ASAHIKAWA, Hokkaido (Kyodo) In Bibai, Hokkaido, a block of condominiums boasts the world’s first snow-fed air conditioning system.

The snow, which cools the condos more cheaply than conventional air conditioning, is a selling point for the complex, built in 1999.

Bibai gets more snow than anywhere else in Hokkaido and the Bibai Natural Energy Study Group, comprising members of industry, scholars and the local government, is taking the initiative in using “heat-cooling energy from snow and ice” and introducing the technology to houses and public welfare facilities.

“Bibai used to prosper with coal, called black diamonds. This time, snow, called ‘white diamonds,’ is expected to play a large role in regional development,” a member of the institute said.

The Hokkaido Regional Development Bureau of the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry has meanwhile begun making about 4,000 tons of ice using cold winter air and storing it near the port of Tomakomai.

The ice will be shipped to the Tokyo area in summer, where it will be used to cool office buildings.

The project is aimed at alleviating the “heat island” phenomenon, in which urban centers, with their acres of concrete, absorb heat and push up temperatures.

The ice will be transported in containers used to ship goods to Hokkaido to reduce costs.

“In the future, we hope to turn snow and ice transportation into a business,” said the bureau official in charge of the project.

Yoshiyuki Tsuchida, a professor at Asahikawa National College of Technology in Hokkaido, is studying ways to turn temperature differences into an energy source.

The problem of using snow and ice for cooling is the large capital investment required.

However, Masayoshi Kobiyama, an assistant professor at Muroran Institute of Technology, also in Hokkaido, is optimistic the technology will spread.

“Economic improvement can be expected by effectively using snow that has been abandoned. Demand (for the technology) will grow in the future as an environmentally friendly new energy,” Kobiyama said.

Robot clears snow

The Associated Press

Enryu’s 5-meter arms are powerful enough to lift a small car, and its hands are almost as dexterous as a human’s.

And the 5-ton, 3.5-meter robot may soon be helping communities across Japan reach avalanche sites and clear snow, as the country struggles to deal with its snowiest winter in decades, said the robot’s manufacturer, Tmsuk Co.

A model tested last Thursday in Niigata Prefecture, in the heart of snow country, has two hydraulically operated arms with a reach of 5 meters, each capable of lifting 500 kg, according to company spokesman Shiro Fujita.

In the tests, Enryu successfully lifted a car from deep snow and simulated knocking ice and snow off rooftops.

Tmsuk originally developed Enryu (“rescue dragon”) to assist in earthquake rescues.

“But after all the problems regions had with snowfall this winter, we decided to test if we could adapt Enryu to handle snow-related disasters,” Fujita said.

Record amounts of snowfall this season have snarled traffic, cut off mountain villages and killed at least 102 in snow-related accidents, according to the latest government figures.

Fitted with seven cameras and mounted on a tread similar to a tank, Enryu can also be operated by remote control to reach hazardous areas, Fujita said.

The Kyushu-based company, which has enlisted the help of a university robotics research center and several local governments in developing the machine, hopes to unveil a finished version by next year.