Chicago-based design firm dbHMS is finalizing a master plan with the goal of making India’s $260-million Nalanda University campus a net-zero energy user. The 370,000-sq-meter project in Rajgir, in the eastern state of Bihar, is expected to start construction by the end of 2013.

dbHMS is working with architects Vastu Shilpa Consultant of India, which won the project via the university’s international design competition.

According to the firm, the plan for the Nalanda project is to install the world’s first application of a non-experimental desiccant-assisted evaporative air-conditioning, or DEVAP, with the goal of creating a microclimate around the site.

First developed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.—working with private firms—the DEVAP system uses a liquid desiccant to absorb water from the air in order to dry it. According to NREL’s announcement of the technology: “The dry air is then passed to an indirect evaporative cooling stage, in which the incoming air is in thermal contact with a moistened surface that evaporates the water into a separate air stream. As the evaporation cools the moistened surface, it draws heat from the incoming air without adding humidity to it."

NREL states the use of a DEVAP system could reduce cooling-related energy use by “up to 81%,” and is also considered low-maintenance.

The Nalanda University campus will be powered by a combination of photovoltaic energy and biofuels—which designers are hoping to be able to develop on site. Jeffrey Boyer, group leader with dbHMS’ High Performance Studio, says the project team is hoping to "prove that biofuels could be in keeping with a philosophy of environmentally sensitive site conservation and management."

Designers expect that the system of photovoltaics and biofuels, combined with the lower energy usage of the DEVAP system, will enable the project to meet the school’s net-zero goals for energy, water and waste while also eliminating the need for costly grid-scale energy storage requirements on campus.

Boyer, with dbHMS, emphasizes that though this is the first “non-experimental” installation of a DEVAP system, it represents the best available technology.

"Desiccant systems have existed for a while, and evaporative cooling has been around longer than refrigeration," he says. "The innovation is just to combine the two together,” said Boyer. Because building codes are designed around traditional systems, he adds, "The result is the technology fell through the cracks and has just been sitting there for someone to put the two pieces together. It is actually incredibly simple in retrospect."

NREL, working with AIL Research, has previously conducted experiments with the technology in Phoenix and Houston.