Insulation Materials – Types of Insulation

Insulation Materials

Thermal Insulators - ParametersAs was written, thermal insulation is based on the use of substances with very low thermal conductivity. These materials are known as insulation materials. Common insulation materials are wool, fiberglass, rock wool, polystyrene, polyurethane, and goose feather etc. These materials are very poor conductors of heat and are therefore good thermal insulators.

It must be added, thermal insulation is primarily based on the very low thermal conductivity of gases. Gases possess poor thermal conduction properties compared to liquids and solids, and thus makes a good insulation material if they can be trapped (e.g. in a foam-like structure). Air and other gases are generally good insulators. But the main benefit is in the absence of convection. Therefore, many insulation materials (e.g.polystyrene) function simply by having a large number of gas-filled pockets which prevent large-scale convection. In all types of thermal insulation, evacuation of the air in the void space will further reduce the overall thermal conductivity of the insulator.

Alternation of gas pocket and solid material causes that the heat must be transferred through many interfaces causing rapid decrease in heat transfer coefficient.

It must be noted, heat losses from hotter objects occurs by three mechanisms (either individually or in combination):

So far we have not discussed thermal radiation as a mode of heat lossesRadiation heat transfer is mediated by electromagnetic radiation and therefore it does not require any medium for heat transfer. In fact, energy transfer by radiation is fastest (at the speed of light) and it suffers no attenuation in a vacuum. Any material that has a temperature above absolute zero gives off some radiant energy. Most energy of this type is in the infra-red region of the electromagnetic spectrum although some of it is in the visible region. In order to decrease this type of heat transfer, materials with low emissivity (high reflectivity) should be used. Reflective insulations are usually composed of multilayered, parallel foils of high reflectivity, which are spaced to reflect thermal radiation back to its source. The emissivity, ε, of the surface of a material is its effectiveness in emitting energy as thermal radiation and varies between 0.0 and 1.0. In general, polished metals have very low emissivity and therefore are widely used to reflect radiant energy back to its source as in case of first aid blankets.

Types of Insulation – Categorization of Insulation Materials

For insulation materials, three general categories can be defined. These categories are based on the chemical composition of the base material from which the insulating material is produced.

Insulation Materials - Types

In further reading, there is a brief description of these types of insulation materials.

Inorganic Insulation Materials

As can be seen from the figure, inorganic materials can be classified accordingly:

Organic Insulation Materials

The organic insulation materials treated in this section are all derived from a petrochemical or renewable feedstock (bio-based). Almost all of the petrochemical insulation materials are in the form of polymers. As can be see from the figure, all petrochemical insulation materials are cellular. A material is cellular when the structure of the material consists of pores or cells. On the other hand, many plants contain fibres for their strength, therefore almost all the bio-based insulation materials are fibrous (except expanded cork, which is cellular).

Organic insulation materials can be classified accordingly:

Other Insulation Materials

Example of Insulation – Polystyrene

Generally, polystyrene is a synthetic aromatic polymer made from the monomer styrene, which is derived from benzene and ethylene, both petroleum products. Polystyrene can be solid or foamed. Polystyrene is a colorless, transparent thermoplastic, which is commonly used to make foam board or beadboard insulation and a type of loose-fill insulation consisting of small beads of polystyrene. Polystyrene foams are 95-98% air. Polystyrene foams are good thermal insulators and are therefore often used as building insulation materials, such as in insulating concrete forms and structural insulated panel building systems. Expanded (EPS) and extruded polystyrene (XPS) are both made from polystyrene, but EPS is composed of small plastic beads that are fused together and XPS begins as a molten material that is pressed out of a form into sheets. XPS is most commonly used as foam board insulation.

expanded polystyrene - thermal insulationExpanded polystyrene (EPS) is a rigid and tough, closed-cell foam. Building and construction applications account for around two-thirds of demand for expanded polystyrene. It is used for the insulation of (cavity) walls, roofs and concrete floors. Due to its technical properties such as low weight, rigidity, and formability, expanded polystyrene can be used in a wide range of applications, for example trays, plates and fish boxes.

Although both expanded and extruded polystyrene have a closed-cell structure, they are permeable by water molecules and can not be considered a vapor barrier. In expanded polystyrene there are interstitial gaps between the expanded closed-cell pellets that form an open network of channels between the bonded pellets. If the water freezes into ice, it expands and can cause polystyrene pellets to break off from the foam.

Example of Insulation – Vacuum Insulation Panels

vacuum insulation panelsMost materials are limited by thermal conductivity of the air (trapped in cells), which is about about 0.025 W/m∙K. But a decrease in pressure causes a decrease in its thermal conductivity. A vacuum insulation panel (VIP) reduces this problem. This panel is a form of thermal insulation consisting of a gas-tight enclosure surrounding a rigid core. The air from this panel is evacuated. It must be noted, aging has a negative effect on the panels. This is because the envelope of the panels is not fully airtight and therefore its thermal conductivity slightly increases. These panels can be used for the thermal insulation of almost every element of the building envelope.

