Cleantech innovation made in Switzerland: Future lab NEST explores sustainable living

Laboratories are not usually inviting spaces that encourage you to stay around. But things are different at the site of Empa, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology in Dübendorf (canton of Zurich). A building laboratory has been built here in which guests can even come to stay, thereby becoming an integral part of the research projects.

The building lab of NEST explores future living

The new building on the Empa site in Dübendorf is the size of an imposing apartment building, and several apartments could be housed on each of the four floors. “Could” is the operative word, however, since the building, occupied since mid-2016, is no ordinary residential building. NEST – its official name – actually houses laboratory units where scientists examine issues surrounding the buildings of the future. There are 15 laboratories in this unique research and innovation platform. Their joint aim is to test technologies, materials and systems under real conditions in order to develop them further.

Buildings, energy, water

The ‘Meet2Create’ laboratory, for example, was designed by the School of Engineering and Architecture at the Lucerne University of Applied Arts and Sciences. The laboratory recreates an office environment, in order to research aspects such as flexible furniture, personalisable workplace climates and building facilities designed to passive criteria in meeting rooms. In another laboratory unit, called ‘Vision Wood’, Empa and ETH Zurich scientists have established a residential module for students. Here they examine which innovative functions and applications can be fulfilled by timber as a material in a residential context. One of NEST’s partners is Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology. With its ‘Water Hub’, the institute is investigating the reuse of water, developing new concepts for obtaining nutrients and energy from waste water.

A permanent component of NEST is a platform dedicated to energy research. The aim of the ‘ehub’ (short for Energy Hub) is to improve energy management at district level. The ‘ehub’ is designed to be inclusive, intelligently bringing together all the components in NEST that generate, store, convert or release energy. “With NEST we are researching energy-efficient solutions using renewable energy sources, and developing innovative solutions for technical building facilities. These involve key technologies for a wide range of cleantech applications,” says Empa Director Gian-Luca Bona.

Inspiration for a green economy

NEST offers companies a platform to accelerate innovation processes. Here, companies meet researchers whose work is oriented towards practical uses and who promote the transfer of knowledge gained from research to the economy. Around 100 partners have become involved in the project to date and the numbers are likely to grow in future, since the laboratory units should provide space for new research projects after five to seven years in operation. This means that NEST will continually renew itself, keeping abreast of the latest issues facing building and energy research.

Scientists’ work is oriented towards applications in demand in the marketplace. In order to ensure this, one part of the laboratories is occupied. Doctoral students have moved in to ‘Vision Wood’, enabling the researchers to gain direct feedback on their investigations into the residential applications of timber. Guests are also welcomed into the ‘HiLo’ laboratory unit, where ETH Zurich is researching adaptive façades and new lightweight construction methods in a two-storey residential and workplace environment. All this will enable NEST to produce new cleantech applications that really have been devised for people.,

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