Tri-City researchers will be looking at ways to improve air conditioning with grants awarded Monday by the Department of Energy for cutting-edge research proposals.
Although air conditioning is a major use of energy in the nation, the basic approaches for cooling have not changed in decades, according to DOE. And refrigerants used in air conditioning are a potent source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland will work on three projects. It received $2.5 million to improve an air conditioner that runs on waste heat rather than electricity.
It also will work on a $3.3 million project of ADMA, of Hudson, Ohio, on a new system to remove humidity from the air before it is cooled and on a $500,000 project at the University of Maryland to replace the conventional compression technology now used in nearly every home.
In addition, Infinia Corp. of Kennewick was awarded $3 million to develop a prototype compact air conditioner that uses no greenhouse gases.
The research will be paid for with federal economic stimulus dollars.
"I believe that one of the most promising avenues for creating jobs and jump-starting our economy is in the clean energy sector," Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said in a statement.
Private investment and job creation happens where cutting-edge research is taking place, and Washington already is at the forefront of the clean-energy industry, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement.
The grants to Tri-City researchers were among $92 million awarded Monday by the Advanced Research Projects Agency -- Energy, which picked high-risk, but potentially high-payoff clean energy technology projects from among 529 initial proposals.
"These innovative ideas will play a critical role in our energy security and economic growth," Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in a statement.
Buildings in the United States are responsible for about 40 percent of the nation's energy consumption and about 40 percent of the nation's carbon dioxide emissions, according to DOE.
"So any improvement in cooling -- in lowering the cost to consumers and lowering emissions -- is a big deal," said Arun Majumdar, director of DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency -- Energy. Any of the proposed new technology that proves successful and moves into the marketplace will make a substantial difference, he said.
Now some commercial buildings use waste heat rather than a conventional system that runs on electricity to cool buildings with a type of air conditioner called an adsorption chiller. However, the refrigerant used needs to bind to something and in current systems it binds too quickly and is difficult to unbind, Majumdar said.
PNNL is proposing a system that uses nanomaterials with particles one-thousandth the width of a human hair and new types of refrigerants to better control binding interactions. It plans to design, assemble and test an adsorption chiller with the potential to be smaller, more efficient and more affordable than what now is on the market.
"More efficient methods of cooling represent a great opportunity to reduce energy consumption in buildings and in doing so greenhouse gas emissions as well, PNNL laboratory fellow Pete McGrail, who is leading the project, said in a statement. "The ARPA-E program represents a unique opportunity to move a recent laboratory discover to the mainstream HVAC and commercial buildings marketplace in just a few years."
Infinia will use its grant to develop a prototype Stirling Air Conditioner that uses a Stirling cycle and has the potential to be much more efficient than conventional systems. To date, such proposed systems have been expensive and have not reached their potential because they do not have the right kind of heat exchanger, Majumdar said.
Infinia is proposing borrowing technology from the computer industry to produce improvements in compact cooling, he said.
The proposed system would use no greenhouse gases and could achieve high efficiency, while being cost effective to mass produce, according to DOE.
The ADMA team, which includes PNNL, will investigate a way to take humidity out of the air before it is cooled in what Majumdar called "a beautiful project." Now condensing water out of the air significantly reduces the efficiency of air conditioning in humid climates.
The proposed system would use a thin layer of ceramic material deposited on a porous metal sheet to create a paper-thin membrane that selectively sieves out water molecules.
"Improving building energy efficiency may well be our fastest and lowest cost method of meeting increasing demand for energy," Mike Davis, PNNL associated lab director for energy and environment, said in a statement.
-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; email@example.com.