Professor Kymissis's Research Group Heats Up with Grand Prize Win

May 09 2012 | By Holly Evarts

Marshall Cox and John Sarik, Columbia Engineering Ph.D. students working with Ioannis (John) Kymissis, associate professor of electrical engineering, won the grand prize in the MIT Clean Energy Prize for their design of a radiator retrofit that increases the energy efficiency of steam heating systems. Their start-up, Radiator Labs, also won the $200,000 top award for this new system and the chance to compete against five other regional teams at the White House’s Clean Energy Business Plan Competition in Washington, D.C., in June. They also won in the contest’s "Energy Efficiency" category, which carried an additional prize of $20,000.

EE Ph.D. students John Sarik, left, and Marshall Cox, with Professor Ioannis (John) Kymissis at far right.

An installed Radiator Labs system on a radiator enclosure.  The black unit includes a control system, radio, and fan.

Radiator Labs co-founder Kymissis said the team has been working on the project for almost two years, having run a small pilot last winter in a Columbia University housing apartment, with support from Columbia Technology Ventures and Facilities Residential Operations.

“We are very excited to have our work recognized in this way, and I’m really proud of the job that Marshall and John did,” said Kymissis. “This terrific win will give us the recognition and resources to really move the project forward into full manufacturing and deployment.”

Cox said he got the idea to start Radiator Labs “because I was living in an apartment that had unbelievably bad heat. It was hot and cold, hot and cold, and constantly on my mind."

He estimates that 2.2 million apartments in Manhattan waste energy worth $700 million annually and says that adopting this cost-effective technology in the millions of existing U.S. housing units with steam radiator systems has the potential to save hundreds of millions of dollars in energy costs per year and reduce carbon emissions by over six million tons, “equivalent to taking 1.25 million automobiles off the road,” said Cox. “Winning this competition enables us to help bring our technology to the marketplace so these benefits can be realized.”

The team founded Radiator Labs to boost the energy efficiency of steam-fed radiator heating systems that waste up to a third of the energy they use due to overheating. Using patent-pending technology developed in Kymissis’s Columbia Laboratory for Unconventional Electronics, the students installed low-cost, drop-in radiator enclosures that control the amount of heat transferred from the radiator to a room. 

Below is a drawing illustrating the technology.

Traditional steam heating systems treat the entire building as a single zone. While this was a relatively good solution 100 years ago when fans, pumps, and valves were not available, the lack of individual apartment-level control means that steam heating can at best heat the coldest apartment to a comfortable setpoint and then overheats the other apartment units. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) estimates that this overheating represents 15 to 30 percent of the energy used to heat a building, and is usually vented through open windows. The Radiator Labs enclosure insulates the radiators in an apartment building, adds a thermostat, and blows room air over the coils to warm the room only when necessary. Their design incorporates wireless monitoring and control capabilities, enabling better control of boiler systems to equalize temperatures across building spaces to burn fuel only when necessary and to increase thermal comfort. This also allows for centralized management of the heating setpoints and customization of the individual user interface for each apartment in the heating system.

“The technology is a surprisingly elegant solution to a long standing New York City problem,” said John Sarik. “We thank all the residents of our pilot buildings for letting us and our technology into their homes.”

With their winnings, the Radiator Labs team is now planning to run a large-scale beta test using professionally manufactured equipment in a larger New York City apartment block with more sophisticated energy use monitoring.

“The prize money is a huge boost to our efforts,” added Cox, “and now we’re looking forward to representing Columbia and the Northeast at the White House!”

The MIT Clean Energy Prize is a national student competition founded in 2008 by MIT, the U.S. Department of Energy, and NSTAR, a large utility in the Northeast, to accelerate the pace of clean energy entrepreneurship.

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