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Engineering to Keep the Heat In (or Out) for Cheap

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An image of Alan Feinerman, University of Illinois at Chicago, Founder & CTO, Thermal Conservation Technologies. (Image credit: Alan Feinerman, University of Illinois at Chicago)

This ScienceLives article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

Alan Feinerman is an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he has built a research program focusing on innovations in the fields of microfabrication and microelectronics. A key invention of his involves the development of an ultra-low thermal conductivity insulation designed to offer more reliable and efficient cooling in various cooling and heating applications. Feinerman is the founder and chief technology officer at Thermal Conservation Technologies, a start-up company that incorporates vacuum insulation panels with technology geared to preserve energy.

Name:Alan Feinerman Age: 56 Institution: University of Illinois at Chicago, Thermal Conservation Technologies Field of Study: Physics

What inspired you to choose this field of study? I've always been interested in using science to solve real world problems, and I always felt that by exploring alternative geometries, new solutions would appear. When I was choosing a graduate school, I met a professor who told me how the arrangement of superconducting atoms changes before they became superconducting. He wanted to lock the atoms in their high-temperature arrangement by sandwiching them between layers of atoms that didn't change their arrangement. The idea didn't work, but it sold me on joining his group at Northwestern University.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received? (1) When tackling a new problem, first imagine what the ideal solution will look like and then find a way to make it real. (2) When we first think about what tools are already available, then we limit ourselves to the existing solutions. (3) Don't worry that you have no business sticking your nose into this area (my advice to myself).

What was your first scientific experiment as a child? When I was in third grade, a friend of mine took me to a house under construction and we played a game to see who could break the most windows by throwing rocks. I quickly realized that a broom stick would be a more efficient tool to shatter the glass panes and soon managed to break all the first floor windows. The next day police detectives visited my house and made me promise to refrain from further such experiments on the fracture properties of brittle materials.

What is your favorite thing about being a researcher? I can work on whatever I want at my university. I woke up one morning and wanted to build an experiment with a miniature bicycle chain, but was shocked at how expensive these chains are when they use small links. I thought about the problem, came up with a new way to make chains, went into my lab and made it work on my second try.

What is the most important characteristic a researcher must demonstrate in order to be an effective researcher? A combination of patience, tenacious persistence, a wild imagination, and lots and lots of hard work! At least nine out of the ten things you try will not work, and if that can take the wind out of your sails then you will not succeed.

What are the societal benefits of your research? We use over one-third of our energy just on heating and cooling, so more effective thermal insulation has the potential to reduce this component of society's energy budget by nearly 80 percent.

To me, Styrofoam is a "still-air thermal insulator," and it has always felt dead to me. Having had some basic training in thermal insulation, I started looking into replacing Styrofoam with vacuum insulation panels since vacuum can be a great insulator. But, I had to create a structure that could support nearly 15 pounds per square inch — equivalent to a 100-pound person balancing on a hockey puck.

Two hundred and twenty pounds balancing on three yogurt cups on the left, and 220 pounds no longer supported and three wrinkled yogurt cups, on the right. (Image credit: Alan Feinerman, University of Illinois at Chicago)

My first idea was to use a sparse collection of spindly legs, however when I rested roughly 220 pounds on three yogurt cups, the cups wrinkled and the weights came crashing down (see before and after images). I realized that if I could make a suspension bridge structure, like the Golden Gate Bridge, that the suspension elements in tension could not buckle or wrinkle and might even pass less heat than spindly legs — if the right material was chosen.

I decided to use Kevlar since it has enormous tensile strength, four times that of 1090 steel, and very low thermal conductivity — one thousandth that of 1090 steel. That extremely large ratio of strength to thermal conductivity made it the ideal tensile support.

The next problem I had to consider was edge loss. Even if the suspension elements were perfect insulators, the edge of the panel can still pass a great deal of heat. Companies make vacuum insulation panels that are sealed inside a 0.0003 inch thick aluminum foil layer. While the aluminum is one third the thickness of ordinary kitchen foil, on a 36 inch square panel it is the same as putting a 0.23 inch-diameter aluminum rod between the hot and cold zones. If the hot side of a 1 inch thick panel is 70 degrees Fahrenheit and the cold side is 20degrees Fahrenheit, that connection causes a heat flow of 7.3 watts, or nearly twice the energy consumed by an incandescent night light.

A 10-inch thick piece of Styrofoam that was 36 inches square would only pass 2.6 watts under the same conditions. Using thin stainless steel which has one fifteenth the thermal conductivity of aluminum, the heat flow at the edge could be reduced, and the total heat flow across a 36 inch panel that was 0.5 inch thick would be 2.3 watts. While that difference in power consumption may seem insignificant, it adds up, since we heat and cool buildings with enormous surface areas.

Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher? My grandmother always wanted me to spread my wings and fly. While almost everyone else saw in me a rather quiet and shy kid, she saw wheels constantly turning. She paid my tuition at Cornell's Applied Physics program, which was an incredible education.

She'd take me to art exhibits, and encourage me to look deeply at the works — many of which I didn't understand — to try to find the reason an artist chose a subject and interpret it the way he or she did. It made me realize at an early age that researchers also must have a deep appreciation of nature when doing experiments in order to better understand the reasons behind what they are observing.

What about your field or being a researcher do you think would surprise people the most? Most people don't realize how creative and exciting science and engineering is, or can be. It's not only artists and writers who have fun at their jobs.

If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be? You can't use the elevators in a fire. If I wheeled a prized piece of equipment into the hallway outside my third floor lab in an attempt to save it, this might block other people from trying to leave the building. Having witnessed several fire alarm drills and even an occasional fire, I discovered there is a lot of time spent waiting for the fire department to do its job — to put the fire out, and then declare that the danger has passed. So I'd make sure to grab a pad of paper, some mechanical pencils, and a calculator so I could use that waiting time to investigate new ideas.

What music do you play most often in your lab or car? I'm unable to concentrate if there is any music at all playing in my lab. In my car I enjoy listening to classic rock. And Motown always makes the ride pass quickly.

Editor's Note: This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the ScienceLives archive.