COLLEGE PARK, Md. - Researchers at the University of Maryland are developing a new “thermally elastic” metal alloy for use in advanced air conditioning and refrigeration systems that is said to have the capability to cool homes or refrigerate food 175 percent more efficiently than current technology.

The Maryland team will soon begin testing of a prototype system, with economic stimulus funding from the U.S. Department of Energy. The new grant is part of a program designed to bring “game-changing” technologies to market.

“Air conditioning represents the largest share of home electric bills in the summer, so this new technology could have significant consumer impact, as well as an important environmental benefit,” said Eric Wachsman, director of the University of Maryland Energy Research Center (UMERC).

“The approach is expected to increase cooling efficiency 175 percent, 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,” Wachsman added.

The lead researchers on the project, Ichiro Takeuchi, Manfred Wuttig, and Jun Cui, materials science engineers in Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering, have developed a solid coolant to take the place of fluids used in conventional air conditioning and refrigeration compressors. According to the research team, their system represents a fundamental technological advance.

In the next phase of research, the team will now 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 a solid-state material - their 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, the Maryland team stated. Also, it has a smaller operational footprint than conventional technology, and avoids the use of fluids with high global warming potential.

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

The Department of Energy has given the team $500,000 as part of its Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program, which is designed to advance research from the laboratory to the marketplace. The grants are funded with money from the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

“These grants are highly competitive and require a demonstration that the technology has genuine commercial potential,” Wachsman said.

Publication date:08/16/2010