Breakthrough 3D printed ‘SR2’ air con system built to tackle climate crisis

Researchers at the Australian UTS School of Architecture have partnered with construction design firm BVN Architecture to develop a unique robotically-3D printed air conditioning unit. 

Believed to be the first of its kind, the team’s Systems Reef 2 or ‘SR2’ air-diffusion system is composed of a series of printed tubes with customized pores, which slot together into an air filtration network. As opposed to existing ducts, the designers’ system is made from recycled plastic, thus if it were to be installed into existing buildings they say it could reduce the amount of embodied carbon used by 90%.   

“At BVN we are mindful that electrical, plumbing and mechanical systems inside buildings contribute up to 33% of the total carbon cost of a typical office building,” said Ninotschka Titchkosky, Co-CEO of BVN Architecture. “98% of all [Australian] buildings have this structure, therefore if we are to address climate change, we need to adapt and reinvent our existing buildings to ensure they remain relevant.” 

“If we are to be serious about reducing the carbon impact of building design, we have to also rethink how we deliver air in buildings. This new system, the SR2, is really about this. It’s 3D printing air.”

Construction-led climate change

Even though the pandemic led to a 6.3% fall in global emissions last year, the world remains on track to achieve a thermal rise of 3.2°C by the end of the century. The construction industry, in turn, is one of the worst offenders in this area, contributing around 40% of the world’s carbon emissions each year, thus finding more efficient ways of erecting buildings could become vital to tackling climate change. 

Within office premises, air conditioning systems are responsible for a third of all embodied carbon used, potentially making them a particularly pertinent case of construction waste. As many such metal duct networks are generic and not designed for channeling air, they’re also limited in geometric complexity thus they ultimately suffer from low efficiency, both in their construction and daily operation. 

“As a society we are facing significant challenges and we can’t afford to continue building in the same way we do now,” elaborated Tim Schork, an Associate Professor at UTS. “What is required is a fundamental rethink and radical transformation of our current practices. We need to develop new approaches to design, materials and construction.”

“As a society we are facing significant challenges and we can’t afford to continue building in the same way we do now.”

The UTS and BVN team assembling SR2.
Composed of a series of polymeric tubes, SR2 can be fully-recycled at the end of its life. Photo via UTS.

Attaining sustainable air filtration 

To shake-up the design of air conditioning units, which has largely remained the same over the last 50 years, the researchers have now turned to robotic 3D printing. Using an arm-mounted printer, the team have been able to strategically place thousands of tiny tailor-made pores along their systems’ tubes, resulting in an overall design that’s capable of emitting air more evenly across office spaces. 

“Air doesn’t move in right-angles, so it’s not logical to design an air distribution system with square corners,” explains Schork. “Rather than dumping air at routine intervals across a floor plan, [our] design distributes the air evenly, meaning that there is a more consistent air temperature and flow and nobody needs to sit under a cold draught.”

Developed via extensive 3D modelling, the engineers’ SR2 design also features distinct organically-inspired curves that actively encourage air flow, while the flexibility of their novel production process has allowed them to shrink the area, weight and length of their system, limiting the expenditure, materials and operational energy required to build it. 

The 3D printed Systems Reef 2 air filtration system installed at BVN Architecture's Sydney studio.
The 3D printed SR2 air filtration system has been installed at BVN Architecture’s Sydney studio. Photo via UTS.

In order to put their design into practise, the team identified a 100m2 area of ducting and diffusers at BVN’s Sydney studio that could benefit from an upgrade, and replaced it with their SR2 system. Based on summary projections, the researchers believe that rolling-out their filtration network across BVN’s 2000m2 facility could yield a 76% reduction in traditional ductwork, and a 1 megaton fall in embodied CO2.

Following their initial success, the engineers now believe that their approach has the potential to unlock new research areas which envision further ways of redesigning buildings through construction services, particularly in their native Australia where they say the industry has one of the highest levels of waste of all OECD countries. 

“The project has not only moved the boundaries of what is possible in architecture using computation, robotics, large-scale 3D printing and low-embodied energy materials,” concluded Schork, “it has also opened an entirely new research direction by envisioning new ways of designing and making new building services.”

3D printing eco-friendly buildings 

Construction 3D printing technologies are increasingly threatening to shake-up the industry’s established processes, particularly when it comes to sustainability and material efficiency. Similarly to the team from UTS and BVT, engineers at Microlight3D are working on a novel microstructured 3D printing material, which could lead to the future construction of ‘self-cooling’ buildings.

BigRep, meanwhile, has partnered with BASF’s additive manufacturing arm Forward AM to launch a Concrete Formwork material, which is designed to 3D print complex supports for precast concrete. When used alongside BigRep’s STUDIO G2 3D printer, the firms believe that their polymer could enable the construction of complex architecture, or be used to restore old buildings at a fraction of the current cost. 

In a more experimental approach, researchers at the Polytechnic University of Valencia have developed a 3D printed alternative to reinforced concrete beams. Made from recycled plastic, the team’s patented beams can be assembled to support buildings like lego bricks, while weighing 80% less than current structures. 

The nominations for the 2021 3D Printing Industry Awards are now open. Who do you think should make the shortlists for this year’s show? Have your say now. 

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Featured image shows the 3D printed Systems Reef 2 air filtration system installed at BVN Architecture’s Sydney studio. Photo via UTS.