Innovation special report: Hot trends from the cold side

From environmental standards to game changing  tech, Jim Banks considers cold-side trends and changes  affecting the foodservice sector

Although the fundamental principles of refrigeration technology do not change significantly over time, there is always pressure to innovate, not least because regulatory change demands new efficiency and environmental performance standards. For consultants there is a task in balancing the impact of new regulations with the needs of clients, as well as the role of manufacturers in that tricky equation.

Refrigeration equipment using the compression of gases has changed very little in the last century. Any new refrigeration technology that might be developed would need to be rigorously evaluated and it would take years for manufacturers of cold-side equipment to bring it to market, as building up the supply chain of components would be a lengthy process, but this does not mean that innovation is a thing of the past.

What has changed is the regulatory environment. Refrigeration and freezer units in today’s commercial kitchens must adhere to increasingly strict standards, and manufacturers face a challenge to keep up. For instance, the crackdown on refrigeration gases with high global warming potential (GWP) is a pressing theme for regulators across the world.

“Traditional vapor compression refrigeration systems, which have been the dominant technology for a long time, continue to be the most widely used today,” says Phil Llewellyn FCSI, director of Project Design Consulting in New Zealand. “Recent advances in this field, including the adoption of low GWP natural refrigerants and the development of high-efficiency compressors, have ensured that this technology remains an environmentally friendly and energy-efficient option.”

“It is anticipated that well-designed, high-efficiency vapor compression refrigeration systems that utilize low GWP refrigerants will set the industry standard for the foreseeable future,” he adds.

Indeed, some consultants, including Katja Beck FCSI, senior associate at US consultancy Cini-Little International, see the biggest advances as being more aesthetic than anything else, as the principles of refrigeration are the same as ever, just with more efficient compressors.

“Manufacturers have some roll-in refrigerators without ramps that are built into the floor, almost like a walk-in cooler, and that is new to me,” she says. “And there are more units built into millwork to blend into the architecture and look less institutional. Some even have glass on three sides for a nice display. The last big technological innovation was the blast chiller, which is not new on the market and is expensive.”

The environment rules

Environmental priorities continue to drive the regulatory agenda. The result is a shift away from traditional refrigerants like hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which have both high global warming potential (GWP) and ozone depletion potential (ODP), towards natural refrigerants such as hydrocarbons, including propane and isobutane.

Similarly, refrigerants such as R290 (propane) and R600a (isobutane) have been widely adopted due to their low environmental impact and excellent thermodynamic properties. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is another natural refrigerant that is gaining popularity in larger industrial systems.

This is a response to legislation such as the European Union’s crackdown on fluorinated greenhouse gases (F-gases). In January, the EU welcomed the adoption of new F-gas and ozone-depleting substance (ODS) rules as part of the EU Green Deal. Heralded as an important step towards the bloc’s 2030 climate goals and climate neutrality by 2050, it could eliminate an additional 500m tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions by 2050 – comparable to the combined annual emissions of France and Belgium.

“From January 2025, all refrigeration must have less than 150 GWP, but now the average is 600-1000 GWP,” says Beck. “It is a significant drop, and testing and development take forever, so everyone is scrambling to meet new requirements at the start of next year. After all, the change was only announced last October.”

The EU F-gas regulation has significant implications for refrigeration equipment manufacturers and operators in the EU. “It places limits on the use of fluorinated gases and encourages the use of lower-GWP alternatives, which supports the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol,” says Glenn Campbell FCSI, founder & MD of UK-based Cohesion Consulting. “This has naturally led to a shift towards low-GWP refrigerants such as hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs), and natural refrigerants like ammonia and CO2.”

“Indeed, CO₂ is fast becoming the preferred refrigerant in medium-to-large refrigeration applications,” he adds. “With the implementation of refrigerant regulations like the Kigali amendment, the quest for alternative solutions is accelerating even further and CO₂ is recognized as the most viable and efficient solution among natural refrigerants.”

The US is also strongly pursuing regulations on sustainability, and all HFC refrigerants may very soon be banned, paving the way for a global drive towards greener technologies. For manufacturers, this means a difficult job of balancing regulatory pressures with operator needs.

“The Department of Energy (DoE) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have driven innovation to where it is today by focusing on environmental responsibility,” says Jason Hartman, director of marketing, American Panel Corporation. “From the foam used for insulation to refrigerant gases, manufacturers must meet or exceed the EPA regulations in order to futureproof equipment.”

“For the DoE, it is about reducing energy use, ensuring systems do not come on all the time, or are responsive to changes in use,” he adds. “But also, customer needs are driving that. So we have to understand customer processes and pain points. That is why touchscreens have been a big issue, as some equipment was hard to use. It is a balancing act between environmental responsibility and commercial viability.”

A global phenomenon

The US and Europe are certainly driving the cold-side regulatory agenda, but the trend is growing across the world.

“Some countries are also developing regulations focused on the entire lifecycle of refrigeration systems, from manufacturing, packaging, operation to decommissioning and recycling, aiming to minimize the environmental footprint,” explains Llewellyn.

New Zealand has imposed taxes through its Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) and has targeted the phaseout of higher GWP refrigerants. The Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol – an international agreement adopted by New Zealand and many other countries – will phase out certain gases that damage the ozone layer.

“The Montreal Protocol is thought to be one of the most successful and effective international environmental treaties,” Llewellyn says. “Declining levels of these substances in the atmosphere means the ozone layer is expected to fully recover later this century. The HFC phase-down has been a strong trigger for innovation, and it is expected that development of green technologies will continue to grow as a result of the tightening HFC refrigerant quota system.”

