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Brian Westenhaus

Brian Westenhaus

Brian is the editor of the popular energy technology site New Energy and Fuel. The site’s mission is to inform, stimulate, amuse and abuse the…

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Nature Inspires Breakthrough In Energy Efficiency

  • Cambridge University researchers have created an eco-friendly plant-based film, utilizing cellulose nanocrystals and reflective layers, that could cool buildings, cars and other structures without requiring excessive external energy.
  • Through structural color, specific colors can be achieved without pigments which can absorb sunlight and generate too much heat, enabling a wider range of colors for the cooling film.
  • The colorful bi-layered film generated over 120 Watts of cooling power per square meter, comparable to that of many types of residential air conditioning units.

Scientists will report at the American Chemical Society an eco-friendly plant based film that cools when exposed to sunlight. The material could someday keep buildings, cars and other structures cool without requiring as much external power. The film comes in many textures and bright, iridescent colors.

The researchers will present their results at the spring meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

Silvia Vignolini, Ph.D., the project’s principal investigator at Cambridge University (U.K.), started the explanation with, “To make materials that remain cooler than the air around them during the day, you need something that reflects a lot of solar light and doesn’t absorb it, which would transform energy from the light into heat. There are only a few materials that have this property, and adding color pigments would typically undo their cooling effects.”

Passive daytime radiative cooling (PDRC) is the ability of a surface to emit its own heat into space without it being absorbed by the air or atmosphere. The result is a surface that, without using any electrical power, can become several degrees colder than the air around it. When used on buildings or other structures, materials that promote this effect can help limit the use of air conditioning and other power-intensive cooling methods.

Qingchen Shen, Ph.D., also at Cambridge University, who is presenting the work at ACS continued, “Some paints and films currently in development can achieve PDRC, but most of them are white or have a mirrored finish. But a building owner who wanted to use a blue-colored PDRC paint would be out of luck – colored pigments, by definition, absorb specific wavelengths of sunlight and only reflect the colors we see, causing undesirable warming effects in the process.”

But there’s a way to achieve color without the use of pigments. Soap bubbles, for example, show a prism of different colors on their surfaces. These colors result from the way light interacts with differing thicknesses of the bubble’s film, a phenomenon called structural color. Part of Vignolini’s research focuses on identifying the causes behind different types of structural colors in nature. In one case, her group found that cellulose nanocrystals (CNCs), which are derived from the cellulose found in plants, could be made into iridescent, colorful films without any added pigment.

As it turns out, cellulose is also one of the few naturally occurring materials that can promote PDRC. Vignolini learned this after hearing a talk from the first researchers to have created a cooling film material. “I thought wow, this is really amazing, and I never really thought cellulose could do this.”

In their recent work, Shen and Vignolini layered colorful CNC materials with a white-colored material made from ethyl cellulose, producing a colorful bi-layered PDRC film. They made films with vibrant blue, green and red colors that, when placed under sunlight, were an average of nearly 40° F cooler than the surrounding air.

A square meter of the film generated over 120 Watts of cooling power, rivaling many types of residential air conditioners.

Shen said the most challenging aspect of this research was finding a way to make the two layers stick together. On their own, the CNC films were brittle, and the ethyl cellulose layer had to be plasma-treated to get good adhesion. The result, however, was films that were robust and could be prepared several meters at a time in a standard manufacturing line.

Since creating these first films, the researchers have been improving their aesthetic appearance. Using a method modified from approaches previously explored by the group, they’re making cellulose-based cooling films that are glittery and colorful. They’ve also adjusted the ethyl cellulose film to have different textures, like the differences between types of wood finishes used in architecture and interior design, Shen explained. These changes would give people more options when incorporating PDRC effects in their homes, businesses, cars and other structures.

The researchers now plan to find ways they can make their films even more functional. According to Shen, CNC materials can be used as sensors to detect environmental pollutants or weather changes, which could be useful if combined with the cooling power of their CNC-ethyl cellulose films. For example, a cobalt-colored PDRC on a building façade in a car-dense, urban area could someday keep the building cool and incorporate detectors that would alert officials to higher levels of smog-causing molecules in the air.

Of worthy note, the researchers acknowledge support and funding from Purdue University, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the European Research Council, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the European Union and Shanghai Jiao Tong University.


This might be quite the revolution in roofing, siding and automotive finishes. So far the results are quite encouraging. Lacking an estimate of cost is still out there and the practicality of refurbishing a building or car using a plasma treatment is something of a mystery so far.


But one can be sure there will be interest. The cooling effect, plus the aesthetic potential are great motivators. An iridescent color selection is sure to light up the automobile and designer fields with innumerable ideas.

Lets hope this technology is low cost. The heat gain to buildings and the cooking of car interiors out in the sun are likely quite high unrealized costs. For them to be moderated at a possible drop of 40° F is going to save a lot of electrical power and make cars much more efficient.

By Brian Westenhaus via New Energy and Fuel

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  • DoRight Deikins on March 29 2023 said:
    And perhaps CNC/PDRCs could help decrease the heat gain in solar collectors.

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