Novel retrofit technology, incorporating robots, for assessing the impact of sprayable insulation materials on historic buildings (Spotlight on SEAHA)

This fourth post in our ‘Spotlight on SEAHA’ series comes from Dzhordzhio Naldzhiev. Dzhordzhio’s work seeks to establish the impact of polyurethane foams and other forms of sprayable insulation on the environmental and energy performance of retrofitted historic houses.


My project aims to explore the impact of various polyurethane foams (and other sprayable insulation materials on the environmental and energy performance of retrofitted historic houses. The industry partner for this research, Q-Bot Ltd, uses high tech robots to upgrade historic dwellings with insulation materials, itself an example of heritage science in practice. Although the project will use a variety of methods to evaluate the holistic performance of these retrofitted dwellings, this blog will focus on the analytical method of detecting volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that originate from the spray foam materials.

When spray foam insulation is applied to a surface, emissions are released into the air, in the form of either vapours or aerosols. In order to provide knowledge on what these emissions are and in what quantity they are produced, we will be using a method called Automatic Thermal Desorption Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry (ATD-GC-MS).

There are two ways of explaining this process: my way, and the analytical chemist’s way. I shall begin with my way. Place the palms of your hands together and look. What you are holding is a small galaxy of air. Imagine that instead of molecules of oxygen, nitrogen, and ozone, you are holding stars, planets, and other celestial bodies (such as Pluto, Mars, or the North Star). Now, imagine that you use a black hole to collect that small galaxy.

At the end of the black hole there is a long tunnel, and at the end of this all these celestial bodies are coming out one by one. Yet even in a line, it’s very hard to work out what these are. So in order to find this out, we have to blow them up – much how the Death Star destroys Alderaan.

The final step is to look at the debris of each exploded celestial body and  determine which one it was – Pluto, Mars, or the North Star. We do this by comparing the debris of thousands of individually destroyed planets and stars. This process allows us to determine what our small galaxy was made from.

The analytical chemist explains the process in a more technical manner. Using air pumps and thermal desorption tubes, we will collect VOCs emitted from a sample of spray foam insulation, placed in a glass reactor. We will then run the samples through a gas chromatograph to split the different molecules. The next step is to bombard the molecules with positive ions with a mass spectrometer. The final part of the process is to match the mass spectra of the detected molecules to the NIST library dataset and distinguish the different VOCs. This process allows us to determine the emissions that are off-gassed by the spray foam into the air.

The outcome of this first phase of the experiment is the development of a method that could directly benefit all professionals involved in the built environment sector. Chemists, building physics engineers, and heritage professionals will be keen to learn about the emission rates of building materials so they can further develop retrofit and ventilation strategies.

The overall project will be exciting for everyone who is interested in retrofitting a dwelling, thus lowering their energy bills and reducing their impact on climate change, as it could provide valuable insight into how upgrading properties with spray foam insulation changes the indoor environment.

Find out more:
Follow me on Twitter @Dzhordzhio
Research Gate: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Dzhordzhio_Naldzhiev
Email: dzhordzhio.naldzhiev.16@ucl.ac.uk

I will be presenting a poster presentation at the SEAHA Conference on 20th June 2017. Meet me there, and I will tell you more about how robots, historic buildings, and analytical chemistry are linked more closely than you might think.

You are also very welcome to join the SEAHA Conference panel discussion on Designing for Research Impact, 20th June 09.30-10.30. It is free to join, with a very exciting panel, including respected heritage professionals and media representatives. Register here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/2017-seaha-conference-breakout-session-a-tickets-34316906792?utm-medium=discovery&utm-campaign=social&utm-content=attendeeshare&aff=escb&utm-source=cp&utm-term=listing#tickets.


The 3rd International Conference on Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology (SEAHA) will take place on 19-20 June 2017 at the University of Brighton. Click here to view the programme of themed sessions and flash presentations, and here to register.

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