As the earth continues to get hotter due to climate change, air conditioning has the ability to keep people cool. As more people depend on air conditioners to keep comfortable or even survive, conventional air conditioning equipment uses a lot of energy, which means it contributes to climate change. This effect will grow as more people rely on air conditioners.
According to a study conducted by researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory of the Department of Energy and the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and published in March, air conditioning is currently to blame for close to 4% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. According to a joint release from the NREL and Xerox PARC, those emissions are anticipated to worsen as more people install air conditioners, notably in India, China, and Indonesia.
“It’s a good and a bad thing,” Co-author of the new study and senior research engineer at NREL, Jason Woods, commented on the work in a statement. “It’s good that more people can benefit from improved comfort, but it also means a lot more energy is used, and carbon emissions are increased.”
A vapor compression cycle is used in traditional air conditioning technologies to cool the air. Refrigerant is utilized in that system to provide cooling.
The most popular refrigerants in air conditioners previously were hydrochlorofluorocarbons and chlorofluorocarbons, however these substances harm the ozone layer and are being phased out. There are a few dozen alternatives that don’t deplete the ozone layer but yet have a high risk of contributing to global warming.
Additionally, a traditional air conditioner uses a lot of energy to overcool the air, which makes it less humid and more comfortable.
According to NREL and Xerox PARC study, of the 1,950 million tons of carbon dioxide released annually from the energy required to operate air conditioning, 531 million tons are used to cool the air and 599 million tons are used to remove humidity. Additional emissions of greenhouse gases and refrigerant leaks that occurred during the production and delivery of air conditioners resulted in an additional 820 million metric tons.
“We’ve already made the existing, century-old technology nearly as efficient as possible,” a statement made by Woods. “To get a transformational change in efficiency, we need to look at different approaches without the limitations of the existing one.”
That is what Blue Frontier wants to achieve. The business, whose technology seeks to increase air conditioning efficiency while producing fewer harmful environmental byproducts, just received a $20 million financing round from Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a fund managed by Bill Gates.
Anthrax sparked it all
The amount of refrigerants used by Blue Frontier is one-third to one-fifth less than what would be needed for a typical system, and because of the way the machine is built, a refrigerant with a reduced global warming potential can be used. “The combined effect is an 85% to 87% reduction in our system’s contribution to global warming,” Daniel Betts, the CEO, told CNBC.
According to Betts, the technique was actually uncovered while trying to eradicate airborne anthrax, a possible bioterrorism weapon. Its foundation is made of liquid desiccants, which are substances with less vapor pressure than water. The liquid desiccant draws water out of the humid air when it is exposed to it, which dehumidifies the environment.
“Liquid desiccants are excellent antiseptics and bactericides. So the contact of anthrax with the liquid desiccant would kill it. This initial research led to innovations and discoveries that form the basis of Blue Frontier’s technology,” Betts told CNBC. “In fact, one of the advantages of Blue Frontier air conditioning technology would be a general improvement of indoor air quality and a healthier indoor environment.”
A little amount of refrigerant is utilized in the Blue Frontier system, but it is not used for cooling; rather, it is used to power the heat pump that controls the desiccant’s salt concentration.
“Thus, the refrigerant and refrigerant carrying equipment never meets air entering the building or the interior of the building,” Betts told CNBC. “This gives us an enormous advantage to use readily available refrigerants that are mildly flammable, without putting at risk the safety of the people in the building.”
Energy-storing air conditioners
A tiny plastic tank within the air conditioner can be used to store the liquid desiccant that Blue Frontier employs, thus storing the cooling capacity to be used when it is most needed. That is crucial for a system that is transitioning to a low-carbon energy source and will be more and more reliant on intermittent renewable energy sources like wind and solar.
“The storage also allows us to consume the bulk of our energy when renewable energy is abundant and when electric grid congestion is low. We avoid consuming electricity during peak demand periods that are powered by fossil fuel peaking plants,” Betts told CNBC.
“Summer peak demand is not just a problem because it causes brown-outs, it increases the cost of electricity, and produces more greenhouse gas emissions. It is also a cause of forest fires. When everyone consumes electricity for air conditioning during the hottest days of the year, the large amount of electricity flowing through the transmission and distribution lines heats them up and makes them sag,” said Betts. “This increases the probability that they will come in contact with vegetation, causing forest fires.”
The storage capacity of Blue Frontier’s technology is a major selling point for VoLo Earth Ventures, an additional investor in the round who made their participation public on Thursday.
“Blue Frontier’s technology is a game changer for both cooling decarbonization and grid efficiency,” as stated in a written statement, Kareem Dabbagh is a co-founder of VoLo Earth Ventures. “Their intersection of novel cooling technology and energy storage enables new opportunities to flatten large afternoon grid peaks in cooling demand, saving money for consumers and utilities.”
Taking lessons from past failures
Prior to founding Blue Frontier, Betts founded Be Power Tech, an air conditioning start-up that sought to market technology that served as both an air conditioner and an energy source. Betts discovered via the failure of the venture that basing a business on two emerging technologies is excessive.
“I made the cardinal mistake of technology startups which is I put two completely new technologies dependent on each other and merged them,” Betts told CNBC. “So, double the risk, double the money required. And so that company did not do that great.”
But he gained a lot of knowledge on how to introduce a product to a market and ensure that it is used.
“The insight was that we need to do something that does not change how people interact with the air conditioner in the building,” Betts said. “To the installer, and to the builder, or to the building owner, it should just be a replacement or conventional air conditioner with ours.”
Betts and his crew are therefore attempting to accomplish that.
Scaling up the technology for use in commercial buildings is the first step after it has been verified in prototypes tested at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
The first pre-commercial product for commercial buildings will be ready in 2025, followed by the installation of some test units in buildings in 2022, another round of pre-commercial units in buildings in 2023, and finally the first commercial product for commercial buildings. And according to Betts, if everything goes according to plan, a residential product will be available by 2026 or 2027.