1511 Thermal Conductivity

The thermal conductivity, or k value, is a measure of the amount of heat that passes through 1 square foot of 1-inch-thick material in 1 hour when there is a temperature difference of 1°F across the insulation thickness. Therefore, the units are Btu-in./hr ft2 °F. This property relates only to homogeneous materials and has nothing to do with the surfaces of the material. Obviously, the lower the k value, the more efficient the insulation. Since products are often compared by this property, the measurement of thermal conductivity is very critical. The American Society of Testing Materials (ASTM) has developed sophisticated test methods that are the standards in the industry. These methods allow for consistent evaluation and comparison of materials and are frequently used at manufacturing locations in quality control procedures.


Heat transfer in this mode results from atomic or molecular motion. Heated molecules are excited and this energy is physically transferred to cooler molecules by vibration. It occurs in both fluids (gas and liquid) and solids, with gas conduction and solid conduction being the primary factors in insulation technology. Solid conduction can be controlled in two ways: by utilizing a solid material that is less conductive and by utilizing less of the material. For example, glass conducts heat less readily than steel and a fibrous structure has much less through-conduction than does a solid mass. Gas conduction does not lend itself to simple modification. Reduction can be achieved by either reducing the gas pressure by evacuation or by replacing the air with a heavy-density gas such as Freon®. In both cases, the insulation must be adequately sealed to prevent reentry of air into the modified system. However, since gas conduction is a major component of the total thermal conductivity, applications requiring very low heat transfer often employ such gas-modified products.


Heat transfer by convection is a result of hot fluid rising in a system and being replaced by a colder, heavier fluid. This fluid heats, rises, and carries more heat away from the heat source. Convective heat transfer is minimized by the creation of small cells within which the temperature gradients are small. Most thermal insulations are porous structures with enough density to block radiation and provide structural integrity. As such, convection is virtually eliminated within the insulation except for applications where forced convection is being driven through the insulation structure.


Electromagnetic radiation is responsible for much of the heat transferred through an insulation and increases in its significance as temperatures increase. The radiant energy will flow even in a vacuum and is governed by the emittance and temperature of the surfaces involved. Radiation can be controlled by utilizing surfaces with low emittance and by inserting absorbers or reflectors within the body of the insulation. The core density of the material is a major factor, with radiation being reduced by increased density. The interplay between the various heat-transfer mechanisms is very important in insulation design. High density reduces radiation but increases solid conduction and material costs. Gas conduction is very significant, but to alter it requires permanent sealing at additional cost. In addition, the temperature in which the insulation is operating changes the relative importance of each mechanism. Figure 15.1 shows the contribution of air conduction, fiber conduction, and radiation in a glass fiber insulation at various densities and mean temperatures.

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