Engineers discover how to cool buildings without electricity — inspired by beehive architecture

A close-up of a beehive; a rendering of a home that utilizes terracotta walls to cool its interior

As cities across the globe face record-high temperatures this summer, most of us are desperate to do anything for a little reprieve from the heat. Unfortunately, while potentially life-saving, cranking the air conditioning increases energy use (and raises your electricity bill, too). 

Plus, having access to air conditioning is a privilege in itself. 

For these reasons, architects and engineers have long been looking for ways to cool buildings without the use of electricity or chemicals. 

A rendering of a residential home design with natural cooling feautres by CoolAnt
Photo courtesy of CoolAnt

So Indian architect Monish Siripurapu founded his company, CoolAnt, which utilizes design elements inspired by nature itself to cool buildings without electricity.

“Cooling is a necessity now, and the least we should try and do is not to let this necessity warm our planet,” Siripurapu writes on the CoolAnt website.

In India alone, studies estimate that the building sector is responsible for about 40% of the country’s total energy used each year, with figures expected to rise to 76% by 2040. 

As the demand for air conditioning systems rises, experts like Siripurapu know that unless buildings are made more intentionally, the strain of this demand will lead to major resource and energy shortages.

“The need of the hour is not just to mitigate future changes to our climate, but to work together to adapt and to plan for the changes to come,” the website continues. 

So, how has CoolAnt adapted?

A group of Indian schoolchildren stand outside of a building with CoolAnt walls, smiling and waving
CoolAnt walls are installed in a school in India. Photo courtesy of Aparna Vaish/CoolAnt

By using biomimicry seen in beehives and trees, CoolAnt has created walls made of several tiny pieces that use a combination of physics and material properties to help cool the building down. 

In these walls, CoolAnt uses terracotta tubes that are reminiscent of the hexagonal cells seen in a beehive, or clay “AeroLeaf” tiles that are inspired by evapotranspiration in leaves. 

“Traditionally, we used to have earthen pots for cooling water. We’re using the same system and technology for cooling air,” Siripurapu explained in a video for the UN Environment Programme

“We are pouring the water on top of these tubes and letting the air pass through these terra cotta pots, and the air that comes out is naturally cooled.”

A rendering of a building's interior, cooled by terracotta tiles
A rendering of a commercial building utilizing CoolAnt's technology. Photo courtesy of CoolAnt

As the water in these tubes or tiles evaporates, it creates a cooling effect for the air in its environment — reducing the heat in a home or building — all without ozone-depleting or carbon-intensive chemicals like refrigerants. 

Evaporative cooling like this has actually been utilized for centuries, in ancient civilizations which, of course, had no access to electric air conditioning systems. 

“Traditional architecture has so much wisdom, knowledge, and methods that are really simple for solving simple problems like air conditioning and cooling,” Siripurapu said in the UN video.

Terracotta tubes
Photo courtesy of CoolAnt

Romans and Egyptians used to use wet, earthen materials to cool air, using porous jars or hanging wet materials on the doors of houses and tents. 

Of course, CoolAnt’s tactics are much more modernized and also aim to incorporate a much more natural and inviting visual design compared to the industrial aesthetic of standardized air conditioning systems.

So far, CoolAnt has installed some of its projects across India. One such installation has cooled down classrooms for the education NGO Vidya & Child, while another helped keep over half a million people cool at an international science festival

A close-up of the AeroLeaf wall installed by CoolAnt at a military hall in Jaipur
AeroLeaf tiles installed by CoolAnt at the Jaipur Army Cantonment. Photo courtesy of CoolAnt

These systems are even already in use for government buildings, like the Army Cantonment in Jaipur, India, and in some private residences.

Other installations for commercial buildings are also being planned and implemented, including one in the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel International Airport.

Additionally, CoolAnt hopes to create public art features, which will purify air in the environment around them. Showcases of CoolAnt’s work can be found in places like the Science Museum of London, and the company was recently featured on Shark Tank India for its innovations.

Workers install a CoolAnt cooling system in the Vallabhhai Patel International Airport
Workers assemble the CoolAnt installation in the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel International Airport. Photo courtesy of CoolAnt

And these cooling systems are not just beneficial to the environment; they have provided jobs for local artisans who craft pottery using natural materials for cooling walls and installations. A recent public restroom project — Twin Toilets — was even made of “waste terracotta,” from construction debris or broken pots from the local potters’ village.

The terracotta materials are also conducive to adding greenery to a space, and growing moss and biofilm even helps to improve air quality in the spaces where these walls or installations are assembled. 

Plus, CoolAnt offers all of its research on natural cooling solutions as OpenSource materials, so architects and engineers around the world can implement similar solutions.

“This is what we want to stand for,” Siripurapu told the UN. “To combine art, nature, and technology into design and make products accessible to everybody.”

Header images courtesy of Pixabay and CoolAnt

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