Saturday, June 19, 2010

The future of summer: Air conditioners that are 90 percent more efficient

Air conditioners are a pain. They use an incredible amount of energy, reflected in incredibly high electricity bills in the summer months. But in some places, like Texas and Arizona, it’s hard to go without them. Now, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory may have an answer to the problem: A brand new air conditioning design that could make AC units 90 percent more efficient than they are today.
This is not just a new spin on the traditional design. NREL has ditched major components of today’s AC units, including their condensers and compressors. It generates colder air by evaporating water off a wet surface with a built-in fan. There is a desiccant included to make sure the air is dry.
In addition to slashing the amount of energy needed to run a typical AC unit, the NREL model, called the DEVap, also eliminates the need for chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), toxic chemicals used in many of today’s air conditioners that pollute the atmosphere.
Previously, this evaporative air conditioning process only worked in dry, hot climates, because the cool air generated would otherwise contain too much moisture. The addition of the desiccants has made it functional in a range of climates, even very humid environments, NREL says.
The challenge now will be to make the NREL air conditioner cost competitive with those already on the market. It might be as many as five summers before consumers can get buy the units to cool their houses, the laboratory says. It will be licensing the deign for commercial distribution.
Steeply reducing the amount of energy sucked by air conditioners could have a major impact on overall energy use in the U.S. and abroad. After all, air conditioners account for 5 percent of energy used in the U.S. every year.


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