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As the demand for air conditioning increases, innovators have scrambled to find newer, more efficient ways of cooling. The result is a method of passive cooling that harnesses natural processes to create an electric-free, nature-powered system.
The technology isn’t yet ready for large-scale rollout, but early users have seen enormous benefits. None of this would be possible without the advancements in nanoscience that make it easier for scientists to manipulate and leverage nanomaterials. Nanoscience for air conditioning systems has great potential.
Could nanotechnology in air conditioning be the path to a cleaner, cooler future? It seems highly likely. Here are some things to know about this method and what may be in store down the road.
Air Conditioning’s Growing Problem
More countries are gaining the necessary resources for equipment manufacturing and rising global temperatures. Experts predict the demand for air conditioning will reach triple the current need by 2050.
Access to widespread cooling is and should be an essential priority everywhere. However, the problem is how air conditioning systems operate and impact the environment.
Air conditioning systems move the refrigerant through its internal components, eventually pumping it to a building’s interior as a liquid. Once it absorbs the heat there, it becomes a vapour, leaving the structure and reentering the system via a condenser unit that compresses it. It then expels the heat outside and transforms the refrigerant back into a liquid.
The system repeats this process until the desired temperature is met inside. It uses a combination of electricity and various coolant chemicals associated with nearly 7% of all greenhouse gas emissions.
Environmental impacts aside, many property owners struggle to equip their homes or businesses with adequate air conditioning due to high costs or inadequate space for integration. Nanoscience for air conditioning systems can change that.
Explorations in Radiative Cooling
Radiative cooling — which harnesses the power of infrared light and the sky — could be the key to making air conditioning more accessible to a wider variety of people while significantly reducing energy consumption and fossil fuel emissions.
Radiative cooling is a naturally occurring process relying heavily on physics. It plays off the concept of infrared light rays rising from the Earth and into space, where their natural heat dissipates and cools. The subsequent cold at night can produce ice or frost as the planet reaches cooler temperatures until sunrise.
A team of scientists and researchers at SkyCool Systems paired this understanding with air conditioning and refrigeration. It became the first to uncover what could be the future of cooling — adapting radiative cooling for use during the day.
SkyCool used various nanoscience-powered equipment, like scanning electron microscopes and spectrophotometers, to create a thin film of microscopic layers of hafnium oxide and silicon dioxide — which have electrical insulation properties — on top of a small slab of silver.
This blend has shifted into the company’s proprietary balance of polymers and inorganic materials. They can emit infrared light by reflecting sunbeams to generate radiative cooling during daylight hours.
The film is applied to rooftop panels and protects them from heating. It pushes infrared heat waves back to the sky, keeping the panels and building cooler — up to 15 F below the ambient temperature without any electrical input, according to SkyCool.
Radiative cooling can either function independently, replacing the air conditioning system, or as a supplemental cooling method augmenting the building’s existing processes. Further research and experimentation showed that combining these panels with water pipes and condensers created cold water that kept the system’s refrigerant cooler, reducing the energy load needed.
Could Radiative Cooling Revolutionize Air Conditioning?
Radiative cooling panels can reduce the need for as much energy and potentially replace air conditioning systems in some parts of the world. Such an efficient alternative to traditional methods could significantly limit fossil fuel emissions and reduce electrical output.
For example, one grocery outlet tested radiative cooling panels for a limited period and found it used 100 kWh less electricity per day, with daily costs fluctuating. This ultimately translated to about $5,800 in savings.
Predictive modelling showed similar results in a simulation of a typical two-story Las Vegas building, creating a 21% reduction in electricity consumption during the summer.
These benefits don’t stop at property owners or the environment. Radiative cooling panels could also make air conditioning far more accessible for homes and parts of the world that can’t use current cooling systems due to lack of space, funding or availability.
Supplementing or replacing air conditioning units with radiative panels can prolong equipment life spans, keeping homeowners cooler for longer and giving them more bang for their buck.
The Future of Nanoscience for Air Conditioning Systems
The sky, space and infrared lighting have been around longer than the growing need for air conditioning systems — so why did it take so long to discover a way to harness them for cooling?
That’s where nanoscience comes in. Developments in nanotechnology in air conditioning have allowed scientists to manipulate, study and combine materials on a molecular level, one molecule at a time. Developers couldn’t have created the necessary film to conduct the radiative process without this high level of control and visibility.
There are a few barriers to cross before radiative cooling is a feasible large-scale option. Current models perform best in dry climates with clear skies, as clouds, humidity and moisture can disrupt the infrared’s path. Manufacturing also has a way to go before cooling panel development is affordable enough to market to mass consumers.
Even so, the partnership between innovative developers and nanoscience advancements paints a bright picture for the future of air conditioning. Recent experiments have demonstrated how radiative cooling can integrate with other processes, like ventilated roofing, to reduce even more electrical consumption.
Nanoscience in Air Conditioning Means Cooler Air at Less of a Cost
Nanoscience has opened up endless new doors for researchers and developers, including the ability to revolutionise modern cooling. Demand will continue to grow due to the ongoing climate crisis.
Nanotechnology in air conditioning lets us harness the natural process of radiative cooling to create more accessible and less environmentally disruptive systems for home and business owners worldwide. As the need grows, so does the evidence supporting a new path forward through space and light.