These Students Came Up With an Ingenious Way to Keep Buildings Cool

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The student team took a page from mother nature to develop this sun-thwarting insulation. Phalanx

From Mount Everest's slushy summit to the fading ice fields of Greenland, the dial on the global furnace ticks ever upward.

And so, too, the air-conditioning dial.

Climate may change, but old habits, they die hard. No one wants to sweat out a heat wave. And, indeed, air conditioning can save lives — even as it also takes the long way around to taking lives.

All those AC units chugging away in homes and offices work tirelessly to stave off heat. At the same time, the emissions and particulate matter they dump into the atmosphere makes our lot even worse.

It's a dilemma scientists have been grappling with for decades: How do we keep our living spaces, well, livable, without adding to the planetary problem that is global warming?

And yet, termites seemed to have worked it all out ages ago. The cathedral-like mounds they build — often as tall as eight feet — may function much as giant lungs, cooling and heating the small inner chamber where the insects actually dwell.

Wildflowers surround a termite mound in Australia.
Termite mounds like this one in Australia were just one element of inspiration for the student inventors. Martin Horsky/Shutterstock

It's the kind of setup that has weathered all kinds of weather extremities over the millennia. And the kind that's inspiring student engineers to emulate.

Taking a page from the termite construction manual, a team from the Industrial Design program at California State University, Long Beach has developed an insulation that could revolutionize how homes and offices are cooled.

They've dubbed the material, which is still in early testing, Phalanx.

"The idea for Phalanx started out with us discovering that the cooling and heating of buildings contributed the largest amount of CO2 emissions to the atmosphere," team member Albert Gonzalez explained to MNN via email. "Our goal was to find a passive way to cool buildings and limit the use of HVAC units. We began by looking at the eons of research and development done by mother nature."

They came up with a system of panels that could be attached to existing structures, particularly in places where the sun bears down most.

Those insulating sheets comprise three layers, each taking its cue from the natural world. While termite engineering inspires the middle layer, the first looks to the cactus — a plant renowned for its ability to stare down the sun. Wavy, waxy patterns on that layer, much like cactus flesh, dissipate and reflect heat.

A sheet of Phalanx insulation
The insulation comprises three layers, each inspired by the natural world. Phalanx

The final outer layer channels the sun-coping strategies of camels and even wheat. It gathers cooling dew from the air or draws up gray water from a trough installed beneath.

It all adds up to a passive cooling system that the student engineers maintain can dramatically dial down our reliance on air conditioning.

What's more, it draws no electricity, there are no moving parts, and — unlike other promising new materials like super-strong sun-cloaking wood — it can be attached relatively easily to existing structures.

A diagram showing hosPhalanx insulation works.
The system doesn't use electricity and can pull morning dew out of the atmosphere. Phalanx

The first test for Phalanx, however, didn't go quite the way the team had hoped.

They were vying for this month's Ray of Hope Prize — an annual award given to innovations that tackle real-world problems by drawing inspiration from the natural world. That prize was awarded earlier this month to startup company Watchtower Robotics for its use of robots to find and patch leaky city pipes, an innovation that could save an estimated 20 percent of the clean, freshwater that's lost to the world.

Not being among last week's finalists may make the road for Phalanx a little more arduous — winning concepts certainly benefit from having the prestigious prize under their wings — but for this team it's hardly a dead end.

They're looking to raise enough funds to help move Phalanx into a second phase of testing.

"During our alpha testing, we saw very promising results," Gonzalez noted. "There was a 30 degree Fahrenheit difference between our Phalanx setup and our control. Now, we want to apply Phalanx to a small building and test a variety of materials for the first and second layer to see which yields the best results."

As students, they have time on their side to hone their ideas. But their most important ally in developing Phalanx may be an ever-warming planet that's in dire need of fresh ideas, if it's ever going to breathe easy again.