It can't be denied that alternative refrigerants are here to stay. With the power of industry behind their increased research and development, the (in my opinion) unfortunate fact of government regulatory pressure, and support from key selling points related to cost and efficiency — alternative refrigerants are growing. And, although refrigeration contractors were under-represented at the meeting (which may soon change, I've been told), more than one presenter at ATMOsphere America extended due credit to the importance and high competence of refrigeration technicians. — Terry McIver

The second annual ATMOsphere America conference on natural refrigerants, June 17-19, in Washington DC brought together almost 200 refrigeration industry experts from around the world, to discuss ideas, opinions, and findings related to the incorporation of natural refrigerants in North American refrigeration systems.

More than 40 speakers made presentations related to the efficacy of natural refrigerants — primarily carbon dioxide (CO2) and ammonia (NH3) — and market trends related to their expanded use across the continent. The event surpassed last year’s inaugural U.S. event, said Marc Chasserot, managing director for shecco, the presenters of ATMOsphere.

“We had more end users, senior executives from industry and regulators attending and speaking,” Chasserot said. “The fact that we had key decision makers from over 100 North American based organizations is a sign that things are changing. Participants clearly stated that there is a momentum behind natural refrigerants. The business case for natural refrigerants is growing day by day in North America and that the market penetration across a variety of applications is going to grow very fast over the next two to five years.”

'The business case for natural refrigerants is growing
day by day in North America.' — Marc Chasserot

The following highlights are excerpts from a summary report provided by shecco.

In opening remarks, Nina Masson of shecco spoke of the current numbers of HFC-free light-commercial applications and CO2 supermarkets in North America, which she said are two of the most likely sectors to experience market growth in the coming years. Presenting a global comparison of stores using cascade and transcritical CO2refrigeration systems, Masson showed that, following Japan, Canada is now the country with the second-highest number of CO2 transcritical stores outside of Europe. The U.S. is ranked as the second non-European country, after Australia, in terms of the combined number of cascade and secondary systems.

In both areas, Europe seems set to assume market leadership for the years to come; however, Japan, the U.S. and China could catch up quickly. Masson concluded that while current numbers of HFC-free installations in the U.S. and Canada fall short of expectations, especially when compared to the global adoption rate of hydrocarbon technology, North America has the potential to transform the entire industry by showing clear leadership, both on the suppliers side and also through committed end-users driving the issue.

Offerings from Hillphoenix, Heatcraft, Carnot

Scott Martin, director of sustainable technologies for Hillphoenix, provided an overview of all available solutions for the North American market currently offered by the company:

  • pump CO2 secondary systems resulting in more than a 50% reduction in HFC use
  • cascade CO2 systems avoiding 60 to 75% of HFC use
  • HFC-free booster systems.

Martin reported that since 2006, Hillphoenix has installed up to 100 secondary, 30 cascade, and 20 booster systems in North America. Most of the the CO2-only systems were installed  in Canada, using the company’s Advansor’s booster system. See A Closer Look at CO2.

According to Masood Ali, manager of the Center of Excellence for Alternative Systems at Heatcraft Worldwide Refrigeration, even in the hottest regions, including Florida, CO2 transcritical systems are calculated to be only 5% less energy efficient than centralized conventional systems. In the climatic conditions of Edmonton, Québec, Boston and Toledo, they would clearly outperform traditional solutions, he said.

Marc-André Lesmerises, PE, CEO of Carnot Refrigeration of Quebec, described the company’s path to increased product development since 2007. “Today, there are an estimated 83 R-744 (CO2) transcritical systems running in Canada, and the first ones are being installed in the U.S.,” Lesmerises said. He added that R744 applications are entering other markets such as distribution centers and ice skating rinks. According to Lesmerises, about 80% of all ice rinks in Québec will be soon be retrofitted with CO2 systems.

CO2 + NH3 = Success

Can carbon dioxide and ammonia work together?  Apparently so, according to Mark Tomooka of Mayekawa USA, who described Mayekawa's NH3/CO2 solution for the supermarket industry, in which the ammonia charge is kept below 250 pounds. It was installed in a SuperValu store in Carpenteria, CA in 2012, in what was described as the first “all natural” supermarket in the U.S.

Tomooka said the Carpenteria project proved a low-charge ammonia system can be competitive with other systems. This store is seeing efficiency gains of 13 to 30%.

Ali said until remaining carbon dioxide transcritical energy deficit is entirely resolved through new developments, ammonia and carbon dioxide cascade soutions could represent the best option in all ambient temperatures, to save approximately 30% of energy.

Ali said there are signs the market for natural refrigerants is maturing. Those signs include the availability of appropriate standards — such as the Underwriters’ Laboratories (UL) approval for CO2 transcritical compressors and a pending update to ASHRAE Standard 15, which will include CO2 transcritical options.

