Improving efficiency, phasing out hydrofluorocarbon, and enabling food supply.

BASF coolpure fridge

It is an interesting, if not challenging, time to be in the refrigeration manufacturing business.

Companies have long been under pressure to improve refrigerator performance and reliability, while also finding innovative ways to reduce energy consumption, its heavy costs and its carbon footprint.

That pressure is no lighter today.

To the contrary, these same manufacturers must address efficiency while also wrestling with a significant industry disruption: the EPA-mandated phase out of hydrofluorocarbon (HFC). HFC is a refrigerant and a blowing agent that is found in spray foam insulation, the most widely used insulation in refrigeration. As effective as HFC-laden foam is in improving the insulation of refrigeration units, these chemicals have high global warming potential (GWP).

To position this challenge differently: Manufacturers are having to rethink the very insulation material that, up until now, has been responsible for their success in meeting and even exceeding energy-efficiency requirements set by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Adding to the complexity of the HFC phase out is the importance of finding an effective alternative. Not mere throwaway ingredients, blowing agents are responsible for 70% of foam's insulating value, and heavily influence the properties of the finished foam.

It is no small change, but it's one that positions refrigeration manufacturers in the right direction for an even higher calling: facilitating food supply in an increasingly urbanized world.

Refrigeration as a solution for food waste

If you read the headlines coming out of the Global Cold Chain Summit in December 2015, you'll remember the rallying cry to reduce global food waste by expanding the cold chain industry.

The position is simple: If we want to address food waste on a global scale, refrigeration needs to be a central part of that conversation.

According to the UN Committee on World Food Security, 33% of all food produced around the world is either lost or wasted—23% of which is easily prevented with refrigeration.

"Refrigeration is the best technology to ensure food safety..."

The call for cold chain expansion is especially relevant in developing countries, where the industry is profoundly undersized. Take Ethiopia, for example, where there is enough refrigeration in the cold chain for 2 liters per person. Compare that number to the United States, which, according to the International Institute of Refrigeration, boasts 344 liters of cold chain refrigeration per person.

John Mandyck, chief sustainability officer at United Technologies Corp. summarized it this way at the Global Cold Chain Summit: “We know there are many reasons why food is lost or wasted, but among them is the lack of or the underdevelopment of the cold chain… Refrigeration is the best technology to ensure food safety for perishable goods and to prolong its shelf life."

The cold chain is invaluable for preserving food, life-saving vaccines, drugs for clinical trials and sensitive chemicals. Expanding the cold chain industry would also go a long way to reduce a significant portion of the 3.6 gigatons of CO2 produced from food waste every year[i].

This mandate represents some very important work, and the refrigeration industry's goal to address food supply, while also working to improve on its own sustainability issues, makes it that much more meaningful.

Breakthrough technologies

Although the logistic and financial dance of phasing out HFCs is complicated, people like Tim Shrewsburg, Appliance Segment Manager at BASF, is optimistic about new, more sustainable insulation technologies in refrigeration.

He says, “Companies have started to offer polyurethane foam formulations that are free of HFCs in addition to having zero-ozone-depletion potential and ultra-low global warming potential and manufacturers are experimenting with their available options.”

So far, hydrofluoroolefin (HFO) has been the most promising substitute, described as having the greatest potential to meet environmental and consumer needs. HFO is non-flammable (or mildly flammable, depending on the formulation), has ultra-low GWP, and, in some cases, serves as a near drop-in replacement for HFCs.

"The future of refrigeration, and of the cold chain in particular, is an exciting one."

Although it may take years to implement into the entire cold chain, adoption of HFOs is already underway. Big brands in the international cold chain industry have been public about starting to replace HFCs with HFOs, and several companies have already installed their first HFO chiller in supermarkets.

HFO is by no means the only material being implemented. Companies are also experimenting with propane and/or CO2 as natural refrigerants, which have considerable environmental benefits in terms of reducing HFC usage completely.

The future of refrigeration, and of the cold chain in particular, is an exciting one. There is a long way to go, but the industry is setting itself in the right direction, recognizing the importance and inclusion of two definitions of sustainability: reducing food waste and reducing chemical-related GHG emissions.

As the cold chain masters the transition from of HFCs to better alternatives, the cold chain shifts from its position as a threat to climate change—and consequently to the food supply it aims to preserve—and moves forward as a true, multidimensional solution for the sustenance of developing countries and of the growing, urbanizing, global population.

The BASF concept fridge coolpure 1.0
The concept fridge coolpure 1.0 demonstrates the diverse possibilities of innovative polyurethane materials in terms of functionality and design.


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