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HVAC to benefit from cheap wireless sensors

ORNL’s Pooran Joshi shows how the process enables electronics components to be printed on flexible plastic substrates

USA: Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratories are experimenting with advanced manufacturing techniques in an effort to produce low-cost wireless building controls.

With buildings responsible for about 40% of the energy consumed in the United States, ORNL is exploring additive roll-to-roll (R2R) manufacturing techniques, a process that could produce wireless sensor in large quantities and at greatly reduced costs.

Studies in the US indicate that advanced sensors and controls have the potential to reduce the energy consumption of buildings by 20-30%.

“It is widely accepted that energy-consuming systems such as heating, ventilating, and air conditioning units in buildings are under, or poorly, controlled causing them to waste energy,” said Patrick Hughes, director of ORNL’s Building Technologies Programme. “Buildings could increase their energy efficiency if control systems had access to additional information.”

Collecting data such as outside air and room temperature, humidity, light level, occupancy and pollutants is currently very expensive. Conventional wired sensors are relatively inexpensive but, according to ORNL, wireless sensors can cost $150-$300 per node.

ORNL’s new wireless sensor prototype could reduce costs to $1-$10 per node by employing advanced manufacturing techniques such as additive roll-to-roll manufacturing. This process enables electronics components like circuits, sensors, antennae, and photovoltaic cells and batteries to be printed on flexible plastic substrates. The nodes can be installed without wires using a peel-and-stick adhesive backing.

“If commercially available at the target price point, there would be endless application possibilities where the installed cost to improve the control of energy-consuming systems would pay for itself through lower utility bills in only a few years,” Hughes said.

The ultra-low-power smart sensors collect and send data to a receiver, which can capture data from many different peel-and-stick nodes and provide the information to the energy-consuming system. The more information received, the better the building’s energy management.

Both new construction and retrofitted buildings can benefit from ORNL’s smart sensors. 

“This technology provides the information that enables ongoing continuous commissioning, fault detection and diagnosis, and service organisation notifications when needed, ensuring optimal building system operations throughout their service life,” said ORNL’s Teja Kuruganti, principal investigator on the low-cost wireless sensors project.

ORNL is currently in negotiations to establish a co-operative research and development agreement with an unnamed leading international electronics manufacturer to make the low-cost wireless sensors commercially available.

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