A team of Stanford University electrical engineers has developed a new device that could cool buildings while simultaneously generating electricity. If the prototype proves scalable, the technology could represent another possible pathway for reducing the footprint of the built environment, which accounts for almost 40 percent (PDF) of the carbon emissions of the United States alone.

Air conditioning and climate change interact in a vicious cycle: Cooling buildings thus far has relied on processes and equipment that produce significant greenhouse gas emissions — and that are projected to increase dramatically in the coming years. As the planet warms, demand for air conditioning increases, thereby driving emissions ever higher.

While the 1987 Montreal Protocol was effective in reducing emissions of chlorofluorocarbons — the inexpensive, ozone-destroying chemical refrigerants that originally underpinned air-conditioning technology — the hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) that replaced them also contribute to global warming in their own right. Indeed, HFCs’ warming effect is 2,100 times that of carbon dioxide: They are one of the so-called super pollutants.

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