Nanomaterials and their scope for energy-efficient buildings of the future

30 May 2013

Jesus Isoird, research and innovation programmes manager, Acciona

With the building sector responsible for 40pc of total energy consumption in the EU, what role can nanomaterials play in improving the energy performance of buildings? We speak to Acciona’s Jesus Isoird ahead of the nanotechnology conference, the EuroNanoForum, that’s taking place in Dublin in June.

Running from 18-20 June at the Convention Centre in Dublin, the EuroNanoForum will zero in on the latest nanotechnology developments and their applications in key sectors, such as health, energy and the environment.

Jesus Isoird, who manages research and innovation programmes at the Spanish energy and infrastructure group Acciona, will be speaking during the Environment session about the scope for nanomaterials in achieving more energy-efficient buildings.

Isoird said he will be covering the actions that are being carried out as part of a private-public partnership for research on the theme of energy-efficient buildings in the EU.

The European Commission has directed €500m to the four-year research programme, with nanotechnology one of the fields that is being covered. This programme is due to finish up in 2013, but Isoird said the aim is to develop a continuation programme.

Nanotechnology and construction sector

Secondly, he said he will present some of the projects that have been funded in the field of nanotechnology and the challenges that researchers are trying to solve, particularly in the area of construction.

“The building sector accounts for 40pc of energy consumption and two-thirds of CO2 emissions,” explained Isoird. “We would say that it is one of the major priorities in order to reach the 2020 emission targets.”

These targets, known as the ’20-20-20′ targets, include three objectives: a 20pc reduction in EU greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels; raising the share of EU energy consumption produced from renewables to 20pc; and achieving a 20pc improvement in the EU’s energy efficiency.

For the building sector, Isoird said one of the biggest challenges is that the renovation rate of the current building stock is very poor – at 1.5pc.

“The main challenge for the building sector is really to push the market to develop cost-efficient solutions that can help speed up the market uptake of better and improved technologies,” he explained.

In relation to nanomaterial innovations for the building sector, Isoird spoke about giving multi-functionality to current materials.

“For example, this would involve improving the coatings of ceramics so that they can be self-cleaning or absorb CO2 emissions. Even if they are not improving the energy efficiency of a building they are giving an added value to improve the sustainability of construction products,” he said.

According to Isoird, nanotechnology has applications for different building materials, including making them lighter.

“With lighter and thinner insulation materials the construction costs could go down.”

In the same vein, he said you could also improve the working performance of materials.

“We could open a new range of materials going to the building sector, such as composite materials based on fibre-reinforced polymers.”

Scope for solar thermal systems

Another area is improving the performance of energy systems.

“In the example of heat ventilation and air conditioning systems, nanotechnology could significantly improve the performance of machines,” he said.

Turning to energy generation, such as solar photovoltaic panels or solar thermal systems, he said nanotechnology could also improve their performance in terms of energy generation and loss.

“Solar thermal energy is considered to be one of the most promising energy sources,” explained Isoird. “Due to the fact that solar radiation is a time-dependent energy source, energy accessibility and demand often do not match. Thermal energy storage plays a crucial role to take advantage of solar radiation in buildings and to minimise the thermal losses through building envelopes and windows.”

Explaining how solar thermal energy can be stored as sensible heat, latent heat, heat of reaction, or a combination of these, he said latent heat thermal energy storage via phase change materials (PCMs) is particularly attractive due to the scope to provide high-energy storage density for buildings.

One project will be focusing on the development and manufacturing of nanotechnology-based PCMs and their integration into smart insulation materials with enhanced thermal and mechanical properties.

Demonstrators and safety aspects

While some of these projects are quite advanced, Isoird said scientists are doing demonstrations at the building scale to prove how they work in the real environment.

“There are also some research actions that need to be carried out in parallel, such as how the safety aspects to the new nanomaterials can be solved. Every time we introduce new building materials for the building sector we have to consider that they should have a lifespan of 20-30 years. This means we need to test how they will perform after 30 years.”

He said that not only is research focusing on the performance of these new nanomaterials, but also on the activities related to the use of nanotechnologies for the construction sector.

In terms of Acciona, the construction company that employs 30,000 people globally is focusing on the use of nanotechnology in three fields. One area is advanced insulation systems, which covers the use of aerogels (light, transparent materials).

“We are also working on the use of nanotechnology to give an added value to surfaces, such as ceramics and glass. The third area we are working on is to improve the ability and performance of perishable construction materials,” explained Isoird.

Acciona’s nanotech research happens at its R&D centre in Madrid, where 150 people work.

Half of this team is working on energy efficiency and building-related activities, along with architects who are working on how to integrate new materials.

“The construction industry has one problem in that it is not adapting innovations very quickly,” he said. “From the beginning, we need to involve investors, designers and technology developers to make sure that the outcomes of research are really going to the market.”

Finally, Isoird said nanotechnologies will open up a new way of doing things in traditional sectors.

“There are many opportunities arising from nanotechnologies, but we cannot forget that in parallel to the research we have to continue working on how nanomaterials and nanoadditives are used in manufacturing.”

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic