Cooling Ourselves As The Climate Warms
Four Novel Solutions.
By now, most of us are used to news of extreme weather. And 2023 is no exception. But this year, the situation is exceptionally dire.
Globally, about 40% of the planet is experiencing a marine heat wave, according to Dillon Amaya, a physical scientist at NOAA. Right now, the sea off Florida, typically 75 °F — 80 °F in July, is over 100 °F.
A historic heat wave in April across Europe has been characterized as almost impossible without climate change by World Weather Attribution, a group seeking to quickly identify how much a given weather event is influenced by ongoing warming. NASA recently warned that they believe there’s a “50–50 chance” that 2023 will be the hottest year on record, with next year likely even warmer.
In May, devastating Canadian wildfires sent dense smoke to U.S. cities: For 24 hours, New York City had the worst air in the world. And dangerous levels of heat have been recorded in the U.S. South, West, and Midwest for July, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
But it’s not only about warming. New research reveals that Arctic warming is impacting the jet stream. While those findings are still being debated, Arctic warming could be the cause of more frequent frigid air events in southern climes.
Good News: The FDA requires reduction in HFC production.
The global climate crisis is under way. And the paradox of having to cool more aggressively because of hotter weather only adds more carbon, causing ever hotter summers. It’s the Gordian Knot of climate change.
At the core of all this are hydrofluorocarbons — HFCs. Hydrofluorocarbons are organic compounds used as a coolant in refrigerators, air-conditioners, and other cooling appliances. HFCs are composed of of hydrogen, fluorine, and carbon and are man-made, produced through a synthetic manufacturing process. HFCs are potent greenhouse gasses that can be hundreds to thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2) in contributing to climate change.
The good news? In 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency, for the first time, set national limits on HFCs, which were used to replace ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons in the 1980s but have turned out to be a significant driver of global warming.
A new EPA rule will impose a 40% overall reduction in HFCs starting next year, part of a global phaseout designed to slow climate change. The rule aligns with the 2020 law that called for an 85% reduction in production and use of the climate-damaging chemicals by 2036.
More needs to change, and quickly. Updates to, and redesigns of current heating and cooling technology won’t be enough. We need innovative, novel technologies that heat and cool in fundamentally different ways.
I recently had conversations with four innovators who have developed heating and cooling technology solutions that are far more energy efficient, that reduce or eliminate the use of harmful refrigerants, and that significantly reduce harmful emissions.
One solution is based on solid state semiconductors in place of a traditional vapor-compression cycle. Another employs underground structures like garages and tunnels to provide renewable geothermal energy that can reduce CO2 emissions by up to 90%. All four are poised to radically change the way we heat and cool.
Berardo Matalucci (cover) is the co-founder and CEO of MIMiC Systems, Inc. MIMiC’s mission is to provide urban residents and commercial structures with a sustainable, refrigerant-free, and compact heat pump using solid-state technology. The system also employs AI to conduct predictive maintenance, which is especially beneficial in large commercial installations.
MIMiC originated from a collaboration between the Center for Architecture, Science, and Ecology and the Nanoscale Thermophysical Energy Conversion lab at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Berardo says that, without major assistance from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, and URBAN-X, “We would not be where we are today.”
Berardo was born and raised in Italy, where he developed an early interest in architecture. He went on to study architecture at Universidad Politecnica de Madrid, and received his master’s degree in architecture from the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia.
While studying in Madrid, Berardo started thinking about architecture from a sustainability perspective. “Are modern buildings really being designed for people? And what about heating and cooling? Neither were designed with people in mind, but simply as a necessary service. How can we design to support health and wellness?” Berardo is currently focused on heating and cooling, specifically solid-state semiconductor solutions.
He has professional experience in project management, design, and advanced building technologies, and has held leadership positions throughout his career to decarbonize the building industry. “When we can leverage science, design, and teamwork, we can develop solutions for the betterment of people and the planet. MIMiC, URBAN-X, and NYSERDA are proof of that.”
MIMiC stands for Modular Indoor Micro-Climate. “We developed a clean, sustainable heat pump system using solid-state technology that puts the health of our planet and people first. Our mission is to provide urban residents with a sustainable, refrigerant-free, solid-state alternative to traditional heat pumps.”
There’s an urgent need to find new cooling solutions that are more energy efficient and that reduce the usage of harmful refrigerants. There’s a need to electrify heating systems, moving away from using fossil fuels.
“Industries are moving fast to an electrified solid-state world. HVAC is next. This means no refrigerants. No moving parts. Much less greenhouse gas emissions. And I’m excited that MIMiC is right at the center of this.”
Vince Romanin is the CEO of Gradient Comfort. Gradient is building quiet, comfortable climate control systems based on its breakthrough heat exchanger technology. The system is 50% more efficient with 75% less carbon emissions than traditional window units. For urban dwellers especially, the design is sleek and beautiful and installs below the window, so natural light, and your view, are not blocked.
Many of us, particularly those who live in pre-war apartment buildings in the city, have struggled every summer to install heavy, cumbersome window AC units. The fear of dropping the unit out the window during installation is real. They rarely fit properly, nor do the side extension panels. The struggle is repeated when they must be removed in the fall. Not so with Gradient units.
Vince describes himself as a thermodynamics nerd. As a child, he was fascinated with engines, aerospace, and turbines. These early interests led him to his PhD at Berkeley in mechanical engineering with a specialty in heat transfer. “I have to give a shout out to Wu Tang Clan’s GZA. He too is fascinated by science, and he rapped about it, which made it cool. As a young fan, I was inspired.”
Vince too is concerned about the paradox of hotter temperatures. As a result of ever hotter summers, the demand for cooling increases. That leads to further emissions, and on and on. Vince says that “We need to break the vicious cycle of climate change driving the need for more cooling, especially with the current inefficient, poorly designed large HVAC systems and residential window units.”
And it’s not just about cooling. Gradient’s units also heat homes. It’s all about heat pumps. Heat pumps warm homes by pulling heat from the outside air and moving it indoors. To cool rooms, the devices work much like air conditioners, using a condensing liquid to absorb the excess heat indoors and transfer it outdoors.
Through a $70 million initiative from the New York City Housing Authority, the New York Power Authority, and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, and with support from URBAN-X, Gradient is participating in the installation of window units in 20 public housing buildings in Woodside, Queens. The window units will ultimately replace the buildings’ centralized heating systems, giving residents more control over the temperature inside their homes. “Currently, most buildings seek to keep the inside temperature at a constant 72 degrees. That’s like painting everything blue. The spark in people’s eyes when we give them control of their environment, and give them their windows back? That’s icing on the cake.”
Pavel Panasjuk is CEO and co-founder of Dynamic Air Cooling. Dynamic Air Cooling (DAC) is a new air conditioning and refrigeration technology that uses no synthetic HFC coolants and features no thermal emissions. In this, DAC is way ahead of the new FDA regulations. It’s a novel solution ideal for commercial, industrial, and large-scale residential applications.
“Coolants used in most of today’s refrigeration and air conditioning solutions are about 4000 times more harmful to climate than CO2. As global temperatures rise, it’s estimated that by 2050, 27% of global warming will be caused by traditional air conditioning and cooling systems. There’s an urgent need to find novel cooling solutions that are more energy efficient and eliminate the need for harmful refrigerants. DAC provides one approach to solve this challenge.”
Pavel lives in Warsaw, was born in Ukraine, attended university in Utrecht, and worked for many years in Prague. He’s an expert in marketing across eastern Europe. During his career as an established marketing professional, Pavel traveled all over the EU, met people in all walks of life, and attained success. “I started working in marketing quite by accident. I had a great career, but the idea of impact started to creep into my plans as I looked to the future.”
Around 2013, Pavel was introduced to people doing sustainability work who recruited him to help sustainability startups get funding. This began Pavel’s passion for finding solutions to global warming. In 2018, DAC was founded.
“I was frustrated by the unwillingness or inability of the big HVAC players to create something new. Under government and consumer pressure, they replaced one harmful chemical solution for yet another. Propane to ammonia to chlorine to freons to HFCs. Nothing changes.”
Pavel decided to look for a novel solution. “I figured out that we could tackle several problems at once. There were, of course, the harmful coolants. But I began to research the implications of refrigeration in the supply chain. I was kind of shocked. Most of the food in the developing world is wasted right in the field. And about 30% of food is wasted from field to fork.” What if refrigeration could be available right there in the field? What if it required very little, easily constructed infrastructure?
DAC uses air instead of hydrofluorocarbons to transfer energy, thus eliminating hydrofluorocarbons as a source of global warming. In DAC-based cooling, energy is removed from the air and then converted to electricity to help power the device, making it 30% more energy efficient than a traditional vapor compression refrigeration system.
In traditional cooling units, this energy is wasted. Due to a simpler design and smaller form factor, manufacturing costs of DAC devices can be 30% lower compared to traditional HFC-based units of similar cooling capacity.
What’s next? “URBAN-X has helped us in innumerable ways to understand where our market is and how to reach it. We currently don’t have the resources to build a factory, or to build a distribution chain. In this they have been invaluable.”
“Something like 28% of A/C units in the U.S. are almost 20 years old. If we can advocate successfully for replacement of those in a cost-effective way, while tackling the food waste problem globally, well, my search for impact will have been worth all of it.”
Margaux Peltier is CEO and co-founder of Enerdrape. Enerdrape’s novel heating and cooling solution turns underground infrastructures into renewable energy sources. Enerdrape geothermal panels integrate a closed loop piping circuit in which a heat transfer fluid circulates to exchange heat with the underground structure.
This is achieved by slim, attractive, unobtrusive panels attached to underground surfaces such as those found in garages, tunnels, underground car parking facilities, and basements. The novel structure of Enerdrape panels allows absorbing both shallow geothermal energy from the ground and waste thermal energy from the air contained in underground spaces.
Enerdrape’s patented technology is an easy retrofit for existing underground structures that can provide renewable energy at costs lower than many competing solutions. The solution has the potential to reduce a building’s heating-related CO2 emissions by up to 90% and could complement solar and other renewable energy sources to bring buildings close to net-zero emissions.
Margaux lives and works in Lausanne, Switzerland. She has a Bachelor’s degree in applied science, another in physics and chemistry, and a Master of Science in architecture and sustainability from the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne. So it’s not at all surprising that she developed a passion for clean energy that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels, and doesn’t release carbon into the atmosphere.
“Our mission at Enerdrape is to be at the forefront of urban geothermal technologies. We see a future where any underground structure can provide locally sourced clean thermal energy to office and residential buildings, infrastructures, and city districts while cutting down reliance on fossil fuels and creating massive decarbonization of HVAC, especially in urban areas. We don’t expect to replace other solutions, but to complement them.”
Enerdrape is taking full-on advantage of advances in AI. We’re continually leveraging data and analytics for optimization across every part of our solution. We utilize this wealth of information to enhance energy production, to maximize efficiency, and ensure the resilience and longevity of the technology. Customers expect constant upgrades and efficient, reliable, always-on technology. We aim to provide that to them.”