No more compressors for HVAC? Unnecessary with a solid coolant

July 23, 2010
Thermally elastic metal alloy could eliminate the need for air conditioning compressors.

Researchers at the University of Maryland are developing a new "thermally elastic" metal alloy for use in advanced refrigeration and air conditioning systems. The idea is to use the material as a solid coolant to take the place of fluids used in conventional refrigeration and air conditioning compressors. This eliminates the need for a compressor and makes the whole AC process more efficient.

The Maryland team will soon begin testing of a prototype system, using economic stimulus funding from the U.S. Dept. of Energy. Says Eric Wachsman, director of the University of Maryland Energy Research Center (UMERC), "The approach is expected to increase cooling efficiency 175%, reduce U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by 250 million metric tons per year, and replace liquid refrigerants that can cause environmental degradation in their own right."

In the next phase of research, the team will test the commercial viability of their smart metal for space cooling applications. The 0.01-ton prototype is intended to replace conventional vapor compression cooling technology. Instead of fluids, it uses the thermoelastic shape memory alloy.

This two-state alloy alternately absorbs or creates heat in much the same way as a compressor-based system, but uses far less energy. Also, though you wouldn't know it by the size of the prototype, it has a smaller operational footprint than conventional technology.

General Electric Global Research and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are partnering with the University of Maryland on the project.

The Dept. of Energy has given the team $500,000 - one of only 43 grants nationwide - as part of its Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program, designed to advance out-of-the-box, transformational research from the laboratory to marketplace.

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