Blue Frontier’s founding team is testing a prototype at Oak Ridge National Labs. From left to right: Matt Graham (VP Engineering), Daniel Betts (CEO) and Matt Tilghman (CTO).
Air conditioning has the potential to keep people cool as climate change is making the planet hotter. At the same time, conventional air conditioning technology uses a lot of energy, meaning it contributes to climate change — and will have a greater effect the more people need air conditioning to stay comfortable or even survive.
Currently, air conditioning is responsible for nearly 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to an analysis by scientists at the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, published in March. Those emissions are expected to get worse as more people install air conditioners, especially in India, China and Indonesia, according to a joint statement by the NREL and Xerox PARC.
“It’s a good thing and a bad thing,” Jason Woods, a senior research engineer at NREL and co-author of the new study, said in a statement about the study. “It’s good that more people can benefit from more comfort, but it also means that much more energy is used and CO2 emissions are increased.”
Conventional air conditioner technology uses a vapor compression cycle to cool the air. In that system, refrigerant is used to do the cooling.
Chlorofluorocarbons and chlorofluorocarbons used to be part of the most common refrigerants in air conditioners, but those chemicals are depleting the ozone layer and are gradually being phased out. There are a few dozen alternatives that don’t deplete the ozone layer, but they still have a high greenhouse effect.
In addition, a conventional air conditioner uses a lot of energy to cool the air too much 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 of those tons are used to cool the air and 599 million tons to remove the humidity, according to the research by NREL and Xerox PAR. Another 820 million tons come from the leakage of refrigerants and of greenhouse gases released during the production and transport of the air conditioners.
“We’ve already made existing, age-old technology almost as efficient as possible,” Woods said in the statement. “To get a transformational change in efficiency, we need to look at different approaches without the limitations of the existing ones.”
That is the purpose of Blue Frontier. The startup is working on technology that will make air conditioning more efficient with fewer harmful environmental byproducts, and has just scored a $20 million round led by Bill Gates investment fund, Breakthrough Energy Ventures.
It started with anthrax
Blue Frontier uses one-third to one-fifth the amount of refrigerant that would be required by a conventional system, and because the machine’s construction 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 attempts to kill mid-air anthrax, which Betts believes is a potential bioterrorism weapon. It is based on liquid desiccants, which are chemicals with a lower vapor pressure than water. When moist air is passed over that liquid desiccant, the water is drawn out, dehumidifying the air.
“Liquid desiccants are excellent antiseptics and bactericides, so the contact of anthrax with the liquid desiccant would kill it. This initial research led to innovations and discoveries that are the foundation of Blue Frontier’s technology,” Betts told CNBC. “In fact, one of the benefits of Blue Frontier air conditioning 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.
Thanks to Blue Frontier
Some refrigerant is used in the Blue Frontier system, but it is not used for cooling, it is used for the operation of the heat pump which controls the salt concentration of the desiccant.
“So the refrigerant and the refrigerant-carrying equipment never come into contact with air entering the building or the interior of the building,” Betts told CNBC. “This gives us a huge advantage in using readily available refrigerants that are highly flammable, without compromising the safety of the people in the building.”
Air conditioners that also store energy
The liquid desiccant that Blue Frontier uses can be stored in the air conditioning machine in a small plastic tank, essentially storing the cooling capacity that can be used when it is needed most. That is critical for a low-carbon grid that will increasingly rely on renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, both of which are intermittent energy sources.
“The storage also allows us to use most of our energy when renewable energy is abundant and when the grid congestion is low. We avoid the consumption of electricity during peak periods powered by plants with a peak in fossil fuels,” Betts told CNBC.
“Summer peak demand is not only a problem because it causes power cuts, increases electricity costs and produces more greenhouse gases. It is also a cause of wildfires. When everyone uses electricity for air conditioning during the hottest days of the year, the large amount of electricity flowing through the transmission and distribution lines heats them up and lowers them,” says Betts. “This increases the chances of them coming into contact with vegetation, causing wildfires.”
For VoLo Earth Ventures, another investor in the round announced Thursday, storage capacity is also a major 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 in a written statement. “Their intersection of new refrigeration technology and energy storage provides new opportunities to smooth out major midday grid peaks in cooling demand, saving money for consumers and utilities.”
The prototype for the Blue Frontier air conditioner.
Photo courtesy of Blue Frontier.
Learning from past mistakes
Before launching Blue Frontier, Betts launched another air conditioner startup, Be Power Tech, whose goal was to commercialize technology that was both an air conditioner and a power source. The startup failed and Betts discovered that it is too much to build a company on two technologies that have not yet been developed.
“I’ve made the cardinal mistake of technology startups, which is that I made two completely new technologies interdependent and merged them,” Betts told CNBC. “So doubling the risk, doubling the money needed. And so that company didn’t do very well.”
But he has learned a lot about launching a product in a market that will be adopted and used.
“The understanding was that we need to do something that doesn’t change the way people interact with the air conditioner 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 to ours.”
So that’s what Betts and his team are trying to do.
They are taking the technology, proven in prototypes tested at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and scaling it up for commercial buildings first.
Some test units will be installed in buildings in 2022, and it is expected that a new round of pre-commercial units will be installed in buildings in 2023 and then the first commercial product for commercial buildings will be available in 2025. And if all goes well, product will be on the market by 2026 or 2027, Betts told CNBC.