13 September 2019
Indian architect turns to bees and terracotta to design innovative cooling system
Monish Siripurapu’s air cooling system may be based on the design of a beehive but the Indian innovator’s inspiration did not come while he was striding through fields of flowers.

Monish Siripurapu’s air cooling system may be based on the design of a beehive but the Indian innovator’s inspiration did not come while he was striding through fields of flowers. He was actually in a stifling hot factory in New Delhi, where he was doing some design work.

“There was a huge diesel generator in the factory that used to throw out a lot of heat. The client wanted to screen the heat because it was affecting the work and the health of employees,” said the 32-year-old architect, noting that temperatures in the factory were rising to around 50 degrees Celsius.

Siripurapu, who founded the Ant Studio design firm, came up with the idea of using the principles of evaporative cooling, an ancient technique that uses water and local materials to lower temperatures. The material he chose was terracotta because it is robust and malleable, and he was keen to avoid plastic.

“It’s a very simple innovation,” Siripurapu says. “In India and many other places, we still use traditional terracotta pots to cool water. We tried to use the same concept … just reversing the system and keeping the principles the same. When the air passes through the terracotta cones and comes out, it’s naturally cooled the same way the water stays cool in the pot.”

The cooling system passes water through earthen cones that facilitate evaporative cooling. It has been customized using advanced computational analysis and modern calibration techniques. As the team worked on their system, they realized the design of a beehive was perfect.

“If you look at a beehive’s structure, the geometry is very efficient. We decided to use concentric circles, so two surfaces—the inner and outer surfaces—are cooling as the air passes through,” Siripurapu said.

Siripurapu’s invention was one of 12 winners in the Asia-Pacific Low-Carbon Lifestyles Challenge, winning a US$10,000 grant from UN Environment. Dechen Tsering, UN Environment’s director for the Asia-Pacific region, hailed the cooling system for using zero refrigerants, such as potent hydrofluorocarbons, and a fraction of the power of regular units, saying it showed “the value of ingenuity”.

It is this kind of ingenuity and innovation that will take centre-stage at the fourth UN Environment Assembly in March. The motto for that meeting is to think beyond prevailing patterns and live within sustainable limits.

As populations and economies grow, and temperatures rise due to global warming, the need for energy-efficient, sustainable air conditioning solutions is urgent, particularly in Southeast Asia.

The building sector in India consumes about 40 per cent of generated electricity and this is expected to rise to 76 per cent by 2040. Refrigeration and air conditioning account for a major part of this. Growing demand for air conditioning in the world’s emerging economies—such as those in Southeast Asia—could spur a 64 per cent increase in household energy use and produce 23.1 million tonnes of carbon emissions by 2040.

Siripurapu is now working to create smaller versions of the system he built for the factory, so that these units can be used in cafes, railways stations, metro stations and at tourist destinations.

For now, he is focusing on outdoor cooling systems, but he is also interested in using his devices to purify air, a bonus the team discovered during development. They used to use chlorine to remove the moss that grew on the terracotta cones. But then they realized that the moss could actually clean the air by extracting carbon particles.

“In New Delhi, the air quality is really horrible. That’s something that really bothers me because I keep coughing. Now, instead of killing the moss that naturally grows on the pipes, we are amplifying the growth for outdoor installations so that it becomes a natural purifier. There is a certain kind of moss that eats all the carbon particles,” Siripurapu says. “That is something we are very excited about.”

The Indian innovator firmly believes architects can and must play a critical role in the battle against climate change and the drive towards more sustainable lifestyles.

“When it comes to design, any uninformed decision can cause ripples that can amplify climate change. I believe that’s our biggest problem. So architects have a major role to play.”

However, he admits he sometimes gets frustrated when official policies stymie innovation. For example, he notes that India’s building ratings system encourages the use of traditional air conditioning units.

“That’s a major flaw because how can an architect or designer think of proposing a non-air conditioned building to their client?” he says. “Maybe there could be a government subsidy for people who are not using air conditioning but instead are using natural ventilation and good design? Small changes like this could have a major impact.”

The priority for Ant Studio now is to transform its innovative designs into a scalable business. But Siripurapu is already dreaming even bigger.

“Why should one cool an entire volume, like a house? What if personal cooling is the future? That is the question we are trying to answer and work on in Ant Studio,” he says. “What if … with all the smart devices and everything, what if the cooling system could just cool the bubble around us, and not the entire space?”

Ahead of the United Nations Environment Assembly next March, UN Environment is urging people to Think Beyond and Live Within. Join the debate on social media using #SolveDifferent to share your stories and see what others are doing to ensure a sustainable future for our planet.

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