The University of Massachusetts Amherst
University of Massachusetts Amherst

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Married Researchers Team up to Design and Build Sustainable “Smart Façade” Buildings

Ajla (l) and Zlatan (r) Aksamija

Ajla and Zlatan Aksamija (l-r)

The married research team of Zlatan Aksamija of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department and Ajla Aksamija of the Department of Architecture are leading an interdisciplinary research team in an ongoing effort to reduce the carbon footprint of buildings by working to design more sustainable building façade systems, or so-called smart façades.

According to an article from Inside UMass, buildings consume some 40 percent of energy in the United States, and, within those residential and commercial structures, heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems “guzzle 46 percent of the power used,” as confirmed by the U.S. Department of Energy.

To address this issue, the interdisciplinary team of scientists and students led by Ajla and Zlatan Aksamija have created and tested two smart façade prototypes incorporating thermoelectric modules, which house semiconductors capable of heating, cooling, and generating electricity.

The Aksamijas were joined by architecture graduate students Chris Counihan and Dylan Brown and engineering Ph.D. student Meenakshi Upadhyaya in their study detailing the design and function of the two prototypes. Their research was published as an invited article in Frontiers in Energy Research. Since this publication, another graduate student, Guy Vigneau, joined the research team in extending the study.

As the Inside UMass article explains, in an "aha moment," the couple wondered if they could marry their individual areas of expertise. “I work on thermoelectrics,” Zlatan says. “Ajla works on façades. We said, wait! Can’t we just add these TEs [thermoelectric materials] to the façades? It was a very natural matching of these two research streams.”

To test whether the thermoelectric module would operate efficiently when installed in a wall and to determine what size heat sink would be necessary, they designed and built two prototypes with different-sized heat sinks, according to Inside UMass. Coupled with the thermoelectric modules, the heat sinks are used to dissipate heat between the interior and exterior environment. Thermoelectric modules without a heat sink were unstable, as the researchers had hypothesized, but they found success when they added a large heat sink.

“The study showed that the thermoelectric modules with heat sinks are effective and efficient in heating and cooling modes,” Ajla says. That means, as Zlatan adds, “to get the same amount of heating, you’re using less electricity.”

Zlatan Aksamija runs the UMass NanoEnergy&Thermophysics Lab, where he studies semiconductor nanostructures for energy applications, thermoelectric energy conversion, dissipation in nanoscale devices, electro-thermal simulation, nanoscale heat transfer, thermal devices, and computational nanoscience.

Ajla Aksamija’s interdisciplinary research approach spans architecture, engineering, and material and computer science. Her research expertise includes building science and sustainability, emerging technologies, digital design and representations, information modeling, and innovations in architecture. (July 2019)