Blue Frontier founding team testing a prototype at Oak Ridge National Laboratories. Left to Right: Matt Graham (Vice President of Engineering), Daniel Bates (CEO) and Matt Tilghman (CTO).
Air conditioning has the potential to keep people cool as climate change continues to make the planet hotter. At the same time, conventional air conditioning technology uses a lot of energy, which means it contributes to climate change – and it will have an even greater impact as more people need air conditioners to stay comfortable or even to survive.
Currently, air conditioning is responsible for nearly 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to an analysis by scientists from the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center released in March. These emissions are expected to get worse as more people install air conditioners, especially in India, China and Indonesia, according to a joint statement by NREL and Xerox PARC.
“It’s both good and bad,” said Jason Woods, chief research engineer at NREL and co-author of the new study, in a statement about the research. “It’s good for more people to benefit from improved comfort, but it also means more energy use and increased carbon emissions.”
Conventional air conditioning technology uses a vapor compression cycle to cool the air. In this system, refrigerant is used to do the cooling.
CFCs and HCFCs were part of the most common refrigerants in air conditioners, but these chemicals deplete the ozone layer and are gradually being phased out. There are a few dozen alternatives that don’t harm the ozone layer, but still have a high GWP.
In addition, a lot of energy is used in a conventional air conditioner to excessively cool the air to make it less humid and more comfortable.
Of the 1,950 million tons of carbon dioxide released each year from the energy used to power air conditioning, 531 million tons are for cooling the air and 599 million tons for dehumidification, according to NREL and Xerox PARC research. An additional 820 million tons come from leakage of refrigerants and greenhouse gases emitted during the manufacture and transportation of HVAC units.
“We have already made current technology nearly a century old as efficient as possible,” Woods said in the statement. “For a transformative change in efficiency, we need to consider different approaches without the limitations of the current approach.”
This is the goal of Blue Frontier. The startup is working on technology that makes air conditioning more efficient with fewer environmental byproducts, and just raised $20 million led by Bill Gates’ investment fund, Breakthrough Energy Ventures.
It started with anthrax
The Blue Frontier uses one-third to one-fifth of the amount of refrigerant that would be required for a conventional system, and because the machine’s construction is different from a conventional air conditioner, it can use a refrigerant with low GWP. “The combined effect is an 85% to 87% decrease in our system’s contribution to global warming,” CEO Daniel Bates told CNBC.
This technology was actually discovered as part of efforts to kill airborne anthrax, which is a potential bioterrorism weapon, according to Bates. It is based on liquid desiccants, which are chemicals with a lower vapor pressure level than water. When moist air is passed over this desiccant liquid, the water is drawn out, removing moisture from the air.
“Liquid desiccants are excellent disinfectants and germicides. So contacting anthrax with a liquid desiccant will kill it,” Bates told CNBC. “This initial research led to innovations and discoveries that form the basis of Blue Frontier technology.” “In fact, one of the advantages of Blue Frontier air conditioning technology is an overall improvement in indoor air quality and a healthier indoor environment.”
The Blue Frontier system is being tested at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Courtesy Blue Frontier
Some refrigerants are used in the Blue Frontier system but are not used for refrigeration, they are used to operate the heat pump that regulates the salt concentration in the dryer.
“Consequently, the refrigerant and refrigerant carrying equipment never meet with the air entering the building or inside the building,” Bates told CNBC. “This gives us the tremendous advantage of using readily available and moderately flammable refrigerants, without jeopardizing the safety of people in the building.”
Air conditioners that store energy too
The liquid desiccant used by Blue Frontier can be stored inside the air conditioning machine in a small plastic tank, essentially storing the cooling capacity for use when it is most needed. This is critical to a decarbonization grid that will increasingly rely on renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, both of which are an intermittent source of energy.
“Storage also allows us to consume the bulk of our energy when renewable energy is plentiful and when electrical grid congestion is low,” Bates told CNBC. “We avoid electricity consumption during periods of peak demand powered by peak fossil fuel plants.”
“Peak demand in summer is not only a problem because it causes power outages, it increases the cost of electricity and produces more greenhouse gas emissions. It is also a cause of wildfires. When everyone consumes electricity for air conditioning during the hot days of the year, the large amount of electricity Flowing through transmission and distribution lines heats them up and makes them deteriorate.” This increases the possibility of it coming into contact with plants, causing wildfires.
For VoLo Earth Ventures, another investor in the round announced Thursday, storage capacity is also a major reason why the Blue Frontier solution is attractive.
“Blue Frontier technology is a game-changer for both decarbonization cooling and grid efficiency,” Karim Dabbagh, co-founder of VoLo Earth Ventures, said in a written statement. “Their intersection of new cooling technology and energy storage offers new opportunities to level the large afternoon grid peaks in cooling demand, saving money for consumers and utilities.”
Blue Frontier air conditioner prototype.
Photo courtesy of Blue Frontier.
Learning from past mistakes
Prior to launching the Blue Frontier, Betts launched a new air conditioner company, Be Power Tech, which aimed to commercialize the technology that was an air conditioner and energy source. The startup failed, and Bates learned that building a company on two yet-to-be-developed technologies was overkill.
“I made a fundamental mistake with tech startups, which is to put two completely new technologies that build on each other and merge them,” Bates told CNBC. “So, double the risk, double the money needed. And so that company didn’t do that great thing.”
But he learned a lot about launching a product in a market that will be adopted and used.
“The idea was that we needed to do something that didn’t change how people interact with the air conditioner in the building,” Bates said. “For the installer, the builder, or the building owner, it should just be an alternative or conventional air conditioner with ours.”
That’s what Bates and his team are trying to do.
They’re taking the technology, proven in prototypes tested at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and scaling it up to commercial buildings first.
Some test units will be installed in buildings in 2022, another round of pre-commercial units is expected to be introduced to buildings in 2023, and then the first commercial product for commercial buildings will be available in 2025. If all goes well, it is expected that The first commercial product for commercial buildings will be made available in 2025. Bates told CNBC that the product will be on the market by 2026 or 2027.