Comfort Zone

Portable Device to Cool, Heat One Person at a Time
by Karen Shih ’09 | photo by John T. Consoli

If you’ve spent the summer bundled in sweaters and slippers at work, a new device designed to cool and heat individuals—not an entire office—might be just what you, your company and the planet need.

The “Roving Comforter” (RoCo) is about 3 feet tall and set on a round, wheeled platform about a foot in diameter. It’s reminiscent of “Star Wars’” R2-D2, or more alarmingly, “Doctor Who’s” Daleks—though this little robot has only the best intentions.

“We’re saving people money and saving the Earth at the same time,” says Research Associate Jan Muehlbauer.

Heating, ventilation and air conditioning account for 13 percent of the energy consumed in the United States, prompting the U.S. Department of Energy early last year to challenge engineers nationwide to develop localized thermal management systems.

A group in the UMD Center for Environmental Energy Engineering led by Professor Reinhard Radermacher honed in on a personal cooling and heating device. He, Muehlbauer, Professor Jelena Srebric, Assistant Research Professor Jiazhen Ling and graduate student Yilin Du M.S. ’16 found that concentrating the desired temperature around only individuals, rather than the room they’re in, would allow a building’s thermostat to be set several degrees higher or lower, saving up to 30 percent in energy costs.

The RoCo’s air distribution system is based on computational fluid dynamic models—typically used in the design of cars or rockets—to push air to targeted parts of the body, optimizing the temperature around a person in a way that a regular space heater can’t. In addition, the unit uses a method most often applied to computer CPUs to efficiently capture and remove heat generated through the cooling process.

The team’s current prototype can run for about three hours before it requires recharging and heat dispersion; the goal is to get to four. Once the RoCo is synced to a Bluetooth bracelet, the robotic platform will be able to follow a person around, particularly in a warehouse or data center. (In offices and homes, the team imagines placing a unit in every room.)

The UMD group estimates the RoCo will reach the market as soon as 2017 with a price of $250.

In the meantime, Srebric and her team will test the prototype on users to see what type of technology they prefer to collect and maintain their personal data. (Options include incorporating a learning algorithm that remembers temperature preferences or installing devices to automatically pick up physiological changes such as heart rate.) She also wants to determine how individuals respond on a psychological level to temperature changes, so she can make the device as flexible and user-friendly as possible.

“The whole idea is that you’re not immersed in this bulk environment that everyone else is in,” she says. “You’re getting personal attention to your needs.”



Interesting. What materials are responsible for the cooling? I ask because purified synthetic diamond has a thermal conductivity of 2,000-2,500 W/mK compared to 406-429 W/mK for pure silver, for example.

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