UCLA’s new solid-state fridge tech could make air conditioning obsolete

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UCLA Engineering
There are plenty of cool wearables, but there are very few cool wearables, if you catch what we’re saying. That’s a problem that’s now been rectified by engineers from the University of California at Los Angeles and SRI International — courtesy of their new 5-millimeter-thin device, which functions as a solid-state fridge cooler.

If you’re wondering why on Earth you’d want to carry a mini-refrigerator around with you, imagine the possibilities of having your very own personal air conditioner that could be built into a shoe insole, hat, or other piece of clothing. In other situations, you could use the device to help keep smartphones, tablets, or laptops cool to avoid dangerous overheating.

The technology is based on something called the “electrocaloric effect,” in which a material’s temperature changes when an electric field is applied to it. While at present it’s still a proof of concept, it’s definitely a gadget that’s worth getting excited about. The first prototype is capable of delivering 150 times as much cooling per gram of material as the best prior electrocaloric device, designed to perform the same task.

In addition, it’s so far proved capable of undergoing 30,000 cycles of electrification without starting to degrade. In a demonstration, the device was attached to a Samsung Galaxy G4 smartphone battery which had been heated to 52.5 degrees Celsius, thanks to heavy use. Within just five seconds of being applied, the cooling device had chilled the Galaxy’s battery by 8 degrees.

“The development of practical efficient cooling systems that do not use chemical coolants that are potent greenhouse gases is becoming even more important as developing nations increase their use of air conditioning,” said Roy Kornbluh, an SRI research engineer, in a statement.

Going forward, the idea is to develop the technology in new ways. For instance, the team thinks it could be useful as a way of building portable refrigerators for the developing world. While cheap methods of storing heat have been the subject of much work, there haven’t been quite so many projects aimed at building coolers — largely due to the fact that it is difficult to generate enough watts to support them.

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Science.

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