Other Supermarket Stories

A panel of supermarket executives discussed the progress of natural refrigerants in North American supermarkets. Among those was Rod Peterson, representing Sobeys, which has 45 stores operating on CO2, and expects 20 more to be up and running in 2013.

Additionally, Hannaford Bros., of the  Delhaize Group, finished a CO2 transcritical project in July 2013 in Maine. Whole Foods was planning to open a store on the east coast soon, however that has been delayed by Hurricane Sandy.

Peterson admitted that CO2 transcritical technology costs more initially (about 11% more), but the benefits include greater cooling capacity and a more efficient heat reject process to heat the store, thereby reducing gas consumption. He said the increased complexity of a CO2 transcritical system allows for better temperature control. Also, said Peterson, there is over time a cumulative savings on materials used, such as copper piping, lower refrigerant costs, maintenance cost, and the cost of electricity.

Technicians Can Handle The Change

Some have questioned the ability of refrigeration technicians who have long used man-made refrigerants to pick up the CO2 ball and run with it. Not justified, said Harrison Horning of Delhaize. “Not enough credit is given to service technicians, who are entirely capable of coping with another type of refrigeration system such as CO2. A small amount of training is essential, in understanding how to handle high pressures, but the vast majority will have no trouble with a CO2 system. It’s really just another refrigeration system that requires of its uniqueness and some safety considerations.”

“Installation contractors are embracing it, and want to be involved,” said Rod Peterson, who was complimentary of the refrigeration teams that he has worked with. “The price of the technology is coming down, and the systems are working better in warmer climates, without an energy penalty,” he said.

Ammonia Works Best, He Says

Ammonia is the best refrigerant, said supermarket panelist Gerard Von Dohlen of Port Newark Refrigerated Warehouse, which has the largest storehouse of apple juice concentrate in the U.S. But it’s very expensive to use, due to strict regulations that result in high labor costs.

“In New Jersey, the government has all but banned the use of ammonia by requiring a 24-hour-a-day operating engineer to be on hand, which costs approximately $600,000 per year.”

Van Dohlen explained that with average store leak rates of about 30% per year, R22 systems are economically not feasible, especially at a current price of $23/pound. He said air conditioning systems using ammonia chillers in a typical centrifugal chiller are the wave of the future, and can reduce operating charges from 20,000 pounds to 2,000 pounds.

“If you design the ammonia system right, operate it right and manage it safely, it’s a good refrigerant,” Van Dohlen said.

Technology case studies were presented by representatives from:

  • EcoThermics Corp.
  • Carel
  • Hillphoenix
  • Carnot Refrigeration
  • Country Maid
  • Tecumseh Products Company
  • Embraco
  • HUAYI Compressors of Barcelona
  • Baltimore Aircoil Company
  • Cimco
  • Danfoss
  • Star Refrigeration
  • Exel Consulting Group
  • Bissifield Manufacturing Company

Regulatory Issues Discussed

During the conference, Robert Wilkins, vice president, public affairs for Danfoss, moderated a panel on refrigerant regulatory issues and standards. Panelists included representatives from the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Underwriters Laboratories (UL), U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

“On a global stage, with the recent announcement that the United States and China have committed to work together and with other countries to use the expertise and institutions of the Montreal Protocol, we’re possibly on the verge of an unprecedented agreement to phase down the consumption and production of HFCs,” said Wilkins in his introductory remarks.

Jim Hower, industrial refrigeration sales manager for Danfoss, and Benoit Rodier of CIMCO Refrigeration presented a technology case study at the conference. Their presentation showcased how the successful installation of an ammonia/CO2 refrigeration system at Canadawide, one of Canada’s largest distributors of fruits and vegetables, is reducing the company’s costs, and addressed how the solution is scalable for mainstream deployment.

Reaching a critical balance of reliable and consistent temperature control, energy savings, environmental responsibility and equipment and lifecycle cost dictated the future of warehousing at Canadawide and the company’s ability to deliver freshness. The ammonia/CO2 system has saved Canadawide nearly 20% in maintenance costs, first costs and operating costs, with the most significant reductions in operating costs.

“The maxim in our industry is that no single refrigerant is suitable for all applications, but natural refrigerants can be used in many applications,” Wilkins said. “However, this does not ensure sustainability. Energy efficiency, affordability, safety and product maturity is a long journey.”

“But, in order for industry to move forward, there are several critical factors that need to be addressed and aligned: investment cost, lifecycle cost, complexity, risk awareness, market readiness, technical ability, environmental consciousness, and standards and legislation.”

Find the full ATMOsphere Conference report here.