Have you ever wondered how a beer cooler works? Just think about it, a beer cooler is built similar to a building. It is an insulated structure designed to keep its contents at a constant temperature. However, if you just place a six pack of your favorite microbrew inside a beer cooler and leave it outside for a few hours on a warm day, you’d better hope it is a German beer because by the afternoon it will be quite warm.
This is because, just like in your home, the insulation in the beer cooler is a thermal resistor. It resists the amount of heat over time that leaks into our cooler, but it cannot stop it. So what does a person do if they want a cold beer at their picnic? Well they dump a bag of ice into the cooler, of course. It is the ice that is the magic behind the cooler. You see, as ice melts (changes phase from solid to liquid) it absorbs all of the heat around it which is above 32 degrees Fahrenheit, the melting point of the ice. The cooler will remain at 32 degrees Fahrenheit until all of the ice has changed to water. Now, thanks to a law of physics called “the conservation of energy,” this also works the other way. If the temperature drops down below 32 degrees, the water, as it freezes (changes phase from liquid to solid) releases the heat it absorbed back into the cooler warming the inside of the cooler to 32 degrees.
Now, imagine if you could find a “special kind of ice” that melts at room temperature. If you could find a way to install a bunch of this stuff into your house or office building, during the day it would melt, cooling the building interior and at night it would refreeze, warming the building. Think about all the energy you could save. Better yet, think about what an impact it could make on the world, particularly since heating and cooling buildings is the biggest component of energy usage worldwide - much larger than all cars, trucks and airplanes combined.
Well, guess what? These special ices exist. They are called phase change materials and it is around them and this idea of using them to keep things at a constant temperature that I built my business. (I’ll not comment on the rumor that there may have been a beer cooler full of microbrew involved during its conception). My company, Phase Change Energy Solutions, makes these special ices out of sustainable materials and uses them to help many industries make people’s lives better and reduce their carbon footprint.
For example, we make 50 degree phase change materials to keep vaccines from spoiling while being shipped to developing countries. We make 150 degree phase change materials to keep food warm and disease-free from the restaurant to your home, and we make room temperature phase change building materials which can be used for new construction or retrofits and can work with nature to naturally condition buildings and save energy.
Over the last few years, we have been involved in both new construction and retrofit projects in 49 U.S. states and over twenty countries worldwide. We have helped many buildings become much more energy efficient or, in some cases, completely eliminate their need for air conditioning. Our studies have shown that if phase change materials were implemented throughout most U.S. buildings (a daunting, but not impossible feat) our total national energy consumption would drop by as much as 11 percent.
It’s been about eight years since I popped open that inspirational microbrew…er… came up with the idea of building a company around this simple concept. It’s been quite a ride since. It’s pretty amazing where inspiration can come from and where it can take us.
Peter Horwath is the founder of Phase Change Energy Solutions, Inc. a world leader in the development and manufacture of products which use sustainable phase change materials to reduce energy costs, increase occupant comfort and provide thermal protection. Pete is an entrepreneur, physicist, inventor and a recognized authority on phase change materials and has advised companies and government groups from the US to Japan, Indonesia and the Middle East on their use and potential. Mr. Horwath has sat on the energy advisory boards for Fortune 100 companies, currently sits on multiple panels to develop international standards for phase change materials and is a frequent speaker on energy issues to groups such as the USGBC, home builders groups, leading architectural and several scientific research centers.
image: tabula_electronica via Flickr cc (some rights reserved)