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Home of the Future

Home of the Future

Students and faculty at RISD and Brown University are working together to demonstrate the capture, storage and delivery of thermally generated electricity, harnessed by means of a small-scale thermal-electric engine. Working with industry partner Viessmann Manufacturing Company, RISD and Brown researchers are currently building a small demonstration structure powered by a thermal electric system. The goal is to capture enough heat from the skin of the building to deliver electricity for a useful and conditioned interior environment – without the use of expensive photovoltaic technology.

In what’s known as the Solar Pavilion Collaborative Research Project, Assistant Professor of Architecture Jonathan Knowles has been engaged with engineer and Brown University colleague Christopher Bull and their students in a multiyear endeavor to build the demonstration model shown above as a proof of concept.

The technology driving this project, the Stirling Engine, uses solar energy as the heat source and converts temperature differentials into mechanical energy with zero emissions. “When the Stirling Engine is incorporated into a passive house—a structure with high-performance insulation, windows and an airtight building shell—we can create a comfortable space for people to live that consumes no fossil fuels,” Knowles explains.

Once the research team completes the structure in fall 2010, the project will move to Stage II, which involves testing and monitoring the engine and integrated solar thermal design on site at Roger Williams Park in Providence.

“This project is pioneering in that the application is leading the research,” Knowles points out. In fact, this mini solar test home just may hold the key to a future in which homeowners can live comfortably and fully sustainably off the grid.