Example – Heat Loss through a Wall

heat loss through wall - example - calculationA major source of heat loss from a house is through walls. Calculate the rate of heat flux through a wall 3 m x 10 m in area (A = 30 m2). The wall is 15 cm thick (L1) and it is made of bricks with the thermal conductivity of k1 = 1.0 W/m.K (poor thermal insulator). Assume that, the indoor and the outdoor temperatures are 22°C and -8°C, and the convection heat transfer coefficients on the inner and the outer sides are h1 = 10 W/m2K and h2 = 30 W/m2K, respectively. Note that, these convection coefficients strongly depend especially on ambient and interior conditions (wind, humidity, etc.).

  1. Calculate the heat flux (heat loss) through this non-insulated wall.
  2. Now assume thermal insulation on the outer side of this wall. Use expanded polystyrene insulation 10 cm thick (L2) with the thermal conductivity of k2 = 0.03 W/m.K and calculate the heat flux (heat loss) through this composite wall.


As was written, many of the heat transfer processes involve composite systems and even involve a combination of both conduction and convection. With these composite systems, it is often convenient to work with an overall heat transfer coefficient, known as a U-factor. The U-factor is defined by an expression analogous to Newton’s law of cooling:

u-factor - overall heat transfer coefficient

The overall heat transfer coefficient is related to the total thermal resistance and depends on the geometry of the problem.

  1. bare wall

Assuming one-dimensional heat transfer through the plane wall and disregarding radiation, the overall heat transfer coefficient can be calculated as:

overall heat transfer coefficient - heat loss calculation

The overall heat transfer coefficient is then:

U = 1 / (1/10 + 0.15/1 + 1/30) = 3.53 W/m2K

The heat flux can be then calculated simply as:

q = 3.53 [W/m2K] x 30 [K] = 105.9 W/m2

The total heat loss through this wall will be:

qloss = q . A = 105.9 [W/m2] x 30 [m2] = 3177W

  1. composite wall with thermal insulation

Assuming one-dimensional heat transfer through the plane composite wall, no thermal contact resistance and disregarding radiation, the overall heat transfer coefficient can be calculated as:

overall heat transfer coefficient - thermal insulation calculation

thermal insulation - expanded polystyreneThe overall heat transfer coefficient is then:

U = 1 / (1/10 + 0.15/1 + 0.1/0.03 + 1/30) = 0.276 W/m2K

The heat flux can be then calculated simply as:

q = 0.276 [W/m2K] x 30 [K] = 8.28 W/m2

The total heat loss through this wall will be:

qloss = q . A = 8.28 [W/m2] x 30 [m2] = 248 W

As can be seen, an addition of thermal insulator causes significant decrease in heat losses. It must be added, an addition of next layer of thermal insulator does not cause such high savings. This can be better seen from the thermal resistance method, which can be used to calculate the heat transfer through composite walls. The rate of steady heat transfer between two surfaces is equal to the temperature difference divided by the total thermal resistance between those two surfaces.

thermal resistance - equation

Heat Transfer:
  1. Fundamentals of Heat and Mass Transfer, 7th Edition. Theodore L. Bergman, Adrienne S. Lavine, Frank P. Incropera. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2011. ISBN: 9781118137253.
  2. Heat and Mass Transfer. Yunus A. Cengel. McGraw-Hill Education, 2011. ISBN: 9780071077866.
  3. U.S. Department of Energy, Thermodynamics, Heat Transfer and Fluid Flow. DOE Fundamentals Handbook, Volume 2 of 3. May 2016.

Nuclear and Reactor Physics:

  1. J. R. Lamarsh, Introduction to Nuclear Reactor Theory, 2nd ed., Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA (1983).
  2. J. R. Lamarsh, A. J. Baratta, Introduction to Nuclear Engineering, 3d ed., Prentice-Hall, 2001, ISBN: 0-201-82498-1.
  3. W. M. Stacey, Nuclear Reactor Physics, John Wiley & Sons, 2001, ISBN: 0- 471-39127-1.
  4. Glasstone, Sesonske. Nuclear Reactor Engineering: Reactor Systems Engineering, Springer; 4th edition, 1994, ISBN: 978-0412985317
  5. W.S.C. Williams. Nuclear and Particle Physics. Clarendon Press; 1 edition, 1991, ISBN: 978-0198520467
  6. G.R.Keepin. Physics of Nuclear Kinetics. Addison-Wesley Pub. Co; 1st edition, 1965
  7. Robert Reed Burn, Introduction to Nuclear Reactor Operation, 1988.
  8. U.S. Department of Energy, Nuclear Physics and Reactor Theory. DOE Fundamentals Handbook, Volume 1 and 2. January 1993.
  9. Paul Reuss, Neutron Physics. EDP Sciences, 2008. ISBN: 978-2759800414.

Advanced Reactor Physics:

  1. K. O. Ott, W. A. Bezella, Introductory Nuclear Reactor Statics, American Nuclear Society, Revised edition (1989), 1989, ISBN: 0-894-48033-2.
  2. K. O. Ott, R. J. Neuhold, Introductory Nuclear Reactor Dynamics, American Nuclear Society, 1985, ISBN: 0-894-48029-4.
  3. D. L. Hetrick, Dynamics of Nuclear Reactors, American Nuclear Society, 1993, ISBN: 0-894-48453-2.
  4. E. E. Lewis, W. F. Miller, Computational Methods of Neutron Transport, American Nuclear Society, 1993, ISBN: 0-894-48452-4.

See above:

Heat Losses