Are you one of the sorts that thinks that 3D printing, spaceships to Mars, and genetically engineered food are going to save people from ever having any difficulty in their lives? A modern technological solution to everything that makes comfortable middle class people uneasy?
Well then, you’ll probably be interested in hearing about the latest 3D-printed marketing gimmick — taking a design and principle that’s been in use for millennia (evaporative cooling) and saddling it with the complexity and associated investment + manufacturing costs of 3D printing. Because, hey, it’s 3D printing!
Now, perhaps I’m wrong about this, and perhaps something like this could prove economical, but why is 3D printing assumed to be such a panacea for the various resource and energy issues facing us? Does importing a complex printing machine and feedstock (typically from quite far away) to make rather simple technologies/materials really make any kind of sense economically? When is such an approach going to make more sense than simple solutions using local materials and know-how?
Before presenting the “new” technology, it should probably be noted here just how effective traditional designs associated with this new solution actually are (in dry climates, at least, since evaporative cooling generally isn’t that useful at all in humid climates). When combined with windcatchers, evaporative cooling can bring the temperatures inside buildings down by several tens of degrees Fahrenheit. And when this is combined with subterranean digging, temperatures in the lower recesses can be kept down near freezing point — even during the height of summer in hot climates. All simply through the use of windcatchers and the evaporative cooling effect — no 3D printing required.
Also, well placed buildings (on windy hills, etc), with well placed windows, and grooved clay flooring designed to maximize water retention (which was poured on it), were widely used throughout many of the temperate parts of the ancient world (including the ancient Mycenaean Palatial Civilizations) as places to: store perishable products, make cheese, make butter, etc — owing to the significantly lower temperatures inside these buildings. All of this was accomplished using dirt-cheap, abundant, local materials — no complex, breakable, imported 3D printing technologies required.
So… anyways… on to the 3D printing technology in question.
Known as “Cool Bricks,” these 3D-printed bricks function by soaking up water — via the highly porous ceramic material that they’re made of — which then evaporates when hot, dry air flows through them, thereby lowering air temperature.
Fast Company provides some more information:
Developed by Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello, the Cool Brick is both masonry and an alternative to air conditioning. Containing thousands of holes, it’s porous enough to hold tiny droplets of water that evaporate in contact with warm air. The effect—multiplied over lots of water droplets—is a cooler room.
The brick is printed from clay mixed with organic matter. When the material is fired, the organic matter burns off leaving the tiny micro-pores. As you pour or spray water onto the surface, these holes suck up and hold water through capillary action. It’s then ready to do its evaporative magic.
“In environments that don’t have a lot of energy, you can use a piece of [porous] ceramic pottery to cool buildings. One might fill up a giant jug of water and cool off a small space,” says Rael. “With the Cool Brick, you could imagine an entire wall being constructed this way with water that’s held in the micropores, so you can keep the temperature of the room down.”
Emerging Objects now hopes to build a full prototype building with Cool Bricks cemented into walls. The idea could be a better, aesthetically interesting solution for air-cooling.
One further issue that I don’t see addressed in the information out there is how to prevent dust buildup rapidly destroying the effectiveness of the bricks. Many traditional systems can be easily cleaned owing to the large spaces involved, and intentional dust traps at certain parts of the system. Cleaning these bricks, though, seems as though it would be notably more labor/energy intensive (dry vac?), if achievable to a satisfactory level at all.
But perhaps I’m wrong about this. Perhaps there is a way for this to carve out a niche where it’s economical and practical. But I don’t think so.
Where do our readers come in on this debate? Is 3D printing for such applications mostly just a gimmick that’ll never be economical or practical? Or will there be niches where it’s the best option?
Image Credit: Emerging Objects
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