Air conditioners and refrigerators, notorious for using environmentally harmful gases, might undergo a transformative change with the emergence of a groundbreaking heat pump. Described in a recent Science study, this prototype, utilizing electric fields and a unique ceramic material, has the potential to revolutionize air conditioning by eliminating the need for damaging refrigerant fluids.

The technology, as highlighted by Neil Mathur, a materials scientist at the University of Cambridge, UK, amalgamates various existing techniques and boasts “superlative performance.” Emmanuel Defay and collaborators at the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology crafted the experimental device using a ceramic with a robust electrocaloric effect.

In an electrocaloric material, atoms possess an electric polarization, creating a slight imbalance in their electron distribution, resulting in a ‘plus’ and a ‘minus’ pole. When subjected to an electric field, these poles align, reducing the electrons’ entropy and causing the material to heat up. The excess disorder is then channeled into the crystal lattice structure, making the atoms vibrate faster and increasing the temperature.

The electrocaloric heat pump operates by flowing a fluid between slabs of the electrocaloric material while maintaining an electric field. This process efficiently removes heat from the system, cooling the material back to its original temperature. By switching off the electric field, the reverse effect occurs, allowing the material to become colder than the ambient temperature, effectively cooling the fluid between the slabs. This innovative cycle holds significant promise for sustainable heating and cooling applications.

Although the technology is not yet ready for commercialization, Defay envisions further refinements that could make the electrocaloric heat pump competitive with existing heat pumps. Unlike traditional heat pumps based on compressors, this revolutionary technology eliminates the need for potentially harmful refrigerants, presenting a more environmentally friendly alternative. Additionally, the absence of a compressor could lead to a more compact and simplified device, marking a significant leap forward in air conditioning technology.

By Impact Lab