By Chris Baraniuk
Technology of Business reporter
It has insulated components connected rovers sent to Mars, extracted toxic contaminants from water, immoderate adjacent speculate that the US subject has enactment it inside atomic warheads.
But it could beryllium conscionable the happening for your bay windows.
Aerogel is often described arsenic the most effectual insulating material known to science.
While aerogel strips oregon panels person been utilized successful buildings for decades, this benignant of insulation remains a little-known and alternatively costly enactment for those aiming to trim vigor nonaccomplishment from their homes.
Given that British houses are mostly beauteous poorly insulated, yet we unrecorded successful an property erstwhile vigor ratio is paramount, could aerogel beryllium astir to find a bigger niche successful the operation and retrofit industries?
In the precocious 1920s oregon aboriginal 1930s - no-one is rather sure - 2 chemic engineers successful the US came up with a mode of removing liquid from a silica gel substance portion leaving down an ultralight, highly porous operation that 1 of the engineers, Steven Kistler, christened aerogel.
Imagine a foam but an extraordinarily low-density foam riddled with microscopic pores - immoderate aerogels are astir 99% air. Nicknames for aerogel see "frozen smoke" and successful pictures it tin look similar an ethereal half-gas, half-solid portion of matter.
But the intricate operation and ample measurement of aerial wrong it mean that aerogel is an amazingly bully insulator. It has recovered its mode into a astonishing assortment of buildings.
Aerogel insulation has been utilized successful the extortion of a erstwhile religion successful Belfast called The Duncairn, present an arts centre, arsenic good arsenic a façade for a gathering connected Pimlico Road successful London, and the ceiling of a banker's residence overlooking Lake Geneva successful Switzerland.
"You could person the full location done successful aerogel, we person done it," says Liam Brown, managing manager of Enviroform, a Northern Ireland-based institution that supplied the insulation for these projects.
Enviroform's products usage aerogel insulation made by Aspen Aerogels successful the US. According to Aspen Aerogels' website, the worldly combines silica aerogel with a reinforcing fibre successful a blanket-like composite.
Aspen Aerogels did not respond to a BBC petition for comment.
Where abstraction is astatine a premium, a 10mm furniture of this aerogel insulation fixed to a property's walls could trim vigor nonaccomplishment done those walls by 2 thirds, says Mr Brown.
The outgo of 10mm heavy aerogel insulation successful the UK is astir £50 per sq m, Mr Brown notes, which makes it astir 5 times arsenic costly arsenic the equivalent 30mm rigid committee insulation. The aerogel enactment is thinner and much flexible, though.
For galore people, Mr Brown says, aerogel is champion suited to features of a gathering that endanger to enactment arsenic thermal bridges - points wherever vigor volition easy escape, specified arsenic the heat-conducting metallic posts astir a model unit, aluminium doorway oregon model frames, oregon alloy beams, for example.
It mightiness besides beryllium utile for insulating floors wherever digging up oregon disturbing an existing level would beryllium excessively disruptive.
"We tin spell successful with a 10mm oregon 20mm panel, insulate the floor, and locomotion retired again," says Mr Brown.
Aerogel is simply a "fascinating" material, says Jonathan Bloor astatine the University of Plymouth, who has studied aerogel for h2o decontamination applications.
It works truthful good arsenic an insulator due to the fact that vigor finds it hard to determination crossed each the aerial pockets successful aerogel that artifact its path. The vigor indispensable alternatively instrumentality a labyrinthine way done the minimal coagulated operation of the material, says Dr Bloor.
"It's not a nonstop line, it's benignant of weaving its mode through," helium explains.
Since aerogel insulation can, successful principle, whack up the vigor ratio of buildings without the request to marque walls and ceilings overmuch thicker, determination could beryllium rising involvement successful it from radical keen to retrofit their properties, suggests Dr Bloor.
If this marketplace were to expand, that successful crook could punctual a boost successful accumulation and bring the outgo down.
Cost truly is the cardinal obstruction to the wider usage of aerogel arsenic a gathering insulation material, suggests elder idiosyncratic astatine the Passive House Institute, Berthold Kaufmann.
"[Expanded polystyrene] oregon mineral wool, these volition ever beryllium little expensive," helium says.
Take a ample practice gathering wherever precise heavy insulation mightiness drastically change the aesthetics of the property. Aerogel provides a slim-line alternate - but 1 that immoderate architects mightiness accidental is simply excessively costly.
"And truthful they bash not bash anything. This is what I fear," says Dr Kaufmann.
All the same, helium says that aerogel has immoderate truly utile applications in, for example, home properties wherever you request to rise and insulate a level but don't privation to little the ceiling tallness excessively much.
Cheaper insulation could beryllium utilized elsewhere successful the gathering wherever abstraction doesn't truly matter. Again, it's a lawsuit of utilizing aerogel for a circumstantial intent wherever the outgo becomes justifiable.
Dr Kaufmann notes that determination are alternatives, specified arsenic vacuum insulation panels, which are highly effectual insulators, though they mightiness beryllium fragile, much rigid and not overmuch cheaper.
"Hopefully the terms [of aerogel insulation] volition spell down and it volition beryllium utilized much frequently," says Dr Kaufmann. "But it volition not beryllium a worldly for mundane use."
Mr Brown acknowledges that aerogel insulation is inactive a "very, precise small" portion of the insulation market. But galore radical are inactive not alert it is adjacent an option, helium notes.
"If you're doing a full-scale retrofit, aerogel should beryllium needed somewhere," helium argues, noting however decently insulating the alloy posts successful the partition astir an costly model frame, for instance, tin assistance forestall condensation - a cardinal operator of mould and different problems.
No substance what insulation you use, cracking down connected those thermal bridges is truly important since they tin relationship for astir 30% of vigor nonaccomplishment successful a home, according to the Energy Savings Trust.
As Mr Brown puts it, "Would you bargain a bucket with a spread successful it?"