Global demand for air conditioning is growing. But AC consumes lots of electricity, which comes mainly from fossil fuels, and leaks harmful refrigerants. Blue Frontier’s approach cools buildings more efficiently with alternative refrigerants, and its units store energy to avoid overwhelming the grid.
As global temperatures rise, millions more people will need access to air conditioning just to survive. Even those living in milder climates will increasingly rely on AC to keep their homes and workplaces comfortable.
To meet this rising demand, 10 new AC units will be sold every second until 2050, according to estimates from the International Energy Agency. But perversely, AC is itself a big contributor to greenhouse gases and will exacerbate climate change unless the technology improves.
Blue Frontier has one promising solution. Its AC system works to reduce humidity and cool the air in separate processes. This matters because maintaining the humidity in a space has as much impact on people’s comfort as managing temperature. But most AC systems prioritize the latter. What’s more, conventional humidity control generates even more greenhouse gases than cooling the air.
Blue Frontier’s approach has two steps: First, a salty mixture known as a desiccant sucks moisture out of the air, reducing its humidity. Then, some of that now-dry air moves past a wet surface. Water evaporates back into the dry air and lowers its temperature (a process known as evaporative cooling). That cooled air then passes by the remaining air in the system and cools it, too.
The company says this process makes its AC units three times more efficient than conventional systems and reduces their overall energy consumption by more than 60%.
- Industry: Air conditioning
- Founded: 2017
- Headquarters: Boca Raton, Florida, USA
- Notable fact: Blue Frontier is licensing technology originally developed at the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which remains a close collaborator today.
Potential for impact
Air conditioners have gotten much more efficient over the years, but they are still responsible for about 4% of greenhouse gases released globally every year. And emissions from cooling may be five times greater by 2050, according to researchers at the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Blue Frontier’s technology could help rein in those emissions even as air conditioning becomes more essential to daily life.
Air conditioners produce emissions by consuming electricity (often generated from fossil fuels) and by leaking refrigerants (which are potent greenhouse gases). Operating more efficiently allows Blue Frontier’s units to use less power. The units also contain alternative refrigerants, such as propane or a chemical compound known as R454B, that don’t pollute as much as the typical kind, known as hydrofluorocarbons.
Another important feature of the startup’s system is energy storage. The salty brew absorbs moisture from the humid air during the day, but it can be dried out by a heat pump at night when electricity demand is lower. That way the drying process doesn’t place as great a burden on the grid, which effectively is a form of energy storage. Then, when the sun comes up and temperatures start to climb, Blue Frontier’s AC can run for about four hours on the energy stored within that mixture.
That’s an important development, because the strain air conditioning puts on the grid during the hottest days of the year is a leading cause of blackouts and brownouts. Storing energy could shift much of that demand to off-peak times and make it easier to manage grids, particularly as they incorporate more renewable power, which can vary with the weather or time of day.
After factoring in the system’s improved efficiency, alternative refrigerants, and ability to store energy, Blue Frontier estimates its air conditioner reduces greenhouse gas emissions by more than 80% compared to a conventional unit.
Blue Frontier is still in the very early stages of proving its technology and breaking into the massive global AC industry. The company will need to show in field tests that its units work as well as it says they have in the lab—without requiring more space or maintenance than the AC units already on the market.
Blue Frontier’s CEO Daniel Betts likes to compare the transformative power of more efficient AC to that of LED lightbulbs. But LED adoption in the US was driven by efficiency standards set by the federal government and, eventually, a nationwide ban on incandescent bulbs. No similar ban is on the horizon for current AC systems.
In addition, today’s technical standards and performance rating systems for AC systems (such as Energy Star in the US) don’t evaluate systems’ ability to manage both humidity and temperature, which could put new technologies like Blue Frontier’s at a disadvantage.
And Blue Frontier will face plenty of competition, including from established industry leaders like Daikin that are also developing advanced cooling. That said, demand for AC is expected to skyrocket, and a variety of approaches could ultimately succeed.
So far, the company has raised at least $26 million through grants, prizes, seed funding, and a Series A round in July 2022 led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures. Betts says that’s enough to get them through the end of 2024.
Blue Frontier’s first product will be an AC unit with a capacity similar to the air conditioners most commonly used today in commercial buildings. Eventually, the company hopes to make units suitable for homes.
Two of Blue Frontier’s AC units are currently being field tested, and the company has tentative plans to install two more by the end of this year. Next year, it hopes to have 40 AC units in field tests so that it can collect enough performance data to prove their viability.
Betts says the company will likely raise a Series B in 2024 to start manufacturing more units, with an aim to begin selling them in 2025.
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