Student Design: A Low Cost, Eco-Friendly Solution for Home Insulation

A trifold with the words 'home fired insulation' across the top

–by J-P Brichta, Sir Wilfrid Laurier Secondary School

When faced with the challenge of, “How can you change the world for the better?”, Nicholas Steinke thought about dirt. Then rocks. Then rubber tires.  And he was just getting “warmed” up. 

Nicholas is a student in Grade 12 at Sir Wilfrid Laurier Secondary School. His interests are electronics, computers, geocaching, and playing music in the school band. However, when he thought about changing the world, he wondered if there were some way to reuse or upcycle different materials to use for home insulation. He wanted to find something that could reasonably replace extruded styrofoam (pink insulation foam) that would be at least as good of an insulator while also diverting material from the waste stream. He recently presented his findings as part of a project for his Grade 12 Physics class. 

Nicholas’ first challenge was to build an experimental setup that would allow him to test a variety of different materials and collect his data in a manner that was efficient and reproducible. He designed a test chamber (shown above) with temperature probes on the front and rear surfaces. The front surface was heated by a heat gun. After blowing hot air on the front surface, Nicholas used an Arduino microcontroller to collect the temperatures of the front and rear surfaces simultaneously. Nicholas reasoned that more thermally efficient materials would allow less heat to reach the rear surface. By comparing the temperatures, he could easily measure the efficiency of the material under investigation. 

Once his experimental system was complete, Nicholas tested a wide variety of materials. Inspired by the concept of an Earthship, Nicholas tested shredded rubber, rocks, crushed aluminum cans, and cardboard, and compared these to standard extruded styrofoam. His results were very promising: rocks and shredded rubber outperformed extruded styrofoam, suggesting that used tires could be removed from the waste stream and repurposed for home insulation. 

Not all of Nicholas’ experiments were successful. “I wanted to try dirt, but all we had at hand was potting soil.” It turns out that potting soil contains potash which doesn’t respond well when it is heated up. “It started to smoke right away and I had to throw that data out,” he admitted.

Nicholas has accepted an offer to study Engineering at Carleton University in September 2021. He hopes to change the world.

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