The Autonomous House - Aerogel Panels

Index:


Aerogel Panels

Concept model of a drop-in panel for the Autonomous House.

The house will have many drop-in panels to integrate with the hub and strut components. I envision lightweight, transparent or translucent panels, made with a super-insulating material called Aerogel. Aerogel is an amazing material, made out of a bit of silicon, and a large amount of air (or vacuum) between the silicon atoms. There are many excellent resources out there to explain aerogels in more detail than you could possibly want to know. Start with these, and you'll be off to a good start:

Several really amazing things to note about aerogel are its incredibly light weight, incredible strength for such small mass, and its incredible insulating powers. Aerogel often weighs only 3-10 times as much as air. Its strength and insulating powers are probably best seen to be believed.

Aerogel holding up a brick.

Aerogel holding up a brick.

Note: Despite its great strength, aerogel is still very brittle. So if you were to smash down on the aerogel with the brick, the aerogel would pulverize. But it can be laminated between other layers for protection.

Aerogel
insulating a human hand from a Bunsen burner flame.

Aerogel insulating a human hand from a Bunsen burner flame.

Aerogel insulating a flower from a Bunsen burner flame.

Aerogel insulating a flower from a Bunsen burner flame.

Aerogel insulating some crayons from a blowtorch.

Aerogel insulating some crayons from a blowtorch.

Aerogel insulating some matches from a blowtorch.

Aerogel insulating some matches from a blowtorch.

Aerogels can also be made in varying grades of clarity, from completely opaque and colored, to translucent, and all the way to almost completely transparent. True transparency is the "Holy Grail" of aerogel science, and once it's achieved, you'll be seeing it in windows everywhere. (Remember where you saw it mentioned first. :-) ) This picture, of Kevin Lofftus, a researcher at the Berkeley labs where aerogel work is being performed, is the finest example I've yet seen of transparency in aerogel. (I have never met Mr. Lofftus, but I'm very impressed with this picture.)

Kevin Lofftus, from the Berkeley aerogels lab, looking through a 
transparent pane of aerogel.

Kevin Lofftus, from the Berkeley aerogels lab, looking through a transparent pane of aerogel.

Aerogel is, however, very brittle, so I'm envisioning a two-layer sandwich of glass or Plexiglas, or Lexan, or some other material, with the aerogel sandwiched in between. Rather like current double-pane windows, but filled with aerogel. I want to have a soft rubber gasket material (like what you see on car doors to keep them sealed against the rain) going around the edges of the panel, so the whole triangular affair can be dropped into place in the dome framework, and instantly fastened with some sort of lever/handle like you often see on windows that open outwards in buildings. You can pull the window shut and twist the handle to seal it. I'd like to do the same thing with these panels.

Exterior detail of panel design. Interior detail of panel design.
Exterior and Interior Detail Views of the Panel Design.

Note on the exterior view that the rubber gasket would go on the outside edge and under the overlapping part of the panel frame. The struts would be running along the channel under that overlap. Also note the small separation where the bottom part of the frame joins the upper. This part comes off, and is where the aerogel panel (or even a simple vacuum-insulated module) would slide in, then the lower part would reattach to the upper, locking the window panes in place. The interior view again shows where the pane-module would sit, and how it would be held in place from above and below.

I use aluminum in these renderings to showcase the various components, but they could also be cast from non-conductive materials such as carbon-fiber epoxy resin materials. These sorts of materials might be highly preferable in areas where heat/cold extremes would cause the conduction properties of metals to be a problem.

Another thing I'd like to to is incorporate a material called "polymer liquid crystal" (PLC) into the inner pane of the 2 layers of glass/Lexan/etc. that form the panel (surrounding the aerogel.) Polymer Liquid Crystal behaves like many of the LCD products you're already familiar with in digital watches, calculators, laptop screens, etc. When you put an electric current through it, it goes from transparent to opaque, or vice-versa. Put a dimmer-switch on it, and you can "dial" the opacity level you desire. Build your house with the stuff, and you now have an autonomous geodesic bubble that has walls/windows you can "dim". If you're out on a remote mountain-top, you can turn down the walls at night to get a gorgeous view of the night sky. Or a fantastic thunderstorm, or whatever. You can find more info about polymer liquid crystals here.

Animations

I recently created a couple of animated GIF images to show how I envision the polymer liquid crystal/aerogel panels of the autonomous house working as they phase from opaque to transparent and back again. This is just the final frame of what a fully transparent shell might look like. (Note the turquoise color that the panels retain. I left that in so that it would look a bit like the blue of the aerogel. But then again, I suppose it would be either transparent, OR blue, as we can see in the photos above... :-) )

The animations are here:
*WARNING*!!! These two files are very big! (2.0Mb and 2.8Mb each!)
Don't download these unless you have patience, or a very fast link. :-)
I would actually recommend downloading these to your machine (shift-click the link) and saving to a local file, then doing a File->Open to view the image from your local disk. It will then be MUCH faster, and you can hit 'reload' without it trying to connect over the network again.
(I need to look into some better compression routines for this, like MPEG. Help and/or pointers are appreciated.)

Looping Animation [2.8Mb]
One-time Animation [2.0Mb]

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Patrick Salsbury


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