Solution Revealed: Energy-efficient air conditioning

Posted by Connie French on Nov 21, 2008 11:46:12 AM

Most of the Challenges posted by InnoCentive Seekers are of such a confidential nature that we are never permitted to reveal even the Seeker's identity, much less the actual solution.  However, we recently announced that the Boston Innovation Prize, which was seeking an energy-efficient air conditioning technology, had been awarded.  We are very fortunate in this instance, that the Seeker, the Barr Foundation, and the Solvers, John Barrie and Dr. Norbert Müller, have been willing to talk about the winning solution.  Below is an overview of the solution, provided by Solver John Barrie.

The Challenge:

Innocentive recently hosted the Boston Innovation Prize which was developed by The Barr Foundation, a private family foundation committed to enhancing the quality of life for citizens in the Boston area, and the Cambridge Energy Alliance (CES), an organization that seeks to reduce the carbon footprint of Cambridge, Mass., in the next five years.

The Boston Innovation Prize challenge was to "radically improve efficiencies in space cooling and dehumidification" and to "identify breakthrough technologies and/or designs which will provide cooling and dehumidification with dramatically higher energy efficiency than current room or window air conditioning units, while maintaining affordability."  No small task.  Large companies have been working on this for decades.  To put this challenge in perspective, air conditioning technology has already doubled in efficiency since 1970.

Our Solution:

Our winning submission is an air conditioner that uses water vapor as the refrigerant. When water vapor is used this way it is referred to as R-718. Water vapor can be up to 30% more efficient than traditional refrigerants, but engineering the compressor is difficult and expensive.  In Europe where there are high energy costs, water vapor is used as a refrigerant in large projects. The economics of making a smaller scale R-718 compressor have, in the past, proven to be prohibitive. Critical components are commonly made out of titanium.

The key to our winning submission is an economical and very efficient compressor invented by Dr. Müller.   He invented a small and lightweight turbo compressor with an integral motor woven out of high-strength fibers. "It gives wonderful control. It's efficient and compact," says Muller who points out that up to 30 percent of the U.S. electricity is used for traditional cooling and air conditioning. Another plus for the woven turbo impeller is that it is very quiet.


While winning the Boston Innovation Prize is wonderful, of equal importance is the added benefit of having such a high level review our technology.  "We looked at number of impressive designs, but this one really stood out because of its potential to consume significantly less energy and reduce peak demand compared to standard air conditioners," says Kendra Tupper, a member of the panel of judges and a senior consultant at the Rocky Mountain Institute.  The Rocky Mountain Institute is an internationally recognized think tank that works on issues of energy, efficiency and sustainability.  This recognition will help us with upcoming presentations to venture capital.

-John Barrie

To find out more about this project, and see drawings of the solution, check out John's blog -

Topics: Solvers, Challenges, Seekers

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