College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Mechanical engineering student makes discovery in ductwork

When it comes to creating more energy efficient ventilation systems, one Iowa State student’s research is paving the way for major advancements in the industry.

Anthony Fontanini
Anthony Fontanini

Anthony Fontanini, graduate student in mechanical engineering (ME), is working on several projects that show how simply changing materials can conserve energy by nearly 25 percent in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.  He says replacing standard sheet-metal ducts with fabric ducts could be another great way to promote “green” building, and help reduce the carbon footprint of building even further.

Fontanini began his education at the University of Wisconsin Platteville, where he ran track and received his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.  After graduation, he decided to explore his interest in thermo fluid heat transfer at Iowa State.

While the computational experimental complex fluids program was a big draw for Fontanini, it helped that attending Iowa State was fully supported by his father, a CoE alumnus who graduated in 1972.

Fontanini met ME associate professor Michael Olsen shortly after arriving on campus. Olsen was looking for a student with hands-on experience in HVAC and an interest in computational science. An ideal candidate, Fontanini was able to get started with a research project right away.

Working closely with co-advisors Olsen and ME assistant professor Baskar Ganapathysubramanian, he created models and ran experiments that analyzed the thermal comparison between standard ceiling diffusers and fabric ductwork diffusers.

The photo on the left represents the dispersal of heat in a room over a period of thirty seconds using conventional ductwork. The photo on the right illustrates the more even and timely dispersal of heat using fabric ductwork in a room of the same size and over the same period of time.

“We found that with fabric ducts, the temperature contours are much more uniform across a room,” he explains.  “Fabric ducts contain less parts, are lighter in weight, easier to transport than standard ducts, and allow a room to heat up faster.”

According to Fontanini, these results have always been assumed among the science and engineering communities; however, it is difficult for new products such as fabric ducts to break into the market.

“With this research we aren’t necessarily trying to prove that fabric ducting is the best. We are trying to change the way engineers and scientists view energy analysis,” he says. “It’s difficult to get research funding for younger technologies.  We’re attempting to develop tools that the entire industry can use for research, design, and analysis, which could open up opportunities to explore other new technologies.”

While Fontanini’s original experiment looked at energy efficiency at the residential level, he is now working to apply his findings to large retail stores or indoor training facilities, where HVAC systems are always running.

In addition to his graduate research, Fontanini recently returned from a six-month internship at the Fraunhoufer Center for Sustainable Energy.  Originally recruited to work on a project with a ductwork system using aerogel-based material (a very low conductive material that insulates well), he was able to contribute much more to the center by developing a thermo lab, automating different processes, and working with software.

“The internship gave me a great general perspective,” Fontanini explains. “I now better understand how industry and the Department of Energy intermix, how new products are developed, where funding comes from, and how projects are started.”

On track to graduate in 2014, Fontanini will continue his research at Iowa State, but that doesn’t stop him from thinking about the future. “My goal is to work for a national lab. My top choices would be the National Renewable Energy Laboratory or Oak Ridge National Lab,” he says, adding that he hopes his experiences so far will allow him to pursue those options.

“I have developed many different skills and provided work that the entire industry could find useful,” says Fontanini. “But the most rewarding part in all this research has been the potential to change the way people think and challenge the way things are done.”