Higher education

Ames Lab on Iowa State campus chosen to innovate refrigeration technology

Scientist believes this could take refrigeration to a new efficiency level

The Campanile is reflected in Lake LaVerne on the Iowa State University campus in Ames on Friday, July 31, 2015. (Stephe
The Campanile is reflected in Lake LaVerne on the Iowa State University campus in Ames on Friday, July 31, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

AMES — The U.S. Department of Energy recently dedicated $40 million in the current budget year toward a new initiative to move the country ahead in the international race for clean energy. As part of that enterprise, it chose The Ames Laboratory on the Iowa State University campus to conduct groundbreaking refrigeration research.

The Energy Materials Network, as the initiative is called, aims to address barriers to creating and commercializing clean-energy technologies by uniting national labs, industry, and academia — like the one in Ames — around the design, testing, and production of specific classes of materials facing clean-energy challenges.

The Ames Lab, which is government-owned and contractor-operated on the ISU campus, will lead the initiative’s “Caloric Cooling Consortium,” which will leveraging the lab’s capabilities with “caloric” refrigerant materials to develop, demonstrate, and deploy innovative cooling technologies, according to the Department of Energy.

The hope is to create refrigeration technology capable of cutting the nation’s energy demand for cooling and move beyond today’s refrigerants toward a more environment friendly and efficient product.

“I do believe this has a very strong potential to really take the whole refrigeration technology to a very very energy-efficient level,” said Vitalij Pecharsky, Ames Lab scientist and professor with the ISU Materials Science and Engineering Department.

Refrigeration could never be 100 percent efficient. But, Pecharsky said, it “should be more efficient than what we have now.”

Traditional refrigeration, which has remained mostly unchanged for the last century, uses a vapor compression process that requires a lot of energy and generates heat, according to Ames Lab officials. Scientists in the last two decades have created compounds that can generate heating or cooling when cyclically acted upon by magnetic, electric, or mechanical forces.

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“Of course, once you have the heating and the cooling, the immediate question is, ‘Can you use this phenomenon to provide use for refrigerating,” Pecharsky said.

He restated the need for new refrigeration technology by stressing the impact current refrigeration has on the climate.

“It’s inexpensive, but it comes at a price to the environment,” he said. “Energy-wise, caloric cooling technology has the potential to increase energy efficiency by a substantial amount — a quarter to a third.”

Caloric cooling also could be cheaper than technologies used today, and Ames scientists will be testing cooling powers, performing economic analyses, and building a refrigeration device capable of testing performance of caloric materials “in a real-world operational environment.”

“We will be designing a lab test bed, which will enable us — once we have the material we need — to verify the performance of the material,” Pecharsky said. “If it’s good, we will be looking to transfer the technology so we can make and sell it to people who are building the devices.”

Other labs funded through the federal consortium include the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, which will investigate lightweight materials, and the Argonne and Los Alamos national laboratories, which will research ways to replace “rare and costly platinum group metals.”

Pecharsky said he doesn’t know how much of the consortium’s $40 million will come to the Ames Lab this year, but he said it will be a “multimillion-dollar five-year project” that likely will receive contributions from private companies and universities.

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