Air conditioning use takes a toll on the electrical grid--and on wallets. Now, a California startup has a space-age idea for changing that.
SkyCool Systems, a company spun out of Stanford, has created a system that could change the way people cool their homes. It doesn't just involve keeping your home or office pleasant. The system will tackle the heat itself, by beaming it into space.
To do so, the system takes advantage of everyday science. Objects on earth give off heat in the form of an invisible type of light called infrared radiation. Emissions in the mid-infrared range of eight and 13 micrometers slip through the atmosphere and into the cool lower layers of space. The phenomenon is why objects under the open sky at night--like leaves, grass, or your car windshield--collect frost even when the temperature of the surrounding air is above freezing.
According to MIT Technology Review, SkyCool invented a material that can take advantage of this natural occurrence. The material--which it makes in long sheets that look like smooth, creaseless aluminum foil--radiates infrared light within the eight to 13 micrometer range. It also reflects 97 percent of sunlight, which prevents the sun's warmth from offsetting the effect.
SkyCool's co-founders, who include a professor of electrical engineering and a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford, first published a study about their material in Nature in 2014. They created SkyCool as a way of commercializing the tech.
By forming the material into panels and placing them over thin pipes used by air conditioning systems, the startup thinks it can lower the cost of keeping buildings cool. In one trial, SkyCool lowered the temperature of water in pipes by 9 degrees Fahrenheit within three days of installation. The company estimates that, for a two-story office building in always-toasty Las Vegas, that reduction would lower annual electricity costs by 21 percent. For most buildings retrofitted with the system, it says, those savings would fall within the range of 10 to 20 percent.
Even bigger savings could result from equipping new buildings with the system while they're being built. Nick Fernandez, an energy analyst at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, told MIT Technology Review that combining SkyCool's system with a hydronic radiant cooling system--which circulates water instead of air--could achieve savings of up to 70 percent.
SkyCool CEO Aaswath Raman wouldn't discuss pricing with the publication, but he did say he thinks the upfront costs would be offset by long-term savings. A study by the Pacific Northwest Lab found that a cost of 58 cents per square foot would be offset within five years. The startup is completing a trial of its newest generation of panels in Davis, California, before it works on rolling out the product to the masses.
If successfully scaled, the company's technology could have a huge impact: About 14 percent of total U.S. energy production goes to cooling residential and commercial buildings. According to the company, 10 percent of the world's carbon emissions come from air conditioning and refrigeration. Technology like this could help companies lower costs and reduce their carbon footprints.
The startup is already in talks with potential customers. SkyCool is targeting businesses with big cooling needs, like data centers and supermarkets, and hopes to begin working with one of them to develop a large scale demonstration to show to potential customers by next year.