Berkely Lab Wins Millions for Projects That Could Save Billions

September 19, 2016 | Comments

Recently, the Department of Energy (DOE) awarded more than $4 million to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) to undertake three projects that will work toward improving the energy efficiency of buildings.

Four million may seem like a sizable venture, but considering that buildings consume 40 percent of energy in the United States, the research initiatives may see a significant return on investment. The projects include experimenting with nanoparticle technology to produce an insulation that performs twice as well as conventional materials, building a reliable moisture analysis tool and developing a platform for efficiently automating building controls.


Nanoparticle Insulation

Taking up 1.5 of the $4 million in funding, Berkeley Lab Scientists Ravi Prasher and Wei Tong are working on developing an insulation material that is highly effective while still inexpensive and abundant.

Their work is centred on the insulation technology aerogel, which has a thermal conductivity that is twice as low as conventional insulation but can cost almost 10 times as much. The cost comes from the manufacturing process, which requires supercritical drying. Another drawback with aerogel is that it is mechanically fragile, being composed of 95 percent air.

The scientists work is essentially assembling nanoparticles to create an insulation that won’t require supercritical drying. Their research has found that the thermal conductivity of nanoparticles is dependent on three factors—the size, surface chemistry and a property called acoustic mismatch.


Common insulation materials for buildings include rockwood.

“An optimal combination of these three things can dramatically reduce thermal conductivity and give you something similar to aerogel,” said Prasher.

Experiments are also being conducted at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) to examine the product’s key areas of improvement. With this project, the scientists aim to create an insulation material that performs as well as aerogel, with the same cost and mechanical strength as conventional insulation materials.


Combined Thermal and Moisture Analysis for Building Envelopes

There are numerous modeling software applications for analyzing thermal energy flows within a building. It is a no-brainer that modeling moisture levels is important too. Strangely enough, computer models for moisture analysis are typically expensive or not reliably accurate.

THERM is a heat transfer computer program developed at Berkeley Lab for architectural and engineering designers. It models two-dimensional heat-transfer effects in building components where thermal bridges are a concern (e.g., windows, foundations, roofs and doors).


A thermal image of the James V. Hansen Federal Building in Ogden, Utah, where Berkeley Lab performed a window retrofit study. (Image courtesy of Berkeley Lab Windows and Envelope Materials Group.)

Berkeley Lab Scientist D. Charlie Curcija is working with researchers at ORNL to upgrade THERM with a moisture analysis tool that is both accurate and inexpensive.

With the DOE providing $1.25 million for the project, the tool may help to optimize future building envelope designs. This is a big plus both for maintaining a stable temperature within the building and protecting the construction from degradation.


Building Control System Design

Automated control systems within a building have a greater influence than most residents realize. One single system may have control of heating, cooling, ventilation and lighting.

Philip Haves, a coleader of the project, states that the design and implementation of control systems is a lengthy process that can consume more than 300 terawatt-hours a year in wasted energy.

With Berkeley Lab Scientist Michael Wetter, the goal is to develop a platform for automating the entire process of designing, implementing and verifying the correct operation of building controls. This will reduce the manual parts of this work, making the system cost less while potentially decreasing human error.

The tool, called OpenBuildingControl, will allow designers to run simulations that will enable them to develop an energy-efficient strategy before building construction.

The project will receive $2 million, which Haves believes will be paid back in full and more through energy savings. The ultimate goal is to actually reduce current energy waste by $30 billion annually through end-to-end quality control.

To learn more about these projects and other research initiatives aimed at improving building efficiency, visit the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory website.


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