The winners of the Max Tech and Beyond competition -- a team of University of Maryland students -- designed and built a prototype for a wall unit air conditioner that showed more than 30 percent energy savings when tested in a lab. | Photo courtesy of Yunho Hwang, University of Maryland.
With record-setting heat waves this summer, air conditioners across the country are working overtime. And that means greater energy usage and higher energy bills for homeowners. But the winners of the Energy Department’s Max Tech and Beyond Appliance Design Competition are hoping to change that with their design for a super energy efficient air conditioner.
Challenged to create the next generation of ultra-low energy use appliances by going beyond the current “max tech,” meaning engineered using all existing best practices, the University of Maryland team -- comprised of 23 engineering undergraduate and graduate students and led by faculty advisor Professor Yunho Hwang -- spent the past year designing, building, and testing an air conditioning wall unit prototype. Air conditioners, accounting for an estimated 16 percent of household energy, are the largest source of household electricity use. This inspired the team to improve air conditioning technology and significantly reduce energy consumption by these household appliances.
Conventional air conditioning systems use the same process to cool and remove moisture from indoor air -- typically cooling air below the desired temperature to remove humidity and then reheating it. The Maryland team’s solution to this energy waste was to design a wall unit that separates the two processes, creating a separate system for both sensible and latent heat cooling. Tests of the prototype in a climate chamber showed more than 30 percent energy savings. The team estimates the prototype’s cost at $635, but they are mindful of the competition’s criteria of designing a commercially viable appliance. The team plans to spend the next year further improving the current design, reducing costs, and applying manufacturing friendly processes before presenting the project concept to 20 industrial sponsors for commercialization.
The competition wasn’t just about developing cutting-edge energy efficient technologies. The Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory created the competition to help develop future generations of energy efficiency-minded engineers. Max Tech and Beyond provided hands-on experience for students to learn all aspects of engineering, from concept development and computer model design to component fabrication and lab safety. “Students were able to experience the real processes of research and development,” says Professor Hwang, adding that the competition provided a direct experience, an education unlike no other approach. “Young engineers are our hope for addressing the country’s energy challenges,” he says.
The Maryland team competed against eight other university teams. Coming in second was the Marquette University team for its natural gas-fired combination water heater and clothes dryer prototype. Marquette not only integrated two systems into one product successfully and cost effectively but also amped up the educational part of the contest by adding an internal university competition between two teams of students, garnering the team an Honorable Mention for Educational Merit. For more information on the other teams’ designs, visit the Max Tech website.