
Unfortunately the material is still fairly expensive and out of the price range for the average homeowner. NASA has used it as insulation for a number of projects including the Mars Rover and space suites. Two companies currently have a commercial product available – Aspen Aerogel and Thermoblok. Aspen Aerogel offers a roll of the material in 0.2 or 0.4 in thicknesses and 57 inches wide. Thermoblok has 1-1/2″ wide strips, which are used to cover framing studs and help prevent thermal bridging and costs about $1.99/ft.
Aerogel a great material for renovations where size matters, and would make great insulation for shipping containers. Due to its incredible R-value and thin form factor it’s one of the best insulative materials out there, and we hope to see prices come down so that it is more affordable for the general public.