Alyssa Dennis

In major urban areas, architects are focused on building design features and products that can combat the issue of too much heat. Now, scientists are exploring liquid filled tiles that might be a future solution to cooling buildings, reducing the urban heat islands.

Sunlight is the power source for nearly all life on Earth, but it can be destructive, too. When too much radiation—particularly the heat rays of the near-infrared—hits manmade structures, it can cause them to overheat, warp, and even fracture.

Nature, on the other hand, seems generally unconcerned about overheating. It turns out that many organisms have specialized circulatory systems to regulate temperature—a fact that intrigued Dr. Mark Alston and his research team at the University of Nottingham. A lot of humanity’s best “inventions” have been taken directly from nature’s playbook, so Alston wondered if he could mimic a natural mechanism to cope with sunlight in his own lab.

Although he was initially interested in the type of circulatory system found most often in mammals, Alston quickly realized that its basic mechanism—pumping heat to the extremities, where it gets discarded—isn’t best suited to most human applications. Instead, he says, “We were looking more for a recirculative system, to store energy…so we could put it back into the system.” In fact, he was quickly drawn to the way plants absorb energy from incident sunlight, stashing it as sugars in a fluid and then moving it out of the leaf so that the energy can be used for growth. If we could do something similar, he realized, we could prevent material stress and generate energy at the same time!

Leaves, of course, absorb and transport energy via fluid flowing through a complex system of veins, a system termed fluidics. “Although it sounds incredibly simple, nature is very complex, with order rules that are regulated to hierarchical scales that we have to mirror and match,” Alston says. In other words, you can’t expect things to behave the same when you scale them up or down in size; the capillary action that helps a plant pull water up its stem just won’t work if the channel is too large. But in an effort to replicate some of that complexity in synthetic materials, Alston developed an algorithm to design a network of tiny channels optimized for this kind of energy transport.

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