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Are levitating air conditioners the future?

US Mission in Geneva celebrates new AC unit with cocktails.

As it turns out, the new MagLev chiller can run on the electricity generated by the building’s solar panels, so the building’s air conditioning is virtually free. Engineers expect the $2.3 million cost to be amortized in seven years, and it is likely to run much longer than conventional systems.

The decision to invest in the MagLev chiller was pretty much a no-brainer. The mission’s two compressors were wearing out and needed to be replaced at about the same time that the mission had opted for solar panels. Electricity prices were beginning to soar and the Swiss were offering incentives for going solar. It looked like a win-win situation.

The Geneva experiment could serve as a prototype for other embassies around the world. It’s also a good promotional vehicle for American technology.

Geneva is both the European headquarters for the U.N. and the home of the European Center for Nuclear Research, and it is one of the world’s most environmentally conscious cities. Recycling is an obsessive passion, and more business executives ride electric bicycles to work than any other city that I can think of. In that setting, the MagLev chiller fits right in.

William Christensen, a mechanical engineer for the U.S. State Department’s Overseas Building Office pointed out that a patent for magnetic levitation was granted in 1942, but technology was not at a point to make it practical.

“The magnetic field could only be changed 60 times a minute,” he said. “Today, it can be adjusted 60 times a second.” Christensen added that the chiller’s drive shaft is kept spinning at 40,000 revolutions per minute within a wiggle room that amounts to only 70 microns.

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