Next time you’re having a scoop of your favorite ice cream, enjoying a banana or even cracking open some peanuts, thank the cold chain.
What’s the cold chain, you ask? Well, it’s the system of refrigerated warehouses, trucks, shipping containers and box cars that enables temperature-sensitive products to be moved great distances without spoiling.
This modern marvel is so vast that it has been deemed the artificial cryosphere. As the Atlantic recently reported, “at least 70 percent of the food we eat each year passes through or is entirely dependent on the cold chain for its journey from farm to fork.”
The cold chain is for more than just food, too. A quarter of all healthcare products are temperature-sensitive and moved through the cold chain.
This system depends on refrigerants that have major impacts on our climate. The global warming impact of these gases, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), can be several thousand times more impactful per volume than carbon dioxide. The demand for these gases is growing rapidly, too. In fact, the U.S. EPA projects HFC emissions could increase to as much as 19 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Keeping products cold throughout the mobile portion of the cold chain -- largely trucks, trains and ships -- accounts for 7 percent of global HFC consumption [PDF]. Overall these HFCs contribute 4 percent of the total global warming impact of moving all freight, refrigerated or not. For each move that is refrigerated, HFCs contribute a significant portion to the climate footprint.
Many companies are working to develop and deploy solutions to reduce these impacts.
Carrier, a United Technologies Company, has launched a new refrigeration unit that runs on carbon dioxide. The unit is for marine container applications and can cut the climate impact of the refrigeration unit by 35 percent.
In an interview with the Living on Earth, John Mandyck, UTC’s chief sustainability officer, noted that these savings came about because the company has “been able to match the best in class energy efficiency using CO2” while also “replacing a higher global warming refrigerant.”
UTC is exploring how it can use the technology in truck trailer refrigeration applications. They have a lot of competition, too. Turns out that several companies are moving forward with creative solutions to reduce the impact of keeping products on trucks cold.
An impressive effort is underway at the Pacific Northwest National Lab (PNNL) to power truck refrigeration units by an alternative fuel: hydrogen.
According to a recent edition of the Salt, 300,000 refrigerated trucks are on the road in the U.S., each consuming about 10 gallons of diesel fuel a day. All told, this level of fuel consumption leads to 11 million metric tons of emissions from fuel each year. This is in addition to any HFC leaks or discharges from these units.
The engineers at PNNL are focusing on reducing the costs of a hydrogen cooling system. This unit costs about double a traditional unit, but is also twice as efficient. Given that it can cost upwards of $15,000 a year to fuel a refer unit, the operating savings of a more efficient unit can help develop a solid pay-back proposition.
Coca-Cola is in on the action, too. The company announced that it is launching a series of electric delivery trucks that will use electric chillers instead of the conventional diesel-powered units. According to a recent article in GreenBiz, the new electric trucks will “employ eutectic cold plate technology, which chills the air using a series of aluminum beams that circulate a refrigerant. The chiller is powered by a electric system that operates independently of the electric motor and batteries used to power the truck.”
The fuel saving from the electric refrigeration unit helped make the business case for these new fully electric trucks.
It's great news that technologies are being developed and increasingly deployed today that lessen the impact of refrigerants and reduce the amount of fuel needed to power refrigeration units. Given the scale of the climate challenge, we need more of these efforts and we need more organizations involved in ensuring these efforts succeed.
Refrigerated carriers -- be it truck, ship or rail -- need to partner with the solution developers to pilot new, innovated equipment.
Shippers of products that need to be kept cold must collaborate with their carriers to ensure they have the financial capacity to participate in pilot programs that stand to deliver financial and environmental savings across the value chain.
Retailers -- the outlet for many products that depend on the cold chain -- should work with their suppliers to inform them about the increasing availability of these solutions and create incentives that reward suppliers that adopt them.
By collaborating, we will provide the solution. Inventors and manufactures will have the opportunity and feedback they need to develop the next generation equipment to keep the artificial cryosphere humming along while also helping to keep Mother Nature’s own cryosphere intact.
This article originally appeared at EDF's Innovation Exchange.
Refrigerated warehouse image by Moises Fernandez Acosta via Shutterstock.