In 2014 TreeHugger covered Phononic and its solid state cooling devices, suggesting that we may be on the verge of a cooling revolution. These were devices that they believed could actually replace compressor technologies in our fridges and our air conditioners. In an interview with CEO Tony Atti, we learned what has happened since; He told us that “they had an opportunity to demonstrate products that the market didn’t believe could be done, or quite frankly hadn’t even thought of.” They have now set up separate units for electronics and refrigeration and have established teams of engineers to work with clients, to teach them how to adapt the solid state technologies to their products.
Solid state cooling devices have been around for centuries, since the Peltier effect was discovered. They are often used in CPU coolers and even tiny iceboxes, but are not very efficient. Phononic has significantly improved on them; as can be seen in the video of their little fridge below, they have integrated the basic chip with heat transfer systems that appear to make it work better.
It is a road map familiar to those who watched the development of LEDs, which were first rolled out as replacements for things we already knew and understood, like light bulbs and fluorescent tubes in computer monitors and TVs. Now LEDs are everywhere and in everything.
Similarly, Phononic is now working with the world’s largest appliance maker, Haier, starting with high performance wine chillers, delivering smaller units with more accurate temperature control and lower power consumption. They are now branching into residential refrigerators in Europe and Asia, (where we have noted that small fridges make good cities). With Haier’s acquisition of GE’s appliance division, no doubt totally silent fridges without compressors will be arriving here soon too.
But that is just the start; Really, there could be all kinds of different shapes and forms and sizes of fridges. Phononic wonders “Why does a refrigerator have to be a big, ugly box that dominates the whole kitchen, whole house? Why not a built-in drawer? Why the kitchen? Why can’t refrigeration be in, say, the arm of your favorite sofa, or integrated into your coffee table?” I can think of a couple of reasons that this would be a bad idea, but that is another post.
Phononic writes on their blog that we can expect solid state “refrigeration and climate control systems will begin to emerge in 2016.”
On their blog, (and at the top of this post) Phononic shows a house where some rooms are cool, some are warm and some are neither. This is the more common way of thinking that you see with the Smart House and with smart thermostats and smart vent products that turn off rooms, adapting to heat loss and heat gain in our usual leaky, under-insulated houses. Tony Atti noted that his engineers were working on the design of systems to work with leaky houses all over America.
I am much more excited about the possibilities of using this tech in the Dumb House, where the walls are so well insulated that a smart thermostat is bored stupid because the temperatures don’t change much at all; where so little heat and cooling is required that small, affordable solid state heat pumps could do the entire job. Where the house is designed around the solid state heating systems’s greatest virtues. Just as the first solid state fridges are small because of the cost of the semiconductors, it makes sense that the houses that first get this tech are the ones with the small loads.
That's why it really made my head explode when I started thinking about the implications of this system for the Passive House and Tiny House movements.
Passive Houses need very little heat and when built in warmer climates, very little cooling. Getting a little heat is not hard to do, but getting a little cooling is. More and more people are using air source heat pumps, but they are bigger than needed and they are stuck in one place in the center of the house. But solid state heat pumps? Now all that insulation and all those high quality windows pay for themselves because you get the heating and cooling loads so low that tiny solid state heat pumps are all you need.
Imagine if every room had a little solid state heat pump without a compressor mounted on their wall. It becomes so much easier to match the heating and cooling load to the unit. It is distributed to where you need it. Instead of ducts, you have a solid state radiator/cooler. Tony Atti says “it’s the distributed capability that makes it exciting.” You bet it does, as you are able to easily separate the heating/cooling functions from ventilation and get them both right for a change.
Similarly in the tiny house, where the smallest window-shaker units are probably too big and are noisy in such a small space. (Or they have split systems like this, overkill and overcool for 117 square feet) A tiny solid state heat pump could probably do the job. Solid state fridges have a lot more room inside because the compressor is gone; solid state heat pumps could heat and cool while taking up almost no space.
However the revolution this will cause in multifamily housing is going to be even more significant. Currently most apartments are heated and cooled by a vertical fan coil or heat pump units in the corner of a room, with ductwork running under the ceiling to the other rooms. Or they have noisy, inefficient through wall heat pump units that are very high maintenance. Imagine replacing all of that with a solid state heat pump with no moving parts, a heating and cooling panel on the wall in each room delivering what is needed when it is needed. They might well be built into the floors for radiant heating and cooling. This could make the design, operation and maintenance of multifamily buildings so much easier.
And of course, getting rid of compressors also means getting rid of refrigerants, which leak and which have serious global warming potential. Another problem gone with solid state heating and cooling.
I do not think I am overstating the case when I suggest that just as the transistor revolutionized electronics, and the LED is in the process of transforming lighting, Solid state thermoelectrics are going to revolutionize heating and cooling. Since the form of our homes and buildings has always been a function of how they are heated and cooled, it might we change that as well.
in 2014 I thought we were on the verge of a cooling revolution; now I think it is even bigger than that. It is a cooling, heating and design revolution.