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4 Emerging Innovations for Sustainable Refrigeration

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March 8, 2023

The restaurant, grocery, and healthcare industries wouldn’t be able to function without refrigerators and air conditioning. We’ve come a long way from 19th century practices of ice harvesting and storage. But as we all know, modern assets are costly, both for an operations budget and, more importantly, the environment. Are there ways in which we can better control or prevent the damage done by today’s high-tech refrigeration systems? Can we do so while keeping operating costs low? The answer to both questions is a definitive yes. 

In recent years, refrigeration technology has become far more advanced than the Freon-powered clunkers of the 1960s. Businesses can significantly increase both their energy efficiency and sustainability by implementing new technologies when it comes to managing, maintaining, and retiring refrigeration systems. In this blog, we’ll examine a few of the most promising, environmentally conscious refrigeration technologies on the horizon – as well as key considerations for maintaining EPA compliance with traditional, compressor-based systems. 

Sustainable Refrigeration Technologies

It’s important to consider prioritizing sustainable refrigeration because it can help reduce energy consumption, decrease the risk of global warming, and potentially save lives due to food spoilage.

In facilities management, there are many emerging technologies that could help reduce the environmental impact of cooling and heating systems, including heat pumps, ammonia-based technology, CO₂ (carbon dioxide) absorption units, nanofluids for thermal management applications such as in chiller plants or HVAC systems, and more.

In this piece, we’ll be highlighting four technologies in particular— CO2 refrigerant, thermoelectric cooling, magnetic refrigeration, and refrigerant tracking technology or RTT.

CO2 Refrigerant

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a natural refrigerant that’s actually been in use since the 1800s. Popular in the early days of refrigeration, CO2 was largely phased out by the 20th century due to concerns around the high-pressure environment required for its function and the toxicity of ammonia, which was used in conjunction. However, it has recently reemerged as a top candidate for sustainable refrigeration now that other technological improvements have made these factors less of a problem. 

Carbon dioxide is an excellent choice when looking for sustainable alternatives to HFCs in commercial applications. An abundant, naturally occurring substance, carbon dioxide is one of the most attractive refrigerant options from an environmental standpoint: Its Global Warming Potential (GWP) is only 1, whereas HCFC-22 has a GWP of 1,760. It is non-toxic, non-flammable, and non-ozone-depleting. 

It also offers cleanliness benefits over HFCs in applications where oils, fats and other contaminants are present due to the CO₂’s resistance to water. Additionally, CO₂ is more expensive than HFCs, but it has lower leakage rates which means that you incur less refrigerant replacement costs over time.

There are several commercial CO2 refrigeration systems available today. Zero Zone, for instance, offers a ColdLoop™ Refrigeration System that puts CO2 to work in conjunction with standard HFC refrigerants. This minimizes the possibility of refrigerant leaking by as much as 20% when compared to traditional refrigeration systems, making the system easier to maintain and far more sustainable for grocers and retailers. 

Thermoelectric Cooling

Thermoelectric cooling is one of a handful sustainable solutions that can be used to replace the use of CFCs and HCFCs as refrigerants in commercial units.

Thermoelectric cooling is the process by which heat is transferred from one dissimilar metal to another – the result of the Peltier effect – when an electric current is passed between them. Also known as “solid state cooling,” a thermoelectric cooling system consists of a semiconductor based bi-metal junction, a heat sink, and DC power. One side will have heat while the other side has less heat, thus generating electricity from those differences. These units are far more energy efficient than traditional, compressor-based refrigerators: They operate silently, with no moving parts, liquids, or chemical refrigerants. 

An example of sustainable refrigeration is the IBM-Samsung microprocessor cooling system. This consists of a Photonic Cooling Platform (PCP) that can disperse heat away with lasers to be transferred onto another medium. With this, it only uses water and does not require any additional power or chemicals which makes it sustainable for the environment; thus making it more efficient compared to traditional compressor systems.

However: Thermoelectric coolers require more electricity to operate than traditional refrigeration systems and have a limit to the total heat flux (i.e. change in temperature) that they are able to generate per unit area. Most thermoelectric coolers can produce a maximum temperature difference of 70 degrees Celsius between hot and cold sides, and these types of coolers are limited by their environment – if the external climate is very warm, the cooler will become less efficient.

