This Solar Chimney Can Save Lives and the Environment

There are plenty of reasons to switch over to green technology. It can help the environment, but it can also save money, and in some cases, lives. This is precisely the case with a new solar chimney developed by scientists in Melbourne, Australia.

Most people think solar chimneys are just a great way to save energy. Researchers working on a collaboration between RMIT University and the City of Kingston, however, found a new use for them. They developed a world first: a solar chimney that considers both energy savings and fire safety.

The team behind this chimney was designing a new sustainable building in Melbourne. In a public space like this, designers also have to take safety into account, given the building’s high occupancy. As they started to optimize the chimney for cooling the building, they realized it could serve a dual purpose.

With a traditional system, occupants would have roughly two minutes to evacuate if there was a fire. The redesigned solar chimney extends that number to more than 14 minutes.

How Solar Chimneys Work

This particular solar chimney may deal with smoke, but most don’t, despite their name. What does a solar chimney do, then? They’re simple, green structures that enhance the effects of natural heating and cooling.

Heating systems alone can account for 42% of your utility bill, not to mention their effect on the environment. Solar chimneys offset these concerns by taking advantage of the sun. They don’t use any electricity, relying on the concept of how hot air rises instead.

Solar chimneys consist of a glass wall next to a wall that’s painted black to absorb the most heat from sunlight. There are also vents at the bottom and top that change the airflow depending on their orientation.

When the sun shines, it warms up the air inside the chimney, causing it to rise. With both vents open, the hot air escapes out the top, sucking cooler air inside, which increases ventilation. To warm a building instead, you just have to close the vents, and the heated air will stay inside.

Potential for Fire Safety

Solar chimneys do a great job of cutting heating and cooling costs. They can reduce energy bills by up to 50%, saving money and lowering your carbon footprint. As this Australian team of scientists found, they’re also an excellent safety resource.

You can probably see how this design would be ideal for fire safety, too. Fires tend to create a lot of hot air, most notably in the form of smoke. With an optimized design, you could use a solar chimney to suck smoke out of a building and release it outside.

This process wouldn’t take care of the fire itself, but it gives occupants more time to evacuate. In an emergency, quick responses are critical to minimizing damage, and in a fire, that means escaping. With less smoke, you can see more and breathe easier, enabling a faster evacuation.

In some cases, smoke may present a more severe threat than the fire itself. You may be able to steer clear of the flames, but smoke is harder to avoid and can cause carbon monoxide poisoning. Reducing the amount of smoke in a building is critical for survival, both by helping evacuations and avoiding suffocation.

This instance isn’t the first time scientists have noted solar chimneys’ potential for fire safety. A 2018 study demonstrated their value in ventilation, finding that smoke exhaust and natural purification showed similar behavior. Despite these findings, this design is the first time researchers have optimized a solar chimney for both ventilation and fire safety.

The Best of Both Worlds

The answer to many problems lies in nature. By taking advantage of air’s natural qualities, you can find a cheaper, greener way of maintaining a building’s temperature. As it turns out, this same design provides a natural solution to increasing safety, as well.

Turning to sustainable solutions often does more than just help the environment. Benefits like those seen in this solar chimney model may be crucial in driving the push to sustainable design. If a temperature regulating system can prevent suffocation, who knows what else going green can do?