CARBON is usually typecast as a villain in terms of the environment. However, researchers at the University of Warwick have devised a nifty way to miniaturise a technology that will make carbon a key material in some apparently very green heating products for our homes and in air-conditioning equipment for our cars.
Most domestic heating and car air-conditioning guzzles energy. Domestic space heating and hot water account for 25% of energy consumption in the UK.
Across the EU, vehicle air-conditioning uses about 5% of the vehicle fuel consumed annually, and here in the UK, it is responsible for more than 2million tonnes of CO emissions.
To combat global warming, new technologies to reduce these emissions are vital, and Warwick scientists have been working on practical solutions for many years to the point that they are now developing new energy-saving technologies. In houses, the best condensing central-heating boilers are about 90% efficient. There are electric heat pumps on the market that use electricity to extract heat from the outside air or the ground to heat homes more efficiently, but the electricity used still incurs large CO emissions at the power station – out of sight and out of mind to most of us.
Researchers have long been aware of a much more energy-efficient way to drive heat pumps (or air-conditioners) using what is called adsorption technology.
This uses heat from a gas flame or engine waste heat to power a closed system containing only active carbon and refrigerant.
When the carbon is at room temperature, it adsorbs the refrigerant and, when heated, the refrigerant is driven out.
A process that alternately heats and cools the carbon can be used to extract heat from the outside air and put it into radiators or hot-water tanks. In the case of air-conditioning it extracts the heat from the inside of the car.
The major snag has been that adsorption technology, to date, is too big for cars and domestic purposes.
But Warwick researchers have made a breakthrough in adsorption systems design that dramatically shrinks these devices, making them small and light enough for use in both domestic heating and automotive air-conditioning. They have devised and filed a patent on a clever new arrangement that will enable adsorption-based equipment that is up to 20 times smaller than was previously possible.
The researchers expect their new technology will lead to domestic heat pumps that could cut domestic fuel bills by a third compared with even the best condensing boiler. The system will work in cars, too.