Currently, thermoelectric coolers are primarily sold to consumers in the form of compact wine chilling systems and portable camping coolers due to their limited capacity. Innovators such as North Carolina-based Phononic, however, are now working to scale the technology to create full-size, full-capacity refrigeration systems using powerful, 50-millimeter semiconductor chips. Phononic secured a deal with Pepsi Bottling earlier this year to use its solid-state refrigerators in supermarkets across the USA, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see more of these efficient, environmentally-friendly cooling systems popping up in major retail spaces in the coming years. 

Magnetic Refrigeration

Magnetic refrigeration is a technology that uses the magnetocaloric effect for cooling. In this process, heat from within or around an object is removed by electromagnetic coils which forms a kind of magnetocaloric effect. However, there are still technical limitations regarding temperature and power requirements for specific applications as well as achievable cooling capacities that have yet to be resolved before its widespread use can take place in the future.

However, magnetic refrigeration is sustainable since it has low power consumption, does not have any material degradation over time and can be used in high-temperature conditions. It also uses water as a working fluid which makes the process sustainable for the environment at large compared to other less sustainable technologies like traditional compressor systems that use harmful CFCs and HCFCs.

Magnetic refrigeration systems have the potential to reduce energy usage by up to 30 percent, according to CIBSE Journal; similar to thermoelectric systems, they require no refrigerant. These systems are already in use in many laboratory settings, but their main limitation has to do with the relatively small temperature difference that can be achieved during the manipulation of the magnetic field. 

Refrigerant Tracking Technology

A typical supermarket refrigeration system has an annual leakage rate of nearly 25 percent: a significant amount, considering both the costs to replace leaked refrigerant and the potential fines for failing to do so in a timely manner. In addition, a 25 percent leakage rate spread across the tens of thousands of grocery stores in the US translates into approximately 206 million pounds of damaging chemicals released into the atmosphere each year. 

Refrigerant Tracking Technology (RTT) can provide information to users on how much impact their refrigerant consumption has on the environment. It is an independent service which tracks hazardous substances used by individuals and organizations through a web interface. 

RTT also promotes a sustainable environment by tracking the hazardous substances in refrigerants and making this information open for public use. This can be used to generate awareness and help companies lessen their impact on the environment and prevent damage to the ozone layer from harmful leaked refrigerants.

Built into the Service Automation platform, Refrigerant Tracking Manager streamlines and automates the scheduling of refrigerator maintenance, repairs, and follow-up verification based on leak thresholds specified by the EPA. This has resulted in up to a 45 percent reduction in leakage rates for customers who have implemented the technology. In addition, businesses who wish to receive the EPA’s GreenChill certification can more easily do so with the system’s advanced reporting capabilities, which automatically submits the necessary data to the EPA.

Refrigerant tracking technology is here, and there’s no reason not to adopt: By keeping tabs on refrigerator performance, preparing in advance for repairs and scheduled maintenance, and accessing high-quality data on consumption, businesses can significantly reduce costs associated with chilling systems while simultaneously contributing to a healthier planet. 

Why Does Sustainable Refrigeration Matter to Your Facility?

Refrigerant leaks are not only detrimental to the business’ financial bottom line – they’re also unnecessarily harmful to the environment: On average, leaks cost a supermarket about 1,000 pounds of refrigerant per year. Depending on the type, a pound of refrigerant can range in price from around $6 to over $100 – multiplied by 1,000, refrigerant replacement costs add up quickly. 

With new, sustainable refrigeration technologies on the rise, businesses should consider making the switch to non-compressor-based systems whenever possible. While these new systems may be more expensive up-front, they can ultimately save businesses thousands of dollars by reducing compliance risk – not to mention the costs to replace leaked refrigerant charge. Furthermore, making the switch will allow brands to reinforce their commitment to ‘going green’ (with the option to become GreenChill certified), helping them build a reputation for sustainability, accountability, and environmental responsibility.

Discover how ServiceChannel’s Refrigerant Tracking Manager can help your refrigeration system be more sustainable, energy-efficient, and safe.

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