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UC Berkeley professor designs bricks that could replace air-conditioning

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RON RAEL | COURTESY

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FEBRUARY 22, 2015

UC Berkeley associate professor of architecture Ronald Rael and former professor Virginia San Fratello succeeded in designing 3-D “cool bricks,” a device that could potentially replace air-conditioning systems in hot, arid climates.

Working with their team in Emerging Objects, co-founders Rael and San Fratello have developed porous ceramic bricks set in mortar. The bricks were inspired by a Mascatese cooling window — which consists of a wooden screen and ceramic vessel filled with water — that Rael encountered in one of his research trips.

“We look for ways of how traditional systems can be incorporated into contemporary lifestyles,” Rael said.

Rael was inspired to develop ways to create a water screen out of ceramic instead of wood so that it could be more applicable to current uses.

With the help of Tethon3D — a 3-D ceramic printing company based in Omaha, Nebraska — Rael further developed the right materials that could optimize evaporative cooling technology.

“We collaborated to make the design printable, as well as economical,” said Tethon3D co-founder and president Karen Linder in an email. Tethon3D made the cool bricks with a 3-D printer loaded with dry clay powder and a liquid binder in the shape of the desired model.

According to Rael, the brick is designed with a porous, lattice-like structure, which allows air to flow through it. The process is simple: Like a sponge, the bricks absorb water vapor, which evaporates when it makes contact with warm air. Warm air that passes through the micropores is cooled, ultimately decreasing the entire room temperature.

The cool bricks are not yet ready to be used commercially. The Emerging Objects team, however, is looking ahead toward commercial and humanitarian applications. With further developments, the bricks, which are able to interlock, can be stacked together to potentially create a wall or even an entire house.

Calling it a “less energy-intensive way to humidify air,” Rael said he envisions the bricks being implemented both near and far from home: in the southwestern deserts of the United States, in sub-Saharan Africa, in the Arabian Desert and even in parts of China.

Rael said questions still remain unsolved, however, such as where windows could be located to maximize the amount of air that passes through the bricks, where the water would come from and whether UV rays can be used to prevent mold from forming in the bricks.

The 3-D cool bricks can be seen at Data Clay: Digital Strategies for Parsing the Earth, a public exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design, until April 19.

Contact Jennifer Kang at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @jennikang.
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FEBRUARY 23, 2015


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