Improving HVAC processes using nanomaterial innovations

by FM Media
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FRANCESCA CROLLEY from Industrial Nanotech imparts how innovations with nanomaterials can improve HVAC processes.

The insulation and air quality efficiency of HVAC systems has not changed much in the past 50 plus years. However, new advancements in nanotechnology-based insulation and anti-microbial materials offer advantages that provide the ability to insulate in less space, increase longevity of performance, improve weathering and moisture resistance and increase air quality – all with an objective of affordability and cost-effectiveness.

Nanotechnology is simply the manipulation of materials at a smaller scale than was previously available. By manipulating matter at the nanoscale, materials have the ability to be built from the atomic level up, with much less waste. Science has also found that materials can take on different attributes when you manipulate them at this scale, such as silver taking on anti-microbial properties.
Nanomaterials is one of the fastest growing branches of nanoscience and within this falls nanocoatings. Coatings are being invented that have the ability to provide attributes such as heat resistance, rust prevention, resistance to contagions and a variety of other surface protection qualities.

Insulating HVAC systems is paramount to reducing building energy consumption and related greenhouse gas emissions. For years we have been trained to think that you need thickness in order to insulate. However, just as cell phones and computers have shrunk and yet become more powerful over the years, so has insulation.
The newest form of insulation incorporates a nanomaterial with very low thermal conductivity into a clear, water-based acrylic latex to provide a thin film coating that can be painted onto a variety of substrates, such as ductwork, piping and boilers, to insulate effectively and consistently.
One benefit that a thin film thermal barrier provides is the ability to resist infiltration from moisture, dirt, dust and other contaminates that typically cause degradation of fibrous insulations like fibreglass or rock wool. By using a nanotechnology-based coating for the insulation of critical HVAC system parts, overall replacement and maintenance costs can be reduced and the ability to insulate outdoor and rooftop equipment without the issues that come with rain, snow and other weather exposure is provided.
Thermal insulation and protective nanocoatings have been shown to reduce energy costs by between 10 and 40 percent, depending upon the application, with a consistent insulation value throughout the five- to 10-year lifespan.

Indoor air quality is another area where nanotechnology can assist in reducing contagions that may infiltrate an HVAC system. Building health is an increasingly important topic as it directly relates to the health of the workers inside any facility. Some of the advances in nanocoatings address issues with mould and fungi growth and corrosion prevention, as well as provide anti-microbial properties.
Infiltrations of mould or fungi into an HVAC system contribute to an unhealthy building. When traditional fibrous insulation becomes moist, it can become a breeding ground for these types of contagions. Other contagions can come from infiltration of outdoor air due to rusting ductwork or piping, which leaves unwanted openings into the system.
Nanocoatings are able to provide resistance to mould and fungi growth, prevent corrosion, and some are anti-microbial and can be used internally on ductwork to reduce unwanted contagions. One anti-microbial coating incorporating nano silicon dioxide was shown in hospital trials to reduce bacteria by up to 50 percent on surfaces treated with the coating.

As with any new and advanced technology there are challenges to adoption. One of these is that often measurement standards put in place and written into building codes were made to measure an older technology and do not always have the ability to measure new technological advancements. Standards tend to be behind industry innovations.
A challenge concerning the use of nanocoatings for insulation is that the make-up of the material used allows the reduction of heat conduction in a thin layer and standards used, such as the R-value (R standing for resistance to heat flow), weigh thickness heavily into their equation of effectiveness, meaning they can’t be used to accurately reflect the energy saving ability of new thin film insulators.
To overcome this challenge, other building standard tests that measure direct heat conduction in energy units, such as watts or btus (British Thermal Units), that show the reduction in thermal transmission without skewing the result by thickness need to be used.
Another challenge is the fear factor any type of new technology brings, and nanotechnology is no stranger to this. People fear that nano-sized particles may infiltrate their skin or otherwise be a danger. However, nanoscale particles are not used, but rather nanotechnology is incorporated in another way into materials, so there should be no fear of any infiltration of tiny particles. In addition, companies in the field offer health and safety testing to allay fears.

While you should do your homework before deciding on adopting any new technology for HVAC efficiency, it definitely can pay off to see what innovations are available from nanotechnology-based materials. Nanotechnology has now come out of the lab and has been making a difference in industry for at least a decade. It can enable huge improvements in energy efficiency, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and overall increased longevity, health and air quality of a heating and cooling system.
The earlier adopters of these advanced technologies are already experiencing the benefits of their willingness to change old ways of thinking. As with all new technology, this eventually promotes the needed change in standards – and in the not too distant future, we should see nanomaterials being incorporated into standards and specifications, and being increasingly used as a mainstream choice for efficient HVAC processes.

Francesca Crolley is vice president of business development at Industrial Nanotech. She writes articles related to sustainability, energy savings and innovative nanotechnology-based solutions.

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