Zhang wins Humboldt Research Award

Penn State researcher to use award resources to explore new cooling technology


UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Qiming Zhang, distinguished professor of electrical engineering, has been named the recipient of a 2019 Humboldt Research Award. Zhang will use the resources provided by the award to develop a new cooling method known as high-efficiency solid-state electrocaloric (EC) cooling. 

The award, presented by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation to 100 researchers world-wide, is “granted in recognition of a researcher's entire achievements to date to academics whose fundamental discoveries, new theories or insights have had a significant impact on their own discipline and who are expected to continue producing cutting-edge achievements in the future,” according to the foundation’s website.

Award winners are invited to collaborate on a research project with colleagues at research institutes in Germany. This opportunity for collaboration is the most exciting aspect for Zhang, who hopes to work with other experts in EC cooling from around the world.

Zhang and his colleagues recognize that refrigeration, air-conditioning and cooling overall, including electronics (data centers), are responsible for 25 percent of total electricity use in the United States, but the systems currently in place are supported by the vapor-cycle refrigeration, a 19th century technology. This outdated technology leads to escaped refrigerants and high energy use.

“The refrigerants in the compression-based cooling systems that are currently used in refrigerators, air conditioners, that sort of thing, are one of the leading causes of climate change, according to Drawdown,” explained Zhang. “If we could replace these compression-based systems with solid-state electrocaloric systems, we could dramatically reduce climate change.”

Zhang hopes to replace vapor-cycle refrigeration with a system based on a new class of ferroelectrics that can generate a large temperature change when connecting to wall power supplies. This new system of EC cooling is more than 25 percent more efficient than vapor-cycle systems, is compressor-free, can be scaled to any size and has zero greenhouse gas emission. 

“I am looking forward to the day when these systems replace the 19th century technology,” said Zhang. “I am optimistic that working with my colleagues in Germany through the Humboldt Research Award will bring that day closer.”


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Sarah Small


Qiming Zhang

Qiming Zhang

“If we could replace these compression-based systems with solid-state electrocaloric systems, we could dramatically reduce climate change.”



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