What is insulation?
Insulation is the set of materials, techniques, technologies and structures that prevent the transmission of heat, electricity, sound, or light. It is used in materials (like cables), parts of buildings (for example, in windows), and even the entirety of construction projects.
Insulating elements can have different properties, but the main requirement is that they can interrupt the transmission of energy.
What types of insulators are there?
- Electrical insulators: these materials have high resistivity and are used to prevent electrical transmission, thus separating different conductive parts and protecting people from the current.
These insulating materials can be paper, wood, glass, ceramics, rubber, and plastic.
They are mainly used to insulate cables and other electrical elements, preventing short circuits and electric shock, thereby reducing the number of risks that occur.
- Thermal insulators: these prevent the transmission of heat.
A few thermal insulators are cotton, aluminum, straw, cellulose, and cork.
They are used to improve the energy efficiency of buildings, protecting them from outside temperatures and reducing the need for air conditioning. However, they are also indispensable in industry and for running boilers, refrigeration cells, etc. Thermal insulation is key in reducing CO2 emissions.
- Acoustic insulators: these decrease the transmission of sounds, and they also prevent sound reflection, or when sound waves hit surfaces that amplify them.
There are materials specifically designed for this type of insulation (such as acoustic foam) as well as those widely used in designs for sound insulation systems (like mineral wool). Unlike other forms of isolation, though, with sound insulation, not only are the materials important, but so are their combination and arrangement. This is because the materials have different resonant frequencies, so they absorb different wavelengths; the insulation capacity also changes with the direction of wave impact.
Acoustic insulators are important for mitigating noise pollution by insulating things that generate noise, such as engines (from vehicles, machinery, etc.) or nightlife venues. They are also used to increase comfort, such as with sound insulation on windows and walls in residential or office buildings.
- Light insulators: these filter the passage of light and are important to prevent any light sources from affecting the activities for which a space is intended (for example, a room during sleeping hours). They are especially important to prevent sunlight from negatively affecting a place’s temperature and air conditioning.
Light insulation can be as simple and domestic as a curtain or blind. This can also be done through technical means with glass that is formulated or coated to block out light and temperature. Insulation can be brought full circle with robotic and artificial intelligence, which increasingly control more functions (such as opening and closing the blinds at certain times depending on the time of year) to make homes, offices, and entire smart cities more energy efficient.
What is the current landscape for insulation systems regarding energy efficiency?
Creating a good insulation system for a building is as important as conscious energy consumption; by installing them, energy leaks are prevented. Polyurethane systems are currently the most viable option to move toward sustainability, thanks to their positive environmental impact.
Polyurethane is a very versatile plastic that’s used as a thermal insulator in construction and building renovations; its most common variant is foam board. This product is resistant and efficient, with a low level of conductivity, high performance, and little heat transfer.
The use of polyurethane as an insulator compensates for the emissions generated in its production: to get 1 m2 of polyurethane, 14 kg of CO2 is produced; however, by using 1 m2 of this material to create insulation systems, more than 1 kg of CO2 emissions are reduced.