Many readers would be familiar with the electrical blackouts that occur in the summer months resulting from the extra load placed on electricity supplies by air conditioners. A new “smart” metal being developed by researchers at the University of Maryland (UM) could help cool homes and refrigerate food 175 percent more efficiently than current technology, not only giving strained electricity networks a bit of relief, but also drastically cutting summer electricity bills and greenhouse gas emissions.

The lead researchers on the project, Ichiro Takeuchi, Manfred Wuttig and Jun Cui, materials science engineers in Maryland's A. James Clark School of Engineering, have developed a solid “thermally elastic” metal alloy to take the place of fluids used in conventional refrigeration and air conditioning compressors.

This two-state alloy alternately absorbs or creates heat in much the same way as a compressor-based system, but uses far less energy, the Maryland team explains. Also, it has a smaller operational footprint than conventional technology, and avoids the use of fluids with high global warming potential.

The Maryland team will soon begin testing of a prototype system that will allow them to assess the commercial viability of the smart metal for space cooling applications. The 0.01-ton prototype is intended to replace conventional vapor compression cooling technology using, instead of fluids, the team’s thermoelastic shape memory alloy.

"Air conditioning represents the largest share of home electric bills in the summer, so this new technology could have significant consumer impact, as well as an important environmental benefit," says Eric Wachsman, director of the University of Maryland Energy Research Center (UMERC).

"The approach is expected to increase cooling efficiency 175 percent, reduce U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by 250 million metric tons per year, and replace liquid refrigerants that can cause environmental degradation in their own right," Wachsman adds.

General Electric Global Research and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are partnering with the University of Maryland on the project, which has received economic stimulus funding from the U.S. Department of Energy. The new grant is part of a program designed to bring "game-changing" technologies to market.