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Building sustainably

Dr Zhenjun Ma
Sustainable Buildings Research Centre

Working in partnership to create technologies that are sustainable and productive

Dr Zhenjun Ma takes a holistic approach to building design with a vision for a sustainable built environment that can improve living standards without costing the earth.

With like-minded colleagues at the Sustainable Buildings Research Centre (SBRC), Dr Ma is developing a suite of innovative technologies which can be used together to create a sustainable, productive and healthy built environment. Working with industry partners wherever possible ensures the practical application of his research.

Specifically, Dr Ma focuses on heating and cooling systems that incorporate advanced materials and technologies to deliver energy savings and improve thermal comfort.

“We spend most of our time indoors. Maintaining a comfortable indoor environment is essential for the wellbeing and productivity of building occupants,” he says.

His research portfolio includes desiccant cooling systems that use a material to absorb moisture from the air to control humidity and could replace other energy-intensive air conditioning systems.

Dr Ma is also developing ground source heat pumps that tap into stable temperatures below ground, dissipating or collecting heat as required, in partnership with GeoExchange Australia and international collaborators. Buildings equipped with this technology, such as the SBRC, are more resilient to seasonal temperatures and are armed against rising energy consumption. Dr Ma is supervising a number of PhD candidates who are working to optimise the system’s design and performance to ensure upfront costs are not prohibitive to the installation of a system proven to deliver big energy savings over time.

Dr Ma has also teamed up with industry on an Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) project to design integrated renewable energy and thermal control systems. Sophisticated in design but simple in principle, the system integrated with phase change materials captures and stores excess heat released by hardworking solar cells during the day for heating later at night. An operational prototype is in place on the roof of the SBRC.

Recognising that advanced technologies are not the only way to improve energy efficiency, Dr Ma’s research also involves data mining to improve the performance of large commercial buildings. Notably, in his PhD, he pulled data from a super high-rise building in Hong Kong, modelling different systems to control the building’s many heating and cooling devices and to optimise the building’s overall energy performance. His proposed control strategies were swiftly implemented.

Dr Ma is now part of a working group tasked with assessing the feasibility of reaching stringent energy efficiency targets proposed for Australia’s National Construction Code, which applies to all new buildings and could translate to huge household energy savings.

The working group (which includes the SBRC, backed by the Cooperative Research Centres for Low Carbon Living and the Australian Sustainable Building Environment Council) is modelling the energy performance of hundreds of technologies to provide recommendations on which technologies can deliver on the desired targets.