Blue Frontier’s founding team tested a prototype at Oak Ridge National Labs. Left to right: Matt Graham (VP of Engineering), Daniel Betts (CEO) and Matt Tillman (CTO).
Air conditioning has the potential to cool people like 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 will have a greater effect as more people need air conditioning to be comfortable or even to survive.
Air conditioning is currently responsible for approx 4% of global greenhouse gas emissionsaccording to an analysis by scientists from the Ministry of Energy National Renewable Energy Laboratory and The Xerox Research Center in Palo Alto released in March. Those emissions are expected to worsen as more people install air conditioners, particularly in India, China and Indonesia, according to a joint statement by NREL and Xerox PARC.
“It’s a good thing and a bad thing,” Jason Woods, NREL Senior Research Engineer and co-author of the new study, said in a statement about the research. “It’s good that more people can benefit from the improved comfort, but it also means a lot more energy is used and carbon emissions increase.”
Conventional air conditioner technology uses a vapor compression cycle to cool the air. In this system, the refrigerant is used for cooling.
Chlorofluorocarbons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons used to be some of the most common refrigerants in air conditioners, but these chemicals destroy the ozone layer and are being phased out. There are several dozen alternatives that do not harm the ozone layer, but still have a high global warming potential.
In addition, a lot of energy in a conventional air conditioner is used to supercool the air to make it less humid and more comfortable.
Of the 1,950 million tons of carbon dioxide emitted each year from the energy used to power air conditioning, 531 million of those tons are for cooling the air and 599 million tons are for dehumidifying, according to the NREL and Xerox PARC study. An additional 820 million tons come from leaking refrigerants and from greenhouse gases emitted during the production and transportation of air conditioning units.
“We’ve already made existing century-old technology nearly as efficient as possible,” Woods said in the statement. “To achieve transformational change in performance, we need to look at different approaches without the constraints of the existing one.”
This is the purpose of The blue border. The startup is working on technology that will make air conditioning more efficient with fewer harmful environmental byproducts, and it just won a $20 million round led by Bill Gates’ investment fund, Breakthrough Energy Ventures.
It started with anthrax
The Blue Frontier uses one-third to one-fifth the amount of refrigerant a conventional system would need, and because the machine’s design is different from that of a conventional air conditioner, it can use a refrigerant with a lower global warming potential. “The combined effect is an 85% to 87% reduction in our system’s contribution to global warming,” CEO Daniel Betts told CNBC.
The technology was actually discovered in efforts to eradicate airborne anthrax, which is a a potential bioterrorist weapon, according to Betts. It is based on liquid desiccants, which are chemicals with a lower vapor pressure level than water. When moist air passes through this liquid desiccant, the water is drawn out, drying the air.
“Liquid desiccants are excellent antiseptics and bactericides. So 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 benefits of Blue Frontier climate technology would be 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
A certain amount of refrigerant is used in the Blue Frontier system, but it is not used for cooling, but for the operation of the heat pump, which regulates the salt concentration in the desiccant.
“That way, the refrigerant and the refrigerant transfer equipment never encounters air entering the building or the interior of the building,” Betts told CNBC. “This gives us a huge advantage to use readily available refrigerants that are mildly flammable without putting the safety of people in the building at risk.”
Air conditioners that store energy too
The liquid desiccant that Blue Frontier uses can be stored inside the air conditioner in a small plastic tank, essentially storing the cooling capacity to be used when it’s most needed. This is critical for a decarbonizing grid that will be increasingly dependent on renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, which are intermittent sources of energy.
“Storage also allows us to consume most of our energy when renewable energy is abundant and when grid congestion is low. We avoid electricity consumption during peak demand periods that are fed by peak fossil fuel installations,” Betts told CNBC.
“Summer peak demand is not only a problem because it causes blackouts, increases the cost of electricity and produces more greenhouse gas emissions. It is also a cause of forest fires. When everyone uses electricity for air conditioning during the hottest days of the year, the large amount of electricity going through the transmission and distribution lines heats them up and causes them to sag,” Betts said. “This increases the likelihood that they will come into contact with vegetation, causing wildfires.”
For VoLo Earth Venturesanother investor in the round, said Thursday that storage capacity is also a key reason why Blue Frontier’s solution is attractive.
“Blue Frontier’s technology is a game-changer for both cooling decarbonization and grid efficiency.” Kareem Dabbagh, co-founder of VoLo Earth Ventures, said a written statement. “Their intersection of new cooling and energy storage technology enables new opportunities to smooth out the grid’s large afternoon peaks in cooling demand, saving money for consumers and utilities.”
The prototype of the Blue Frontier air conditioner.
Photo courtesy of Blue Frontier.
Learning from past mistakes
Before launching Blue Frontier, Betts started another air conditioning company, Be Power Tech, which aims to commercialize technology that is both an air conditioner and a power source. The startup failed, and Betts learned that building a company on two technologies that had not yet been developed was too much.
“I made the cardinal mistake of tech start-ups, which was to put two completely new technologies dependent on each other and bring them together,” Betts told CNBC. “So double the risk, double the money needed. So this company didn’t do so well.”
But he learned a lot about bringing a product to market that will be adopted and used.
“The insight was that we needed to do something that didn’t change the way people interacted with the air conditioning in the building,” Betts said. “For the installer, and for the builder, or for the building owner, it should just be a replacement or conventional air conditioner with ours.”
That’s what Betts and his team are trying to do.
They are taking technology that has been proven in prototypes tested at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and expanding it first to commercial buildings.
Some test units will be installed in buildings in 2022, and another round of pre-industrial units are expected to enter buildings in 2023, and then the first commercial product for commercial buildings will be available in 2025. And if all goes well , residential product will be on the market by 2026 or 2027, Betts told CNBC.