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Texas A&M researchers discover promising way to make HVAC systems more energy efficient

Published: Mar. 31, 2021 at 10:38 PM CDT
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas (KBTX) - A team of Texas A&M researchers believes they have discovered a way to make heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems more energy efficient.

The discovery involves an organic material called polyimide that the team was able to structurally enhance so it’s better at extracting water from the air. This membrane-based system removes the moisture through water highways created in that material.

Hae-Kwon Jeong is a professor in the Texas A&M Department of Chemical Engineering who is one of the primary contributors to this discovery. He says polyimides were ideal for what his team was looking to achieve because they can be processed into a thin film while still remaining chemically stable and robust.

“The main issue, however, is that the polyimides are somewhat hydrophobic, which means they don’t like water. You don’t have as good water to air selectivity,” Jeong said. “We took the existing polyimides and modified their structure in a way that we can create these water highways within the polyimides.”

Jeong says the goal is to introduce as many of those water highways as possible, but creating too many of them will compromise all the good properties of the polyimides.

“We found a way to strike that balance,” Jeong said. “We were able to construct water highways through the polyimides by hydrolysis reaction. By doing so, we were able to improve the water-air selectivity, as well as water permeability, quite drastically.”

He says this process is far more energy efficient than what 90% of conventional HVAC systems use today.

”Membrane-based systems can be as high as 100% more energy efficient than the conventional vapor compression system, which means you can operate two houses with just one AC, for example,” Jeong said. “We can reduce the energy consumption by current air conditioning systems by half.”

This membrane-based technology isn’t just more energy efficient, but it’s also better for the environment. Jeong says it has a far smaller carbon footprint than the vapor compression HVAC systems.

“Those systems use liquid refrigerant, which is often 1,000 times more potent in terms of global warming than carbon dioxide,” Jeong said. “There’s a big push to not only address the energy consumption issue of the vapor compression AC systems, but also to reduce greenhouse gases that are used in connection with them.”

Jeong says one barrier standing in front of this technology at the moment is cost. He says a cheap membrane material with these capabilities is necessary for its use to be practical and widespread. The polymeric membranes are cheaper than most similar materials, Jeong says, but still not as cheap as they need to be.

“Many of these polymers are still quite expensive because they are new and often not commercially available,” Jeong said.

Jeong says this technology still has a long way to go before it can be widely used, but his team is making progress in that direction.

“The U.S. Department of Energy has identified membrane-based air conditioning as one of the most promising next-generation air conditioning technologies,” Jeong said.

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