“When you go into commercial buildings they’re generally all air conditioned, but they use a lot of energy.” Explains Dr Ben Hughes, a chartered mechanical engineer from The University of Sheffield, who’s building alternatives to conventional air conditioning that reduce our carbon footprint and energy bills. “Because we’ve got used to these air conditioning systems, the temperature we feel comfortably cool at has changed and that’s increased the energy we use by about 20%.”
To put that into perspective, compared to buildings that cool by simply opening a few windows, air-conditioning emits 30% more CO2. That’s 117 million tonnes of greenhouse gasses being forced into our atmosphere every year, just to keep heat at bay.
In a typical UK office, 30% of electricity goes on air-conditioning each year, with demand only set to increase. It’s not much better news worldwide either: installed air-con units around the globe are expected to increase from 700 million to a hefty 1.6 billion by 2050 in what is a growth market.
As Ben Hughes describes it: “For the last 30 years we’ve been lazy. We just stick an air conditioning unit in because we know it’ll work and how much it costs, but as energy prices escalate we’ve got to find better ways of doing it.”
For Ben and his research team, that ‘better way’ is FREECOOL, a cooling system designed and licensed in Sheffield after years of dedicated research. FREECOOL uses sealed tubes filled with cold water called ‘heat pipes’, which cool warmer air from outside as it passes through. This is a passive process – there’s no energy used. But the system can lower indoor temperatures by 12-15°C and our demand for conventional air con by up to 40%.
What’s more, by reducing energy FREECOOL also lowers harmful CO2 emissions, while using outdoor air (compared to recirculated air from conventional systems) improves indoor air quality. What really sets it apart from competitors, however, is its ability to cool incoming air with so little energy input, something the World Society of Sustainable Energy Technologies recognised last year by awarding Ben and his team with a first-place Innovation Award.
With his patented products already on the market, clients such as the Dover Discovery Centre are turning to this technology to help them meet their demands at minimal energy and expenditure.
“People overcomplicate buildings and they overcomplicate design and I think that’s where a lot of the problems lie. We end up putting in systems to make things comfortable, but if we designed it properly in the first place we wouldn’t need to.”
But this stretches further than ventilating just houses and offices, as Ben’s biggest and most unexpected venture demonstrates…