In the Lab

Cool Energy Solution

California's energy crisis is breeding a number of energy-efficient technologies to help reduce power shortages. One product of the pressure to find energy solutions is a new air conditioning system, developed by an Arizona research firm.

Walter Albers, president of Albers Air Conditioning Corp., said the basic air conditioning unit can cut electrical use by more than 60 percent. The unit saves approximately 40 percent of source energy after including natural gas and propane, and reduction can exceed 70 percent with the solar energy option.

"Instead of using compounds that can harm the environment, we use plain water and a form of salt water, made with lithium bromide, to chill the air and remove the humidity," said Albers. The unit's dehumidifier, coupled with the liquid desiccant, a substance used as a drying agent, eliminates the need for Chlorofluorocarbons and compressors. The unit does not use hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) or other compounds harmful to the atmosphere.

The limited electrical use of the unit, along with direct thermal use, can reduce infrastructure construction costs by 70 percent, as compared to compressor-based machines. The unit will also switch automatically from heating to cooling to maintain a constant indoor temperature.

"Special controls enable the unit to control indoor humidity automatically," said Albers. "In humid weather, such as found during our monsoon season or in wet climates, this feature greatly reduces the quantity of mold and mildew that may be found inside homes and offices."

In addition, the unit brings filtered air into the home or office and can remove more than 90 percent of molds, bacteria, pollens and dust, according to an independent testing laboratory, Winton Environmental Laboratories. Outside air passes through alternating channels of the dehumidifier and liquid desiccant sprays, becoming colder without adding humidity. The unit also has an optional heating mode, in which a coil is connected to the boiler and fitted ahead of the saturator.

Engineers began to develop the air conditioning unit in 1998. Since then, the air conditioner has been independently tested. Now the firm is seeking entrepreneurial partnerships to produce and market the system.

Manufacturers have worked to develop air conditioners with environmental designs in mind since the 1970s, when HCFCs and R-22 (Freon) were found to be destructive to the environment. A Freon cap was instituted in 1996, and production has since decreased significantly.

Recent gains in energy efficiency have expanded to many areas, including new home refrigerators, which use one third of the electricity they used in the early 1970s and compact fluorescent lights, which use about 25 percent of the energy used by incandescent bulbs. Still, according to recent surveys, the most important factors influencing consumers' decisions in purchasing energy-consuming products are the price and durability of the product. Many consumers may not have the motivation to purchase energy-efficient products, except in the face of rising energy costs.

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EPA's New Most Wanted List: Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals

Scientists are trying to pinpoint the causes of animal deformities that have been reported in recent years. Possible factors include ultraviolet radiation, climate change and chemicals called endocrine disrupters, which can cause animal disfigurements and interfere with reproduction. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is working in conjunction with Battelle to develop tests and screens for identifying chemicals that can affect and debilitate the endocrine systems of humans and animals. The tests will be used to screen chemicals new to the market and to analyze chemicals already in use, as concerns arise.

The endocrine system, the collection of glands that secretes hormones, plays a major role in using food and regulating growth and the reproductive process. Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) can behave in a number of ways to cause hormones to act abnormally. Some chemicals can mimic natural hormones, causing the body to overreact to them, and others may block the effects of a hormone. Still others may stimulate or inhibit the production of hormones.

Studies of endocrine disruption are limited by the need for a fuller understanding of natural hormones. Scientists are uncertain about the effects of patterns of exposure to chemicals and which chemicals may be involved in disruption. However, there is growing indication that certain health problems are linked to EDCs. In wildlife, these effects include the thinning of bird eggshells and various reproductive organ deformities.

Amphibians are especially good indicators of significant environmental changes. Since they breathe partly through their skin, which is exposed to everything in the environment, they are more susceptible to disease, pollution, toxic chemicals, ultraviolet radiation and habitat destruction. Worldwide occurrences of amphibian deformities and declines could be a warning that some ecosystems are out of balance. Missing limbs, multiple limbs and facial abnormalities are the main developmental malformations observed in amphibians. Malformations are documented in 44 states, in 38 species of frogs, 19 species of toads and with some estimates of deformities as high as 60 percent in some local populations. Scientists now agree that current numbers of malformation reports are considerably greater than the normal statistical variation.

The first regulatory response from the U.S. Congress to the endocrine issue came in 1996, when EPA was required to develop a program to test endocrine disruption for chemicals and pesticides in water and foods. This led to the formation of the Endocrine Disrupter Screening and Testing Advisory Committee.

EPA is currently tackling the EDC issue with direction from Congress, through changes to the Food Quality Protection Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. EPA has already banned a number of pesticides in the United States that have more persistently created environmental concerns, such as DDT, chlordane, aldrin/dieldrin and endrin. By revising its testing guidelines, EPA scientists will be able to better identify hormone-disrupting chemicals.

Battelle is providing technical support to the EPA Endocrine Disrupter Screening Program under a contract with EPA's Office of Science Coordination and Policy. Battelle's research activities include the Marine Sciences Laboratory, which directs ecotoxicological testing in Sequim, Wash. and project management, statistics and quality assurance activities in Columbus, Ohio.

After conducting research on chemicals and endocrine systems, scientists will sort through questionable chemicals and develop systems to test them. Subcontractors will help with the confirmation of tests after procedural development is complete. EPA hopes to validate screens and tests and to prioritize chemicals by 2005.

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This article originally appeared in the August 2001 issue of Environmental Protection, Vol. 12, No. 8, p. 8.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2001 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

Jeff Wilson is managing editor of Environmental Protection.

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