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Thermally efficient, cost-reduced nanostructured foams for vacuum insulation panels

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - THEcore (Thermally efficient, cost-reduced nanostructured foams for vacuum insulation panels)

Reporting period: 2017-06-01 to 2019-05-31

Energy supplies and global warming are two of the most important challenges that the world will face in the years to come. In Europe, buildings account for almost 40% of total energy consumption with the majority being consumed by the household sector (heating, air conditioning, refrigeration). Therefore, due to their very low thermal conductivity, advanced thermal insulation products provide an essential contribution to improve energy efficiency and conservation of valuable resources. By reaching a remarkable thermal conductivity of typically of 4 mW/m·K, Vacuum Insulation Panels (VIPs) are by far the most effective thermal insulation material. Besides the high insulation capacity, the high volume reduction by VIPs increases usable space, eases waste disposal, lowers extra logistic costs and transport emissions while reducing the energy needed to keep the temperature at a desired level.
The most used core material for long-term applications fumed silica. This material can maintain a stable thermal conductivity for pressures up to about 10 mbar and a centre of panel thermal conductivity as low as 8 mW/m·K at 100 mbar. However, it has also some drawbacks, considering its high price (accounting for up to 50% of the end user price) and relative high density (typically 180 - 200 kg/m3). The search for lightweight, submicrometic open pore materials at low production costs has been a challenge for the scientific VIP community. THEcore project is on the cutting edge of such materials technology as it has testing and adapting completely novel open and fine porous polymeric insulation foams (SUMFOAM), for use in VIPs. Overall optimum properties that were pursued included low density, open porosity, good handling and low cost production. Laboratory prototypes of the SUMFOAM-VIP show similar thermal conductivities as compared to fumed silica ones, are easy to be evacuated and can be manufactured using similar production process as for the commercial VIP cores.
During the project the researcher had the opportunity to gain valuable theoretical and practical skills in the field of insulation materials, while introducing new methodologies for the preparation and characterization of materials at the R&D laboratory. These are now being used as basic tools for a systematic study and comparison of new materials, as well as for the continuous development of products. The researcher also had the opportunity to improve her leadership and management skills, becoming since the end of the MSCA-IF grant the new R&D team leader. Therefore, the MSCA action offered the necessary tools and opportunities for the career development of the researcher.
The partner organisation SUMTEQ GmbH developed and produced SUMFOAM, while the beneficiary va-Q-tec AG was responsible for its characterisation using its own facilities or by services from third entities. The main objectives established for the project were achieved:
- SUMFOM-VIPs prototypes with initial thermal conductivities below 5 mW/m·K (similar to fumed silica VIPs);
- SUMFOAM pore sizes between 0,3 µm and 5 µm, mostly below 1 µm for several foam compositions;
- VIP density in the range of 100 kg/m3 up to 200 kg/m3, mostly in between 150-180 kg/m3, which is similar or a bit lower than fumed silica VIPs;
- Similar heat loss values of a transport box prototype equipped with SUMFOAM-VIPs in comparison to a fumed silica one under established laboratory conditions;
- About 50% less environmental impact, expressed in kg CO2-eq/m2 panel, than fumed silica (preliminary in-house calculations).

The dissemination activities had as objective to demonstrate the research results to interested organizations and general public, making them aware of the societal challenges behind the topic of research, while promoting research careers inside industry and the product itself under research. For that, several activities were performed throughout the project time-frame. Project’s results were communicated in oral form in four scientific and/or technological international conferences. Among these, the researcher received two awards for the best oral presentation. The project was also represented on two business fairs. To reach the young public, THEcore participated in four job fairs organized by universities or high-schools. Seminars to Universities/Research Institutes accounted to four events. The researcher participated in the organization of “Open Days” in the company, showing to the young students the overall work environment, the technologies , the economical or societal impact in that the products may have a positive influence, etc.
Scientific publications included one extended abstract published on the 13th International Vacuum Insulation Symposium (IVIS) proceedings and another one submitted to the next (14th) IVIS conference, to happen in September 2019. A scientific paper was submitted to a peer-reviewed journal, which is currently under evaluation. Two flyers were prepared and have been distributed into fairs, seminars, conferences and in personal contacts and meetings of the researcher. Also, the outcomes of the THEcore project have being continuously published into the va-Q-tec webpage and social media, like Linkedin and Twitter. In total, it accounts to about 30 posts or news in social media, some of them available not only in English, but also in German.
SUMFOAM has being introduced to the appliance industry during regular meetings of va-Q-tec and its partners. Building industry is reached by introducing SUMFOAM VIPs into demonstration objects within national and international projects (currently RECO2ST - GA nr. 768576). Research funded projects like RECO2ST give a great opportunity for the material to be further investigated, developed and optimized.
The product “SUMFOAM” is innovative in several features. It is the first nanoporous organic foam, which is suitable for mass production. It has similar properties as aerogels, organic or inorganic, but the mass production costs are considered to be much less. The specific innovation of SUMFOAM within THEcore project is: Novel cost-effective and sustainable VIP cores with submicron sized pore structure. The project “THEcore” mainly is focused on the characterization and optimization of applications such as a vacuum insulation panel core material.
Who will probably benefit: Insulation industry, building industry, logistic industry (rented vacuum insulated boxes and containers for temperature sensitive goods), appliance industry (improved VIPs for refrigerators and freezers), industrial applications of VIPs below or at room temperature, mobility industry (car, aircraft and trains). By having achieved the results above descripted, the THEcore project will clearly contribute to the H2020 “Climate action, environment, resource efficiency and raw materials” and for the “Europe in a changing world – inclusive, innovative and reflective societies”.
The foreseen impacts on enhancing the potential and future career prospects of the researcher were all achieved and were even surpassed. The most important impact on her career was the invitation by the host company to continue to integrate the organization in a higher position. Since the end of the MSCA fellowship she continues her work as head of the R&D department. She has been contacted by e-mail, telephone and social media (LinkedIn) for establishing research collaborations or creating future business relationships.