The regulatory changes are clearly benefiting the environment, but for some there is a need to educate regulators in the specific needs of the commercial foodservice market. One clear example is the use of blast chillers – the last real step change in cold-side technology.

“Blast chillers have a big impact in terms of making preparation a lot easier, but implementation is tricky,” says Hartman. “They are very popular in Europe but less so in the US, as people have the idea that they are complicated, so we have simplified them. Now, they need just a single button press on the touchscreen.”

“But we need to explain why blast chillers are different to walk-in refrigerators,” he continues. “They pull a lot of BTUs out of food very quickly, so need a very high-performance system, but regulators don’t understand that. They need to know how commercial kitchens differ from domestic kitchens. The rules have become very strict over the last ten years. We are now nearly at zero GWP in some US states, so how much further can we go?”

Efficiency tweaks

Although much of the focus has been on refrigerant gases, energy efficiency has remained high on the agenda, and this is where the needs of regulators and operators coincide.

Operators are increasingly seeking refrigeration solutions that not only save on energy costs but also minimize environmental impact. To meet this demand, forward-thinking manufacturers are incorporating cutting-edge high Coefficient of Performance (COP) compressors, energy-saving fan motors, high-efficiency heat exchangers, and energy-efficient LED lighting within their products.

“The combined outcomes of these technologies have provided significant benefits to customers for modern plug-in refrigeration,” says Llewellyn. “These benefits include significantly reduced energy consumption, lower noise, lower heat rejection and smaller unit compartments. This has resulted in a significant reduction in demand for remote refrigeration systems within food service venues, as plug-in cabinets offer a far lower total life cost.”

Efficiency is not only boosted by improving components, but also by changing operational parameters. For instance, setting high and low points on a walk-in refrigerator, with alarms triggered by temperature changes, and controllers that can detect and set temperatures take a load off the operator’s shoulders, while also achieving optimal performance.

“Ease of use and automation are also important for some customers,” says Hartman. “Chains or customers that own many operations are looking at energy efficiency, so connectivity and information are important for them. For a single unit operation, ease of use is the priority.”

Another key area for innovation is perfectly exemplified in the ice machine market, but applies to many types of cold-side equipment. “One of the most interesting innovations in this segment was the introduction of a self-sanitation system, as a response to the ongoing problem of ice safety,” says Michele Granziera, general manager of Scotsman Industries Singapore. “All manufacturers write in their manuals to make a deep internal sanitation of their ice maker monthly, but only a few users really do it.”

“We introduced a chemical-free, natural self-sanitation system integrated inside the machine, which works automatically and prevents the growth of bacteria, mould, and slime for months,” he adds. “The main advantage is safety, but there is also a dramatic reduction in maintenance costs, as well as an increase in sustainability through a reduction of chemicals and water usage.”

A smarter future

This growing level of automation, which is tied in with the development of smart, connected equipment with simpler controls, automated programmes, and data-rich operating parameters.

“With the increasing integration of the Internet of Things (IoT) and smart kitchens, equipment is becoming much more intelligent, connected and optimized,” Campbell explains. “This allows for better monitoring, control, and optimization of cold chain processes, especially in improving efficiency and reducing energy consumption.”

“Innovation is heading towards IoT, natural refrigerants, and better design to reduce costs, and the sector is responding to those changes extremely well,” he adds.

Several manufacturers are increasingly selling connected equipment that collects vast amounts of operational data, which can be used to optimize maintenance schedules of usage patterns, and which can enable operators to make smarter decisions about when and how to use equipment in the most energy efficient way.

“We could see artificial intelligence (AI) using that data to do predictive maintenance,” notes Hartman. “It could predict when a compressor might need to be replaced, which reduces downtime.”

“Global digitalization is influencing the ice maker segment,” observes Granziera. “The challenge is connecting the machine to the service network without increasing cost and complexity. We now have a way to connect the machine to the service technicians without the need of expensive PC boards and complex network connections. Just with a smartphone, the user can send all the information the technician needs.”

Smart refrigeration is part of the trend towards smart kitchens. After decades of stagnation there is the suggestion of a step change in the technology responsible for the cooling process in the future. Magnetic refrigeration technology could change the game.

“New technology always has an impact and magnetic refrigeration using the magnetocaloric effect will make a huge impact on the sector,” explains Campbell. “It’s a few years away yet, but the use of advanced materials, miniaturization, IoT integration and heat recovery technology will all combine to deliver lower operating costs and much lower environmental impacts.”

“A variety of innovative refrigeration technologies, such as magnetic and membrane-based refrigeration, are being explored and developed,” notes Llewellyn. “These technologies promise unique advantages for the future, but they still face significant hurdles that need to be overcome before they can be considered commercially viable.”

Michael Flatow FCSI of Flatow & Drews Consulting in Germany also agrees that magnetic refrigeration could be the next major step forward.

 “It is one of the most discussed potential step changes,” he says. “It uses the magnetocaloric effect to cool down or heat up a material without harmful refrigerants. If commercialized at scale, it could revolutionize the industry by offering an environmentally friendly, highly efficient alternative to conventional cooling methods.”

Ultimately, innovation is unstoppable, whether it is a small tweak or a ground-breaking new technology. The consultant’s job is to stay abreast of all the changes and match them to clients’ needs. “The role of a consultant is always to put the interests of the client first, and thinking of the environment as a client always helps focus the mind,” says Campbell.

With that broad mindset perhaps the needs of operators and the planet are not so far apart after all.

Jim Banks

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