Turn to Natural
Refrigerants used in cold-chain systems are under scrutiny. The present generation of synthetic refrigerants, which reduced the use of chlorofluorocarbons, has a problem: The replacement of one with the other reversed the decline in Earth’s ozone layer, but the synthetic refrigerants commonly used today, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), are potent greenhouse gases. As such, effecterra, a consultancy that works with companies using refrigeration to effectively reduce their carbon footprint and environmental impact, promotes both the use of natural refrigerants and the development and deployment of equipment that uses them.
Although progress has been made by increasing the energy efficiency of systems that continue to use synthetic refrigerants, natural refrigerants have a much lower carbon footprint. This is true despite the fact that one common natural refrigerant is carbon dioxide, according to Chris Vallis founding partner and chief strategy officer at effecterra, which has offices in Reno, Nev., and London.
In fact, the three commonly used natural refrigerants are carbon dioxide, propane and ammonia, and they actually were in use as far back as the 19th century. Chlorofluorocarbons emerged as alternative gases because each of the natural refrigerants had a drawback, Vallis points out. Of the three major natural refrigerants, carbon dioxide requires high-pressure processing in operation, propane is explosive and ammonia is toxic.
“The reason those synthetic chemicals exist is because they were designed to remove risks,” notes Vallis. “Today, with other technology — modern quality systems, standards and codes of practice — we’ve got around to making these technologies safer. We can measure leaks. We can have sensors that can tell you when there’s a leak instantly.”
So, natural refrigerants, once a cause for concern, are much safer today in the quantities used and the systems that employ them, and their prospects are better than those of synthetics, because international agreements, government regulations and, especially, companies at the end of the cold chain, including grocers, are starting to demand them as an alternative to HFCs, which have a much larger carbon footprint.
“Natural refrigerants are future-proof,” Vallis says. “They’re regulation-proof. They are more complicated and potentially more expensive and maybe less energy efficient. But to me, that’s the right place to go. The problem is, there’s no specific champion of those technologies, because nobody has [intellectual property] on a chemical compound that is natural.”