The refrigeration industry is currently in a transition period as it looks to decrease its overall environmental impact
World Refrigeration Day is held annually on June 26th to raise awareness about the importance of refrigeration technologies in everyday life. I remember the inaugural World Refrigeration Day back in 2019 quite fondly. During a team lunch, we had planned to celebrate when a new junior engineer on my team surprised us with a customized ice cream cake!
Worldwide, more than 15 million people are employed in the refrigeration sector. The sector plays an increasingly important role in our daily lives. Most people are familiar with the “ordinary” aspects of refrigeration such as the fridges in their homes/grocery stores and the air conditioning found in their homes.
But there are many components of the refrigeration industry that are much less commonly known. For example, there are refrigeration systems operating right now that take the waste heat out of raw sewage and use it in building and district heating systems. There are also systems making very large testing warehouses extremely cold for the purposes of testing outdoor vehicles and industrial equipment. Ammonia refrigeration systems are even used for cooling critical equipment on the International Space Stations, and the list could go on and on and on.
Over the coming years, as the world continues its effort to decarbonize and reduce reliance on fossil fuels, refrigeration and heat pump systems will play a very important role.
The reason I believe it is important to appreciate refrigeration ties very nicely into the theme of the World Refrigeration Day campaign this year, which is “Cooling Champions: Cool Careers for a Better World.”
I think there are several significant challenges facing our industry over the next decades and I believe a large part of the solution is to attract talented and passionate people to our ranks. The good news is the refrigeration industry is an industry full of very passionate people willing to teach.
If you read this column regularly, you have read many articles (one or two per year for the last 10 years) discussing the future of refrigerants. Many people are frustrated that this saga is still ongoing, but it’s not likely to end soon.
We are again in the middle of a transition, this time from high global warming potential (GWP) refrigerants to lower GWP refrigerants, which will take decades. As an industry, we must continue to decrease the environmental impacts of our systems and working fluids. Natural refrigerants such as CO2, ammonia, and propane are seeing a resurgence in many applications and we are soon likely to see a host of new flammable synthetic refrigerants adopted for wider spread use.
While this transition is happening, we are going to have to figure out how we continue to destroy the high GWP refrigerants. Canada has been doing a good job on this with the ODP refrigerants thanks to Refrigerant Management Canada (RMC), but we need to continue this effort and we need to have volunteers and people supporting the work. Worldwide this is a huge challenge, with countries like the US who still do not have a destruction policy.
A wise person once told me that there are only two possible places for refrigerant to end up either destroyed or in the atmosphere.
Every pound of refrigerant we produce or import that is not destroyed ends up in the atmosphere eventually.
Regulation and globalization
As is the case with most industries, the world is getting smaller in some ways but remains far apart in others. There is a lot of pressure on countries to harmonize safety and testing standards so that we can progress together and at less cost. Unfortunately, this is a lot easier said than done. I can personally attest, after over a decade involved in several safety standards, this type of work requires thousands and thousands of hours and people who are engaged within the industry.
Governments and organizations are often looking for experts and people to help guide policy. This work can be ruthlessly boring but is necessary so that rules and policies are developed to help the industry move forward and improve. This takes experts who are passionate and willing to share their voice.
Technology & applications
Technology is progressing rapidly and there will continue to be opportunities to improve everything from detailed compressors and component design to overall system design. The new refrigerants, particularly CO2, are playing a role in this but so is the drive to improve energy efficiency. Components, such as ejectors, which would have seemed “academic” to most of us 10 years ago, are now becoming much more common.
Perhaps the largest challenge and biggest opportunity is a rapid expansion of applications that may be just on the horizon. In order to decarbonize, there will be more and more applications that transition to electricity from fossil fuels. This might seem far-fetched depending on where you live in Canada, but it is already happening at some scale almost everywhere. Over the next decades, heat recovery technologies and heat pumping will likely become more common. There is also likely to be growth in non-vapour compression technologies like adsorption and absorption that can recover waste heat to provide cooling.
Maintenance and operation
The challenge of getting good technicians has been going on for my entire career. Our industry needs to figure out how to fix this problem or else we will end up losing out on opportunities. There has always been a challenging dynamic at play in training refrigeration mechanics; many apprentices have a hard time finding work but there are never enough good journeypersons. There is certainly no solution I could propose in only a couple of sentences, but rest assured we will continue to need good operators and mechanics if we are to be successful.
World Refrigeration Day is an opportunity for us to look back and appreciate that air conditioning and refrigeration have had a massive impact on society and our lives. I am immensely proud to be playing a role in this industry. But it is also an opportunity for us to look forward at the challenges and opportunities we face and realize that we need to work hard at making sure we continue to fill the industry with people who are going to carry the torch and who are passionate about making things cold — with way less impact on the environment.