Temperature-Sensitive Color-Changing Building Material

Buildings are the predominant structure in modern cities, with most cities across the US housing more than 150 million buildings in any given metropolitan area. However, buildings are also one of the major contributors and sources of greenhouse gas emissions which plays a significant part in the current climate crisis.

Temperature-Sensitive Color-Changing Building Material

Image Credit: Ahminem/Shutterstock.com

Recently, researchers at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) have designed an innovative, new building material with chameleon-like properties that is able to change its infrared color and the amount of heat it emits or absorbs based on the outside temperature.

We’ve essentially figured out a low-energy way to treat a building like a person; you add a layer when you’re cold and take off a layer when you’re hot…This kind of smart material lets us maintain the temperature in a building without huge amounts of energy.

Po-Chun Hsu, Lead Researcher and Assistant Professor, PME

Chameleon-Like Material to Tackle Climate Change

The PME team developed an “electrochromic” non-flammable building material comprising a dual-material layer capable of assuming two conformations to retain and emit infrared heat: a solid copper and a watery solution.  

The device is able to release a small measure of electricity at a preset temperature range to trigger a chemical shift between each of the two states by depositing copper onto a thin film or by conversely stripping the copper off to expose the watery phase.

In the paper recently published in the journal Nature Sustainability, the researchers detailed how the device can rapidly switch reversibly between the copper and liquid state, demonstrating that the material remained efficient even after 1,800 cycles.

The team was inspired to develop the chameleon-like material to tackle climate change given the fact that in the US  alone, the buildings sector consumes around 76% of the nation’s electricity use and 40% of all its primary energy use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to the US Department of Energy (DOE).

On a larger scale, buildings emit around 10% of total greenhouse gases globally. Around 50% of this overall footprint is related to the heating and cooling of interior spaces within buildings.

For a long time, most of us have taken our indoor temperature control for granted, without thinking about how much energy it requires… If we want a carbon-negative future, I think we have to consider diverse ways to control building temperature in a more energy-efficient way.

Po-Chun Hsu, Lead Researcher and Assistant Professor, PME

Reducing Building Energy Costs

Current prototypes of the material are relatively small in scale, at only 6 cm wide. However, the team used these to generate models of how the innovative material could reduce energy costs in buildings typically found in 15 different US cities.

The team reported that the material could help save around 8.4% of a building’s HVAC consumption while constituting only around 0.2% of overall energy usage.

 This kind of smart material lets us maintain the temperature in a building without huge amounts of energy… For buildings where you don’t need to switch between these states very frequently, it’s really using a very negligible amount of electricity.

Po-Chun Hsu, Lead Researcher and Assistant Professor, PME

The next steps are developing methods to help scale up the material and investigating how other intermediate states could be used in practical applications. Moreover, the material has the potential to be customized to fit with the desired aesthetics that an architect may desire in building construction due to the transparent state of the watery phase.

The team hopes that continual research and development in collaboration with engineers in the construction industry will help transform the industry, addressing the challenge of making buildings more energy efficient to help tackle the climate crisis.

References and Further Reading

“Radiative electrochromism for energy-efficient buildings” (2023) Nature Sustainability. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41893-022-01030-3

Williams, S.C.P. (2023) Temperature-sensing building material changes color to save energy, Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering | The University of Chicago. Available at: https://pme.uchicago.edu/news/temperature-sensing-building-material-changes-color-save-energy#:~:text=Researchers%20at%20the%20University%20of,based%20on%20the%20outside%20temperature

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David J. Cross

Written by

David J. Cross

David is an academic researcher and interdisciplinary artist. David's current research explores how science and technology, particularly the internet and artificial intelligence, can be put into practice to influence a new shift towards utopianism and the reemergent theory of the commons.


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