Portland architect developing energy-saving air conditioning system

Architect John Breshears has created an air conditioning system inspired by gills, human lungs, and plant leaves.


Architect John Breshears finds inspiration in unusual places, which partly explains why his patented air conditioning design looks like fish gills, according to Ben Pittman-Polletta's article in the Oregonian.

And now he has almost half a million dollars to prove that buildings and people will chill a little easier with his 15-year-old design. Inspired by gills, human lungs, and plant leaves, it may make air conditioners up to 40% more efficient.

The money comes from the Dept. of Energy's third round of stimulus spending, which gave grants last week to unproven, but potentially game-changing, new energy technologies. Ranging from Breshears' air conditioning system to better batteries and new fuels, the chosen projects will get the kind of attention and funding traditionally reserved for bombers, drones and experimental military technology.

And according to Breshears, the shift in focus is long overdue. "This is our space race," he says about the need to cut our energy appetite. "Buildings right now use 40 percent of the energy consumed in our country. It's bigger than almost any other single sector. Of that, a fairly large percentage goes to heating, ventilating and air conditioning."

You begin to understand the fish gill-air conditioner connection when you look at Breshears' drawings of a typical office building. His cooling system is made up of a tissue-thin, pleated textile membrane sandwiched between two floor-to-ceiling glass walls, and it reminds you of, yes, fish gills.

Art and technology

Breshears was born in Portland, but his father -- a chemist studying greenhouse emissions -- took the family to New Mexico to work at Los Alamos National Labs. His father might have influenced Breshears' choice to study engineering at the University of New Mexico, but it was his own interest in the visual arts that led Breshears to pursue a master's in architecture at Rice University.

Since then, he's made a career out of combining technology and art to solve problems. "When the thing works the way it does because of the way it looks, and looks the way it does because of the way it works, it's elegant," he says. "That's what I try to do."

Breshears knows that elegant solutions are often found in unexpected places. For his master's he designed a conceptual pedestrian walkway between two buildings inspired by vertebrae and prosthetic limbs. That led to a grant to apply inspiration from the sciences, including biology and chemistry, to design problems.

Breshears' cooling system was born the same year as his daughter, while he was working in Italy under this grant in 1996. At that time, membrane technology was not advanced enough to make his system economically feasible.

But Breshears continued to push his idea, seeking grants and securing patents for his design. As he moved from Italy to Boston, and back to Portland for a career in green building, Breshears continued to invest his own money and time into his idea. He even started his own company, Architectural Applications, to apply the DOE grant. He grew accustomed to having his grant proposals rejected but never gave up. His persistence finally paid off last Monday.

Increasing demand

Breshears' proposal is one of 17 DOE projects aimed at developing efficient air conditioning systems for hot, humid climates. While air conditioners are ubiquitous, a dearth of funding for research has meant advancements in technology have been slow. As developing nations in hot, humid climates turn on air conditioners, cooling efficiency will become even more crucial.

While not the most radical of cooling technology -- some of the sexiest projects use sound waves -- Breshears' plan is unique in that older buildings can be retrofitted with his design.

Breshears will work with Membrane Research Technologies Inc. and Lawrence Berkeley Labs, both in California, to build a prototype of his cooling system. From it, they'll measure efficiency against the cost of getting it up and running in offices and homes.

The goal is to provide building occupants with the same comfort level for less energy. Still, Breshears knows keeping the air conditioning off might be the best energy-saving solution of all.

"Whether we can get people to change their behavior and do with less air conditioning, that's a totally separate question," he says. "We do need a lot of behavioral change."

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