New 'Cold Tube' Panels Might Replace Traditional A/C

This globally developed technology addresses problems related to climate change as well as COVID-19.
Chris Young

It's a compromise many people have to make in the summer; crank up that A/C and accept the utility bills will be sky-high, or simply deal with the heat and discomfort.

There are other reasons too for not using traditional air conditioning, such as the fact they spew millions of tons of CO2 worldwide daily, or that they recirculate germs and can even cause breathing problems if overused.

Now, a group of researchers from the University of British Columbia, Princeton University, the University of California, Berkeley, and the Singapore-ETH Centre says it has come up with a solution. They call it the 'Cold Tube.'


A unique cooling contraption

"Air conditioners work by cooling down and dehumidifying the air around us — an expensive and not particularly environmentally friendly proposition," project co-lead Adam Rysanek, assistant professor of environmental systems at UBC’s school of architecture and landscape architecture, explains in a press release.

"The Cold Tube works by absorbing the heat directly emitted by radiation from a person without having to cool the air passing over their skin. This achieves a significant amount of energy savings."

The Cold Tube, essentially is a system of rectangular wall and ceiling panels that are kept cold by cool water circulating inside them. As heat naturally moves from a hotter surface to a colder one via radiation, when a person stands next to one of the cold panels they are cooled down and will feel a sensation of cooling like cold air flowing over their skin.

New 'Cold Tube' Panels Might Replace Traditional A/C
The Cold Tube project team, from left: Lea Ruefenacht, Kian Wee Chen, Eric Teitelbaum, Forrest Meggers, Kipp Bradford, and Adam Rysanek, Source: Nicholas Houchois/University of British Columbia

Though similar contraptions have been used in the building industry for decades, what makes the Cold Tube unique is the fact that it doesn't need to be combined with a dehumidification system.

Much in the same way that a cool drink in a glass condenses water on a hot summer day, walls and ceilings in buildings also condense water when they rapidly cool down. This is the very reason A/Cs need in-built dehumidification systems.

In order to bypass that necessity, the researchers behind the Cold Tube devised an airtight, humidity-repelling membrane that prevents condensation from forming on its chilled panels, while still allowing radiation to travel through.

Huge saving and great practicality

“Because the Cold Tube can make people feel cool without dehumidifying the air around them, we can look towards shaving off up to 50 percent of typical air conditioning energy consumption in applicable spaces,” said Eric Teitelbaum, a senior engineer at AIL Research who also worked on the project.

“This design is ready. It can obviously be used in many outdoor spaces—think open-air summer fairs, concerts, bus stops, and public markets. But the mission is to adapt the design for indoor spaces that would typically use central air conditioning,” he added.

What's more, because the Cold Tube works independently of indoor air temperature and humidity, it can be used while windows are open and would still cool anyone down who is standing or sitting next to it. That is a brilliant proposition to anyone who's tired of having to switch constantly between opening their windows and keeping the cold air inside.

The Cold Tube could be part of a 'new normal' post COVID-19 

Then there's another important aspect to the Cold Tube that is particularly relevant in a post-COVID-19 world: keeping the air around us clean and healthy.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the public’s awareness of how sensitive our health is to the quality of the air we breathe indoors. Specifically, we know that some of the safest spaces in this ‘new normal’ are outdoor spaces," said Rysanek. "As the climate changes and air conditioning becomes more of a global necessity than a luxury, we need to be prepared with alternatives that are not only better for the environment, but also our health. The idea of staying cool with the windows open feels a lot more valuable today than it did six months ago."

Anyone feeling the sweltering heat of summer 2020 at the same time as wanting to avoid crowded outdoor spaces will no doubt feel that the Cold Tube, and any similar technologies, have a bright future ahead of them. The team behind the Cold Tube has released a paper in PNAS and plans to demonstrate a commercially viable version of their technology by 2022.

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