If Robert Benzinger’s hunch proves correct, the answer to mitigating some of the most serious human health risks tied to climate change might be as common as the problem itself.

The Annapolis inventor and entrepreneur has patented a system and method for air conditioning that works by pumping air through a terra cotta chiminea modified to hold layers of solar salt and organic kitty litter. It’s an idea, he said, that could be scaled up for commercial, industrial, or institutional use.

“I noticed how cool the salt felt when I was filling my water treatment system,” he said. “I thought maybe salt could condition and soften air the same way it conditions water.”

inventor next to a chiminea
The decorative aspect of Robert Benzinger’s portable, salt-based air conditioner enables it to perform its function without being intrusive.(TBM / George Berkheimer)

After testing a prototype in his basement and a larger variant tied into the ductwork leading to his bedroom, Benzinger believes it can. Even better, the smaller unit draws only 100 watts of power, and neither unit needs to be vented outside or drained.

“They keep the bedroom and the basement at a constant, comfortable temperature of about 70 degrees,” he said. “Basements can tend to smell musty, but ours always smells nice now.”

The temperature isn’t adjustable, but that’s not the point of his invention.

More to the point is the fact that climate scientists attributed more than 20,000 excess deaths to last year’s European heat wave, and more than 70,000 in 2003.

Moreover, countless individuals in Europe and North America, particularly in the inner cities, now endure increasing seasonal discomfort in homes and apartments that were never designed or equipped to deal with the extreme summer heat that is now becoming routine.

“Imagine if they had access to an inexpensive, portable unit like this that can efficiently cool a 1,000 square foot area,” Benzinger said. “Their comfort and health would improve.”

Mother necessity

With a background in chemistry and engineering, Benzinger said he has always had an interest in ergonomics and in trying to make things efficient, smooth and more comfortable.

In fact, his experimentation with organic ingredients to combat the skin irritation and ingrown hairs that arose from shaving led him and his wife, Zoe, to develop a startup business called Eco-Armour in 2010.

Its products included an all-natural insect repellent spray as well as an all-in-one natural shaving foam, body wash and sanitizer.

“Both the shaving foam and the air conditioner were born of necessity,” Benzinger said. “We have geothermal air conditioning, but very little air made it back to the bedroom and I couldn’t sleep in the summer when it was so hot.”

The invention works best when an overhead fan aids with circulation, he explained. Air passing through salt exits in a narrow temperature range and simply displaces comparatively warmer or colder air that gets ventilated outside through a cracked window, maintaining a constant, comfortable temperature in the room as long as the unit continues to run. 

“I’m now able to sleep comfortably in the summer with the bedroom window cracked,” Benzinger said.

Side benefits  

Aside from its application as a cooling device, Benzinger’s air conditioner might deliver other benefits that haven’t yet been studied.

“In theory, salt kills bacteria and viruses that pass through it, so it might produce purified air in addition to a constant, comfortable temperature and humidity,” he said.

That’s encouraging, considering that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency includes airborne problems like viruses, harmful particulate matter, allergens, and asthma triggers on its list of indoor health risks tied to climate change.

An additional patented receptacle for adding essential oils also enables indoor air to be scented, or even deliver medicine to people with respiratory ailments.

Because salt softens the air by creating negative ions, it could provide other potential health benefits as well.

“Himalayan pink salt generates the most negative ions and is used in halotherapy and salt caves, which are the latest rage,” Benzinger explained. “It’s like a sauna. People say they feel like a new person after spending time in these rooms.”

Negative ions also bond with microscopic impurities in the air and remove them by bonding them to surfaces, which could potentially improve overall indoor air quality.

“The next step will be inviting the research arm of a corporation or a university to run proper scientific experiments to help with proof of concept and prove this actually works in this setting,” he said.

If the invention proves marketable, Benzinger said he would prefer to license the technology to an existing manufacturer instead of getting personally involved in manufacturing and marketing.

“They already have better economies of scale and existing customers,” he said.

With proof of concept and the right marketing strategy, Benzinger believes his invention could become a global phenomenon.

“My wife thinks the world needs this, and the timing seems right,” he said. “So many people are suffering from excessive heat and poor air quality due to climate change. Our goal is to use this to make the world a better place for them.”