Phase change materials (PCMs) switch between phases of matter – solid to liquid and liquid to gas – as the temperature changes. As an example, wax melts into a liquid as it absorbs heat, cooling its surroundings. When the surrounding temperature cools, the wax turns back into a solid, releasing its stored heat.
Besides wax, alcohol, salt and sugar are common examples of phase changing materials. As shown in the following graphic, PCMs have had a wide variety of uses in our daily lives. Electronics, mattresses and insulated coffee mugs are three places many of us have probably seen, or at least benefitted from, PCMs in action.
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For more than a decade, building components have seemed like a promising concept for PCM technology. In construction applications, certain substances with carefully selected melting points can be used to passively store and release heat to affect the temperature in a building and regulate indoor temperatures. Research continues into materials and methods to improve upon that sustainable thermal energy process.
Looking back ten years to the construction innovation coming on the scene at the time, phase changing insulation was a captivating idea. There are even versions of PCM that are biodegradable (breaks down in the environment) and organic (plant- or animal-based), which are very attractive as sustainability gains momentum.
But the innovation ran into challenges when it came to reliable mass production, and interest in PCM insulation waned in the US. PCMs have been inefficient and pricey, because they need to be encapsulated inside a supporting structure (shell) to keep their liquid form from leaking. Then, when the pellets of PCM are embedded into a building material, they take up too much space, making scaling for production an issue.
Still, in Europe and elsewhere development, demonstration and production persevere, looking for low cost, improved PCMs for high-performance building insulation. The opportunity PCMs present for passive temperature control and increased sustainability of a building makes it compelling to research a workable solution for using them.
A 2021 article in New Atlas reported that engineers at Texas A&M have created a new PCM composite that combines paraffin wax with liquid resin as the supporting structure. The composite is a soft, paste-like material, similar to putty, that can be shaped as needed then cured with UV light to harden the resin. The resulting solid material is reportedly strong enough to build with. With PCM contained inside, the composite material can be packed densely, increasing its ability to regulate the ambient temperature. According to Texas A&M Today, it can even be added to building materials like paint, giving it utility even in building remodels.
Of added importance to the construction industry is the ease this composite can be made in bulk, solving a scalability issue. Its paste-like form also makes it usable as a 3D-printable “ink” to make building components at a lower cost than other PCMs.
Research will continue on different PCMs to expand the temperature ranges where they can be useful, making them even more serviceable in the future for moderating heating and cooling system costs.
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