Energy Efficiency Advances in the (Oak Ridge National) Lab

Building and car made on 3D printer
Credit: Oak Ridge National Laboratory

This blog was written by my colleague NRDC senior energy communications strategist Pat Remick.

Imagine using a printer to make an energy-efficient home and car that power each other, owning a clothes dryer that uses one-fifth of today’s energy because it employs vibration instead of heat to remove the water, or utilizing vitamins to quickly determine where air is leaking from your building.

These are just a few of the groundbreaking concepts being investigated at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Researchers are attempting to determine whether these and other energy efficient innovations can become part of our everyday lives, which I learned while touring the expansive campus near Knoxville, Tennessee, last week—a week that coincidentally included the first national Energy Efficiency Day.

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory, located on the same grounds that were part of the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb to help end World War II, is one of 10 U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) national science laboratories. Here are just a few examples of the science going on in the Tennessee lab:

Printing your house and car?

Oak Ridge is home to one of the world’s largest 3D printers, which are instructed by a computer to lay down successive layers of material to make a three-dimensional object. Working with industrial partners, Oak Ridge researchers have created an Additive Manufacturing Integrated Energy demonstration project to show how a house and a vehicle—both made on that 3D printer—can power each other. 

The house is an approximately 210-square-foot energy efficient structure consisting of C-shaped sections strengthened with steel rod reinforcement. Using the 3D process, researchers combined conventional wall system functions (like insulation, and air and moisture barriers) into one shell.

3D printer in action

The high-performance building has advanced control and power management technologies that enable it to act like a “virtual battery” for the solar energy that it produces (and consumes). In addition, the energy can be used to charge the vehicle, which has a hybrid electric powertrain with onboard power generation from natural gas. That energy also can be provided back to the building to offset power supply disruptions. ORNL says it’s the first demonstration of an “efficient level-2 bidirectional wireless power transfer” technology (no need for a cord!).

Vibrating your clothing dry?

Clothes dryers are responsible for approximately 1 percent of our nation’s energy consumption and NRDC’s 2014 report calling for stronger energy efficiency standards for residential clothes dryers notes that a typical U.S. household pays over $100 in annual utility bills to operate an electric dryer and $40 for a gas dryer. Researchers with DOE’s Building Technologies Office are partnering with GE Appliances on an ultrasonic dryer that uses high-pitched vibration, rather than heat, to dry clothing by shaking out the water and extracting it as a cool mist. They’re hoping it will be three to five times more energy efficient than today’s dryers—while possibly cutting a clothing load’s drying time to under 20 minutes.

Transducers on "press dryer"

This photo shows the ultrasonic transducers—which emit extremely high-pitched sounds that create vibrations to shake the fabric—being used to test the concept on a “press dryer.” The same transducers would line the dryer drum. Their vibration would extract the moisture, which possibly could be recycled for another use. Using a technique other than heat that evaporates the water out of clothing would avoid color fading and minimize lint—and possibly the need for outside venting. Commercialization is at least five years away, the researchers said.

Use vitamins find leaks in your home?

Other researchers in the Building Technologies Office are experimenting with another way to pinpoint the sources of air leakage that represents 10 percent of a building’s energy consumption: aerosolizing water-soluble fluorescent vitamins. Unlike other techniques that narrow in on leaks but may create health hazards in occupied buildings, spraying the aerosolized, non-toxic vitamins on walls and other surfaces and then using infrared light to see where air might be escaping may be a less expensive and safer alternative. 

A better way to determine which type of roof to install?

Buildings consume 41 percent of the energy in the United States and 73 percent of the nation’s electricity, which is why it’s so important that the buildings and equipment inside them are not wasting it—and increasing the need to burn fossil fuels to generate it. Oak Ridge researchers are working on a Roof Savings Calculator for commercial and residential buildings that would allow users to estimate energy and cost savings from different roof and attic technologies based on weather data for their location.

These are just a few examples of how researchers are using imagination—and science—every day to find new ways to improve our lives with energy efficiency. 

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