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Can Air Conditioners Help Save the World?


By Greg Zimmerman HVAC
air conditioners

During the hot summer months, facility managers spend a disproportionate amount of their energy budget on cooling space. That also means, assuming they’re not getting all their energy from renewable sources, they’re responsible for more carbon emissions.

But what if instead of kicking up more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and contributing to climate change, air conditioners could actually have a net-positive effect on total carbon emissions? A recent story in Wired explained a new study that showed how technology in development could be used to retrofit commercial and residential air conditioners to help pull carbon dioxide out of the air and turn it into fuel for “powering vehicles that are difficult to electrify, like cargo ships.” The process would involve retrofitting air conditioners with a filter to absorb carbon dioxide and water from the air and an electrolyzer to create chemical processes to turn water and the carbon dioxide into usable fuel.

That may sound pretty futuristic (or, if you’re cynical, crazy), but the researchers did a calculation showing that if the retrofit was performed at the Frankfurt Fair Tower in Frankfurt Germany, the air conditioners in that building could capture 1.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide per hour and produce 4,000 metric tons of fuel per year.

Obviously, though, this retrofit is no silver bullet. For the whole process to be carbon neutral, the energy used to power the air conditioner must still come from renewable sources. And some skeptics say that carbon capture distracts from the idea that the most important strategies should be those that reduce emissions, not capture already spent carbon. But the researchers say this can be one of many possible strategies as solar and other fossil fuel-reducing strategies continue to ramp up and go into wider-spread use.

Greg Zimmerman is executive editor of Building Operating Management. Read his cover story on how buildings are tackling climate change.

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