Insulation: Where Science, Technology, and Innovation Meet
Hidden behind the walls of many buildings and facilities, a relatively unknown technology is at work, keeping temperatures steady, providing acoustical comfort, and keeping systems working at maximum efficiency. Perhaps the most well-kept secret in the world of energy efficiency tools, thermal insulation is a vital component of properly functioning buildings and facilities. While insulation may seem like a simple technology, it is wholly dependent on skills from the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. For insulation to perform its most basic function—to reduce energy flow—a great deal of science and engineering needs to take place.
The Science Behind Insulation
The technology behind insulation is not well known, and it can often be relegated to a less important status on a building project. Far from being one-size-fits-all, each application calls for specific types of insulation based on the type of system, operating conditions, and goals desired. Physics is the basis of all insulation. Thermal dynamics, heat transfer/flow, fluid dynamics, wave theory, and acoustical dynamics, are critical science disciplines behind insulation. Insulation performs the functions of reducing energy transfer in the form of heat flow and reducing acoustical energy transmission. Understanding the physics behind these occurrences is critical in the development and design of insulation products and installation. Developing a finished insulation product also relies on the use of inorganic and organic chemistry, which are highly significant in the formulation of base materials for insulation products.
Polymer science plays a major role in the formation of elastomeric insulation, polyolefin insulation, polyisocyanurate insulation, polystyrene insulation, and melamine insulation. Polymer science is employed to create coatings and jacketings with many different desired properties, like durability in weather, high and low temperature durability, resistance to vapor transmission, and resistance to liquid penetration. Ceramic chemistry is used to produce formulations for alkaline earth silicate, calcium silicate, rock fiber, glass fiber, and refractory ceramic insulation materials. Metallurgical engineering is employed to produce jacketings and fasteners for insulation systems that can withstand mild to harsh conditions in chemical facilities, refining facilities, and food-production facilities for both outdoor and indoor environments.
Many of those who join the insulation industry in a research and development capacity hold a Masters or PhD in their areas of expertise. As an example, corrosion engineering is a growing field that looks at the mechanics and chemistry behind industrial corrosion, as well as the impact of insulation of corrosion. Some companies will even pay for their employees to obtain these higher degrees as a benefit of employment. If you’re a student and find yourself with an interest in these disciplines, you may want to consider a position in the insulation industry.
Similarly, those with an aptitude for math will find any number of applications in the insulation industry that can make use of those skills. As insulation is heavily dependent on science and engineering, math—the language of science—is naturally involved. Algebra, calculus, and geometry are all heavily employed in the development, production, and installation of insulation and insulation systems. Extensive calculations of many kinds go into all aspects of the insulation industry. Thermal savings calculations use heavy algebra to arrive at the best system design or economic thickness of insulation. Geometry is used every day in the estimating world when determining the amount of insulation needed in a project, or how an installer needs to cut the basic insulation material to form around a particular shape like a tank head, a large valve, or a pipe elbow. Calculus is also used in design of production lines or new facilities to calculated stresses to avoid failures.
Engineering and the Insulation Industry
Mechanical and electrical engineering are widely applicable disciplines within the insulation world. The industry is constantly investigating ways to improve processes used to produce insulation materials, design installed systems, and for the next best material or technology. The insulation industry has developed mass insulations that inhibit conduction, reflective insulation products that inhibit radiant heat transfer, and even insulations that employ vacuum technology to stop conduction. Nanoparticle technology is also being employed to produce highly efficient insulation materials. Some of the world’s largest companies have invested in ongoing projects to develop cutting-edge insulation technology.
Engineering disciplines used in insulation formulation, production, and installation include:
- Ceramic engineering
- Chemical engineering
- Mechanical engineering
- Electrical engineering
- Civil engineering
- Corrosion engineering
- Metallurgical engineering
- Acoustical engineering
- Structural engineering
- Information technology/systems development
- Robotics/Plant Automation
Plants have to be built, machinery designed and tested, product development work conducted, computer systems for both business and manufacturing applications have to be designed and implemented, factory automation created and developed from concept to implementation, lab applications created for purposes ranging from basic research to quality control functions, and numerous other objectives. The industry uses a wide range of engineering disciplines in wide ranging set of applications. In the development of the uses and application of insulation materials, Civil Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Construction Engineering, Safety Engineering, Energy Engineering, Structural Engineering, and Acoustical Engineering are very typical disciplines employed. Engineered solutions are required to address problems that insulation can address, like thermal and acoustical control. When non-engineered application of insulation technology is implemented or employed, it will likely result in an inferior product that will have ongoing repercussions for system operations.
Technology in the Insulation Industry
Technological tools have become ubiquitous in nearly every sector, and insulation is no different. From smart-sensors that can give updates on the current state of a mechanical system, to 3D-modeling and virtual reality, there are endless avenues where technology and insulation intersect. Insulation professionals in the future may find themselves wearing virtual headsets to experience BIM models in real time or working on an interactive computer animation for a new build. The time is ripe for innovators who are looking to make a real impact.
The Future of the Industry
Though insulation may seem like a simple or old-fashioned technology, nothing could be further from the truth. The insulation industry draws on a wide range of mathematic and scientific principles, as well as the expertise of highly skilled engineers. While many industries are contracting or experiencing downturns, the insulation industry is projected to keep growing in 2019 and beyond. Specializing in insulation allows you to utilize your expertise to make a lasting difference for not only a building or facility, but the larger building industry. The innovations possible in this industry have the potential to affect significant long-term change in energy needs and consumption of the built environment, the costs associated with meeting those needs, and extending the life of the resource pool for meeting those needs. If you have the right set of skills and interests, consider whether an insulation focus might be for you. Those who enter the industry will join a vibrant community of professionals who play a pivotal role in the ongoing integrity of the built environment across the globe.
This article was published in the February 2019 issue of Insulation Outlook magazine. Copyright © 2019 National Insulation Association. All rights reserved. The contents of this website and Insulation Outlook magazine may not be reproduced in any means, in whole or in part, without the prior written permission of the publisher and NIA. Any unauthorized duplication is strictly prohibited and would violate NIA’s copyright and may violate other copyright agreements that NIA has with authors and partners. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to reprint or reproduce this content.