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TheRockies.Life Staff

Is Fish Skin the Surprising Secret to Energy-Efficient Buildings?

A new ‘fish skin’ system reduced energy consumption of buildings by 30 percent

As a northern country, Canada has a problem few are talking about. No, it’s not that we all live in igloos.

It’s that the building we live in give off a lot of emissions to keep them warm and cool. 

Did you know that building emissions from heating, cooling, and lighting account for almost a fifth of Canada’s carbon pollution? 

If we are going to stop the increasing climate chaos, we need a solution fast.

Toronto-native Raphael Kay, who is a PhD candidate at Harvard University, may have found a remarkable solution: fish skin

Head and shoulders portrait of Raphael Kay
Raphael Kay, a PhD candidate at the Aizenberg Biomineralization and Biometric Lab at Harvard University | Research Gate

Lining the walls of your house with fish skin might thrill your cat, but it won’t do much to combat building emissions. 

Thankfully, that’s not what Kay is proposing. He claims buildings can learn from fish and control temperature using their skin. 

“The hypothesis with our research is that buildings are not actually that different from biological organisms. And biological organisms control their climate mostly at their skin. And so the research output in our case is actually buildings with veins,” Kay told CBC News’ What On Earth host Laura Lynch.

For example, fish such as tilapia can collect and disperse pigment granules in their skin. This allows tilapia to change their colour and shading. Krill, transparent shrimp-like organisms, use a similar method to darken themselves when it’s too bright outside and get lighter when the sun goes down. 

Kay and his research team came up with an optofluidic system to mimic this process in buildings. Optofluidic is just a fancy word for research that uses light to control the flow of fluids.

According to Kay, buildings also have a skin made up of walls and windows. But unlike tilapia or krill, a building’s skin is static and unchanging, which makes it hard to control the amount of light and heat coming in. 

As a result, heating, cooling, and lighting systems have to work harder, using more energy and pumping out more emissions. Sure, you could open or close your blinds, but Kay claims you miss out on the full benefits by doing so. Not to mention, getting up constantly to open and close blinds is a pain in the ass.

“…you need such a system to be automated and optimized to balance a whole range of factors in real-time, from changes in temperature, solar intensity, angle and direction to the changing needs of the building’s occupants,” explained Kay in the University of Toronto’s Defy Gravity Campaign

Some solutions, like roller blinds or electro-chromatic windows, change their darkness automatically, but these are too expensive and limited, according to Kay. 

An optofluidic system is low-cost and would allow a building to change its exterior appearance to save energy. 

Kay’s research team made a prototype consisting of a millimetre-thick layer of mineral oil sandwiched between two transparent plastic sheets. Researchers can inject a small amount of water containing a pigment or dye using a tube connected to the middle of the plastic sheet sandwich.

This pigment creates a bloom of colour that can be controlled using a pump. Adding more water makes the bloom bigger while removing it makes it smaller. Put simply, researchers can control how light or dark the water is and its colour. The system is also incredibly precise, allowing for some cool artistic possibilities.

For example, researchers simulated images of Albert Einstein and Marilyn Monroe using the system. More importantly, Kay’s team found that their prototype reduced the energy required for heating, cooling, and lighting by as much as 30 percent compared to roller blinds and electro-chromatic windows.

“…we have much finer control over the extent and timing of solar shading. Our system is similar to opening and closing hundreds of tiny blinds at different locations and times across a surface. We can achieve all this with simple, scalable and inexpensive fluid flow,” said Kay. 

Kay’s optofluidic system, inspired by fish skin, sounds complicated, but its purpose is simple. Reduce the energy use and emissions of buildings at a low cost. 

But it will be a while before the system reaches the market. Kay plans to test his system in university buildings in the next year or two. 

“We’re not using toxic materials. We’re not using rare earth metals. It’s inexpensive, it’s sustainable, and it’s scalable,” expressed Kay. 

Only time will tell whether or not Kay’s idea will succeed or go belly up like too many salmon killed by warming rivers and oceans. 

At the very least, Kay’s system proves that Canadians can learn from the natural world around us and with a bit of ingenuity, we can find innovative ways to solve our problems.

And no, Kay’s fish skin system won’t work in igloos. 

Watch the YouTube video see and optofluidic system in action.

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