Thermoelectric polymers could heat, cool buildings

The National Science Foundation will fund research on a solar heating and cooling prototype that seeks to replace conventional systems.

Details of the prototype technology called the Active Building Envelope (ABE) were disclosed this week at Solar 2006 in Denver. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) professor Steven Van Dessel described his group's work on the ABE system. He said ABE could allow the hitching of solar panels to thermoelectric heat pumps to reduce the cost of cooling and heating.

"You could seamlessly attach our system to various building surfaces," said Van Dessel, "possibly rendering conventional air conditioning and heating equipment obsolete."

The National Science Foundation will fund Van Dessel's next project to make ABE technology economically feasible by switching to low-cost thin-film materials. If successful, thin-films could then be used for other applications such as auto glass that heats or cools vehicle interiors.

Thermoelectric heat pumps become cool on one end and hot on the other when electric current passes through them. By putting one end outside a container and the other inside, the thermoelectric device can pump heat into or out of the container. ABE combines the thermoelectric element with solar panels that can cover an entire building. Combined with a storage device, it could then heat or cool a building day or night.

Van Dessel's group hopes to use low-cost, thin-film materials that allow both solar cells and thermoelectric heat pumps to be integrated into windows and other surfaces to enable climate control.

A working prototype consisting of a single "glass room" was installed atop RPI's student union. Using it for calibration, the researchers modeled ABE systems for use in conjunction with thin films.

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600450 Thermoelectric polymers could heat, cool buildings

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