The Future of Mechanical Refrigeration

December 8, 2023

How New Technologies Are Changing the Industry

Since the 18th century, when Scottish professor William Cullen demonstrated the cooling effect of rapid liquid evaporation in 1748, the concept of mechanical refrigeration has been evolving. It wasn’t until the 19th century that practical mechanical refrigeration systems emerged, revolutionizing food preservation and various industries.

Initial mechanical refrigerator design

Today, in the 21st century, the refrigeration industry faces another significant transformation driven by the urgent need to reduce its environmental impact. Traditional refrigerants, primarily hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), are potent greenhouse gasses that contribute to climate change. This growing concern has led to a surge in demand for natural refrigerants like CO2, ammonia, and propane, offering more environmentally friendly alternatives.

“Even though Natural Refrigerants have been used in the cold storage industry for decades, they are becoming more prevalent in the cold chain as they offer a sustainable and environmentally responsible solution to meet the growing demand for efficient and eco-friendly refrigeration technologies. “

Gary White, BCS Vice President of Engineering

What are Natural Refrigerants?

Natural refrigerants are substances that occur naturally in the environment and have a low global warming potential (GWP). They are also less likely to leak into the atmosphere than Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). As a result, natural refrigerants are considered to be a more sustainable option for refrigeration.

Benefits of Natural Refrigerants

Natural refrigerants offer a range of advantages over traditional refrigerants, making them a compelling choice for sustainable refrigeration solutions. Their low GWP minimizes their impact on climate change, contributing to a more environmentally conscious approach to refrigeration.

Moreover, natural refrigerants can be more energy-efficient than HFCs, leading to lower operating costs and reduced energy consumption. Additionally, certain natural refrigerants, such as CO2, exhibit lower flammability compared to HFCs, enhancing safety during handling and operation. The adoption of natural refrigerants represents a significant step towards a more sustainable and environmentally friendly future for refrigeration technologies.

“In the face of a growing global population and increasing food demands, natural refrigerants remain an essential tool for preserving our food resources and ensuring a sustainable food future.”

Gary White, BCS Vice President of Engineering

Sustainability

Sustainability is a major focus of the refrigeration industry. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is phasing out the use of HFCs. As a result, there is a growing demand for natural refrigerants.

Natural refrigerants, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), ammonia (NH3), and propane (C3H8), offer a promising alternative for refrigeration systems, promising reduced environmental impact and enhanced sustainability.

CO2, a ubiquitous natural refrigerant, has gained traction in various refrigeration applications, including supermarkets, cold storage facilities, and beverage coolers. Its low global warming potential, combined with its excellent thermodynamic properties, makes it a compelling choice for sustainable refrigeration.

Ammonia, another natural refrigerant, has a long history in industrial refrigeration, particularly in large-scale applications like food processing plants and ice rinks. Ammonia’s robust thermodynamic performance and inherent safety features make it a viable solution for these demanding applications.

“Ammonia has been the refrigerant of choice since the early 1800’s. The first mechanical refrigeration system using ammonia was developed and patented in 1834. Ammonia has been in use at the BCS facilities keeping our freezers and coolers cold since 1946.”

Gary White, BCS Vice President of Engineering

Propane, a hydrocarbon refrigerant, is gaining prominence in residential and commercial refrigeration systems, particularly in small appliances and vending machines. In addition to being cheap, in good supply and occurring naturally, propane has excellent thermodynamic properties as a refrigerant and can be used in a wide variety of appliances.

The transition towards natural refrigerants is not without its challenges. Replacing existing HFC-based systems with natural refrigerant alternatives, requires specialized equipment and expertise. Additionally, safety considerations, particularly for ammonia, necessitate proper training and handling procedures.

US Dropping Freon

The United States is one of the first countries to phase out the use of HFCs. The EPA’s phasedown plan will require manufacturers to reduce their production of HFCs by 85% by 2036.

In 2020, the United States Congress enacted the American Innovation and Manufacturing (AIM) Act, which includes a comprehensive plan to phase down HFC production and consumption by 85% by 2036. This ambitious goal aligns with the     Kigal Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement signed by 197 countries in Sept of 1987 aimed at reducing HFC emissions worldwide.

Variable Frequency Drives

Variable frequency drives (VFDs) have become a game-changer in the refrigeration industry, offering a revolutionary approach to energy efficiency and performance optimization. 

Unlike traditional fixed-speed equipment, VFDs along with a Refrigeration Control System can intelligently adjust the equipment speed to match the precise cooling requirements of the system.

By varying the motor speed, the compressor can precisely control the refrigerant load, ensuring that the cooling capacity aligns with the actual cooling demand. This eliminates the need for inefficient cycling on and off, a common practice with fixed-speed equipment that leads to energy waste and reduced system lifespan.

Refrigeration Control Systems

In the dynamic world of refrigeration, Refrigeration Control Systems (RCS) have emerged as indispensable tools, transforming the way users manage and maintain their cooling and freezing equipment.

These sophisticated systems provide real-time visibility into the performance of refrigeration systems, enabling users to proactively identify potential problems and prevent costly downtime.

A RCS encompasses a network of sensors, data collectors, and communication devices strategically installed throughout the refrigeration system. These sensors continuously gather critical data on various system parameters, including temperature, pressure, power consumption, and refrigerant levels.

The collected data is then transmitted to a central hub or cloud-based platform, providing users with remote access to a comprehensive overview of their system’s health and performance.

In response to the escalating demand for natural refrigerants, the phased-out use of HFCs in the United States, and the use of cutting-edge technologies such as Variable Frequency Drives, and Refrigeration Controls Systems, the refrigeration industry is unmistakably steering towards a future marked by environmental responsibility and heightened efficiency. These strides not only signify a pivotal reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a fortified commitment to environmental preservation but also promise substantial cost savings for businesses through enhanced energy efficiency.

As the global shift toward a low-carbon economy gains momentum, Bellingham Cold Storage stands as a vanguard in this transformative journey, actively mitigating its environmental footprint and contributing to a sustainable future. The confluence of these advancements underscores a collective industry commitment to fostering environmentally conscious practices, thereby ensuring a more resilient and sustainable tomorrow.

For further details, explore our Ammonia blog, or our Freezing Services & Ice Sales webpage.