Literally keeping cool
By Nick Van Osdol
Air conditioning is a huge opportunity area both for climate mitigation and adaptation:
- AC is a significant electricity hog, and the refrigerants it uses are harmful to the atmosphere.
- As the world gets hotter, the world will need more air conditioning to make certain areas livable and heat waves survivable.
We tend to think of air conditioning as a convenience. If you have it, you’re thankful for it when it gets hot and humid in the summer. Some friends probably ask to spend more time at your place. But if you don’t have it, it probably has never seemed make or break, either.
In parallel, deadly heat waves have already ripped through India, Pakistan, Europe, and many other places this year. It can save lives in each case, especially in areas like India or Pakistan, where air conditioning isn’t ubiquitous nor available in many places.
[Spoiler alert] One of the most acclaimed climate books, Ministry of the Future, starts with a deadly heatwave in India that kills millions of people. What kills people isn’t just heat. It’s a combo of heat and humidity that raises wet bulb temperatures to a point where your body can’t cool itself with sweat.
The book’s opening sequence isn’t science fiction. If global temperatures rise more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, deadly heat waves will get become, well, more deadly.
Air conditioning is the most immediate adaptive technology in these scenarios. But it’s also a contributor to global warming. Air conditioning accounts for ~20% of electricity consumption in buildings globally and 10% of total electricity consumption. When summer heats strain grids, countries often ask consumers to ration electricity use. Take France this week, for instance, where the government introduced fines on stores that leave doors open while running air conditioning.
Considering the above, making AC more efficient is a paramount global focus. This week, Blue Frontier raised $20M in Series A funding for its advanced air conditioning technology, which it claims is up to 90% more efficient than traditional AC. Bill Gates’s Breakthrough Energy led the round; Gates has previously singled out air conditioning as a technology he’s pivotally interested in seeing entrepreneurs improve.
How does Blue Frontier’s technology improve on the original AC model? The company notes it achieves higher efficiency by “combining dew-point-style sensible cooling with liquid desiccant dehumidification.”
In layman’s terms? You already know what desiccants are. The silica packs you sometimes see in packaging are one example. In Blue Frontier’s system, liquid desiccants are a form of demand response – they can be ‘charged’ with air conditioning potential when electricity prices are low and / or clean and discharged to cool air when electricity is costliest or dirtiest.
Recharging happens by concentrating salt solutions and storing them as air conditioning potential. Changes in salt concentration can affect changes in humidity and air temperature. The system can run for up to 6 hours absent electricity, an improvement on traditional AC, which shuts off when there’s a brown or blackout.
I’m sure there’s more to the system technically than that – hopefully, this provides an idea. Notably, Blue Frontier’s system also uses fewer refrigerants than other systems. Refrigerants are also bad for the environment and atmosphere – they were behind the Ozone layer scare years back and have high global warming potential.
As far as the business is concerned, Blue Frontier’s tech isn’t commercially available yet. Their goal is to get prototypes into buildings this year and commercialize further. Fingers crossed, we’re keen to see this one work out well and come down the cost curve 🤞!