ARPA-E: Managing building heat DELTAs

In this four-part series, we are examining the environmental government research agency ARPA-E and how its work intersects with the interests of the commercial real estate sector. We began with a high-level look at ARPA-E as an agency before delving into three specific programs that relate to building efficiency: SHIELD, DELTA, and BEETIT. These programs coordinate a constellation of long-shot research projects related to window-pane insulation, heating and cooling localization, and HVAC efficiency, respectively.

Check out parts one, America’s green innovation engine; part two, Designing a SHIELD for single-pane windows; and now part four, If you can’t take the heat, just BEETIT. Don’t forget to sign up for our newsletter for weekly updates!

About 13 percent of all energy consumed in the U.S. goes toward heating, ventilation, and air conditioning. That washes out to just over 12.5 quadrillion BTU, or roughly $156 billion, every year. ARPA-E’s DELTA program, which stands for Delivering Efficient Local Thermal Amenities, plans to reduce that figure by at least 15 percent.

The program approaches the problem from an interesting direction. Instead of working to make HVAC systems more efficient, the projects being coordinated under Program Director Dr. Jennifer Gerbi are attempting to make people feel comfortable in a larger range of temperatures. This would allow building teams to reduce their use of heating and cooling.

The heated or cooled air in a home or office is almost entirely wasted because only the air directly around people affects their comfort. So why not make a robot that follows you around and blows conditioned air at you? Or shoes that cool your blood? Or wirelessly-powered wearables that heat and cool your body as needed?

The DELTA program provides an especially interesting view of the ARPA-E if for no other reason than its apparent laser focus on commercialization. This makes sense; several attempts have been made over the years at solving the local heating/cooling problem, but problems of comfort, form, and function have prevented any from making real traction. As the DELTA project working on that last goal notes, the biggest barrier to local comfort devices to date has been the need for wired power, which makes them non-portable. Modern batteries and new low- or no-power technologies may enable researchers to create devices that consumers will actually use. At the same time, DELTA researchers are conducting some basic, early-stage research into the technologies that might enable their or future projects to succeed.


Running an ARPA-E program

Dr. Gerbi inherited the DELTA program from Dr. Ping Liu when he rotated back into academia. She holds a Ph.D. in materials science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and served as a senior materials scientist at The Dow Chemical Company for years. She also worked in several roles at Dow Corning, including as an Applied Engineering and Technical Service Leader.

In an email, Gerbi spoke to the hands-on role that ARPA-E takes in helping the researchers it funds to find success.

“Active program management is, for DELTA, by far the most important thing that I do,” Gerbi wrote. “I work directly with the teams to understand their progress, define a critical path, request that a technical path be changed, abandoned, or enhanced. As we learn, we must stay flexible in order to meet the program’s objectives. From a program standpoint, we are always looking at new technologies or solutions, and absolutely trying to facilitate communication among different teams and between teams and other folks in these solution spaces.”

One of the aspects of the program that Gerbi finds compelling is that researchers have taken extremely different routes toward the goal of extending the range of comfortable interior temperatures. Interestingly, though projects like the air conditioning robot helper mentioned above seem more “out there” than others, she noted that some of the textiles projects are actually more technically demanding.

Dr. Gerbi also commented on the added difficulty in producing a product that consumers will want to buy and use. Even if researchers are successful in creating a product that works technically, it won’t achieve the goal of reducing HVAC energy use if consumers aren’t willing to use it.

“[The projects] also face different barriers to entry into the marketplace, and this is something considered by the “Tech-to-Market” side of the program,” said Gerbi. “High-risk, early stage research is, by nature, taking a chance, and we do not go into this solution space with a guarantee that everything will work, nor that it will be commercializable.”

This being said, Gerbi explained that research on DELTA projects has already led to discoveries that may be valuable in other areas, including workplace safety, medicinal, and military applications. So, even if several projects fail, as is likely with high-risk, high-reward research, they may benefit society in other ways.


Working with ARPA-E

Roy Kornbluh, a principal research engineer with SRI International and the project leader for a DELTA project titled Wearable Electroactive Textile, helped to illustrate several of Gerbi’s points.

Kornbluh’s project focuses on wearable technology that enhances skin’s ability to expel heat via vasodilation, a process that involves circulating blood closer to the surface of the skin. Kornbluh’s team has created a system that circulates water next to glabrous tissue to gather heat before running it back to a powered system that dispels heat into the environment.

“The warming problem was solved years ago when people put on furs,” Kornbluh joked. “We’re focusing on cooling because there’s only so much you can take off. So can we enable less air conditioning and still have people be comfortable and productive and safe. And the other advantage is, since people now have individual control, within a single set point, you could hopefully make more people happy.”

Originally, the team was working on a product that would collect heat from customers’ palms and wrists and dispel it from the top of the hand. This idea was eventually nixed in favor of integrating the system into a shoe. Kornbluh explained that ARPA-E’s tech-to-market advisors were involved in this decision, noting that cooling wristguards – functional though they may be – could be a commercial flop.

“It’s exciting to work with them because they have this real commercializing goal,” said Kornbluh. “We can count numbers and efficiencies and things like that till we’re blue in the face, but an engineer can’t make somebody buy something.”

Whether they buy it or not, Kornbluh’s team, like the ten other teams involved with the DELTA program, is making advances on the cutting edge of thermoregulation. These advances will doubtless find homes in other sectors across the economy, where they will spur further innovation.

Check out parts one, America’s green innovation engine; part two, Designing a SHIELD for single-pane windows; and now part four, If you can’t take the heat, just BEETIT. Don’t forget to sign up for our newsletter for weekly updates!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.