These days—apparently realizing that paying for heating and cooling costs money—building owners take energy use seriously: extensive insulation, natural light and cross-ventilation, and intelligent temperature controls are just some of the ways that LEED and other energy-efficient buildings keep costs down. Now Chinese researchers have come up with another tool in the energy-saving arsenal: a building material that can release and retain heat on command.
Developed at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China (UNNC), the material can be set to absorb any extra heat in a room—so if, for example, a user decides they want to keep the temperature at 70 degrees, the material can absorb any extra heat above that temperature. This doesn't mean the end of the air conditioner; the device can still help control air movement and humidity. The building material just soaks up extra heat.
"There are quite a few of these materials on the market but they all have limitations. When it comes to releasing the heat in a short period there is a time lag... [and] in the past when we've tried to improve on the thermal response, you lose some capacity to store the original amount of energy," explained project leader Jo Darkwa in an interview with the The Engineer. "The challenge was how to overcome these two barriers, making it more responsive but retaining its original abilities. We’ve been able to do that and manufacture samples at very low cost and using local material."
There are still hurdles to overcome before the material can be commercialized. The temperature at which the material starts absorbing heat is currently set during manufacturing, but the researchers want consumers to be able to set the temperature once the material has already been applied. Simply set your thermostat and watch as your walls absorb heat out of the room.
Once the material is ready to go, it will probably end up in China first. The country is experiencing a massive building boom, and developers in Ningbo (UNNC's home city) are required by the government to include at least one "sustainable" energy technology in all new buildings. A low-cost heat-regulating building material seems as good a choice as any.
[Image: Flickr user OUCHcharley]