CORVALLIS - Researchers in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University will use a new $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to team up with Pacific Northwest National Laboratories and develop miniature heat pumps that could revolutionize the way homes are heated and cars are cooled.

The technology, if widely used, could save the nation up to $24 billion annually in wasted energy costs.

Central heating and air conditioning systems that use ductwork are commonly found in residential and small commercial buildings. Those systems lose as much as 50 percent of their energy efficiency through the ductwork before the hot or cold air reaches the intended spaces. Placing miniature heat pumps in individual rooms eliminates the need for ductwork and allows better control of individual room temperatures, potentially cutting national home heating costs by as much as $14.4 billion annually.

Another $10.1 billion could be saved applying this same technology to automotive air conditioning, where the waste heat generated by engines could be recycled to run super-efficient, very compact air conditioners also capable of pre-cooling the sweltering interiors of parked vehicles before occupants enter. In addition, the new technology could enable air conditioning in fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles where the engine is frequently shut down.

What makes these unprecedented heating and cooling changes possible is a breakthrough technology called microtechnology-based energy and chemical systems, or MECS, which was developed by PNNL and OSU. Using microstructures to attain extremely high rates of heat and mass transfer, this new technology allows large mechanical devices to be miniaturized, somewhat similar to the way the microchip technology has allowed miniaturization of computers and electronics in recent years.

"This MECS technology lets us reduce the size of a whole range of devices we once thought could not be reduced, devices that can now be smaller than a fist but bigger than a sugar cube," said Kevin Drost, a 22-year research veteran at PNNL before OSU recruited him two years ago to direct the MECS program. "In the area of MECS technology, OSU is one of the best in the world."

The MECS research area is unique to OSU, and a cornerstone of the College of Engineering's drive to build a Top-25 engineering institution. "Our MECS teaching and research program is bringing international attention, star faculty, and outstanding students to OSU," said Ron Adams, dean of OSU's College of Engineering. "MECS-related research is changing the world for the better, enabling everything from visual anthrax detection and water-cooled computer chips to onsite toxic waste cleanup and portable power production."

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Kevin Drost, 541-737-2575