It’s a dry, hot summer day and you’re outside walking for what seems like an eternity. The sweat drips incessantly from your brow, stinging your eyes as you trek on in the blistering heat. It feels as though you’re clinging to your last moments of life as you finally walk through the doors of your destination. And then you feel it: a wonderful, chilling air engulfs your body and comforts you as you recover from your journey. What is this incredible sensation that’s shielding you from the harsh elements outdoors? That is the feeling of one of the man’s most prized technologies: air-conditioning.
One can hardly remember a life without air-conditioning, but only a little over a hundred years ago, it was a technological breakthrough that changed the world forever. The story of the air-conditioner begins with a man named Willis Carrier, an engineer who worked for the Buffalo Forge Company. In 1902, he was tasked with figuring out a way to solve a humidity issue that was causing magazine pages to wrinkle at a publishing company in Brooklyn. Eventually, he came up with a solution that involved cooling coils and he created an invention that could humidify air by adding hot water or dehumidify air by adding cold water. Soon after, Carrier realized the many applications for this new invention and formed the Carrier Engineering Corporation with six engineers.
In 1922, Carrier Engineering Corporation continued its innovations by installing the first cooling system for theaters at the Metropolitan Theatre in Los Angeles. This cooling design pumped cold air through vents in the top of the building and allowed for a better-distributed humidity and temperature control. In May of that same year, Carrier created an updated air-conditioning system that used a centrifugal chiller and had it installed in the Rivoli Theatre in New York. The new centrifugal design increased the reliability of the large scale system while also reducing the energy cost. This led to its expanded usage all over the country thereafter.
Although these innovations led to widespread use of air-conditioning in theaters, factories, and other large buildings, they were still too large and costly for usage in a home. In the next few decades, more and more innovations came into play: reduced size of the air conditioner, the introduction of non-flammable chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and (after the Montreal Protocol in 1990 which banned CFCs), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs).
The banning of CFCs was a big step for environmental conservation due to the fact that the chemicals were scientifically proven to deplete our ozone. HCFCs were soon introduced as an alternative to CFCs and were proven to reduce 95% less ozone. Even with this innovation, the growing demand for air-conditioning in developing countries with hot climates (such as India and China) has increased the output of HCFCs in the atmosphere by 20 to 35 percent a year. In addition, the energy used to power the US’s air-conditioners alone leads to 100 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions from power plants in just a year.
Based on these numbers, it is apparent that the need for a new innovation in air-conditioning technology is upon us. A study conducted by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California shows that adding improved efficiency in air-conditioning and the elimination of fluorinated gases could reduce global warming by one degree Celsius by 2100. This might not seem like much, but considering that the projected warming for 2100 is 4 to 5 degrees Celsius, it is quite a significant reduction.
But fear not, the best and brightest engineers at the US Energy Department’s Emerging Technologies Program are working on the next big thing in air-conditioning technology. They are in the process of creating non-vapor compression technology that doesn’t use any fluorinated gasses. According to the Energy department, it is estimated that this technology could reduce energy consumption by 50 percent.
Air-conditioning is an amazing technology that has greatly enhanced the way we live. For many people who live in extremely hot climates, it is a necessity. However, the increasing availability and growth of air-conditioning usage have begun to leave a nasty carbon footprint. Will scientists be able to perfect their new technologies before air-conditioning starts to warm our Earth more than it cools our bodies? Only time will tell…
Written by Lewis Berger
Sources: National Geographic – Air Conditioning Buying guide
Energy.gov – History of Air Conditioning
New York Times – If You Fix This, You Fix a Big Piece of the Climate Puzzle