Refrigeration technology has gone through a significant transformation in recent history, and with consumers and business owners alike eager to see the arrival of more efficient systems, it’s likely the best is yet to come. By Malcolm Richardson.

As I sat in an airport lounge recently, I couldn’t help but admire the enormous new display case they had behind the bar. Eight shining clear glass doors, frost-free and self closing, all keeping a myriad of tasty brews icy cold and waiting for my order. A beautiful display and something anyone would be proud to house in their bar.

In all the restaurants and bars I visit or work in, the range, shapes and sizes of refrigeration vary dramatically. The one thing they all have in common, however, is the way they work. The basics of the technology haven’t changed in a long time and the principles of refrigeration still remain the same: gas, compression, condensation and transmission. A complex but simple twist of pipes and wires that all lead to a box of stainless or aluminium, and a door to seal it all in. That’s the way it’s been and for the foreseeable future it’s the way it will stay.

However while the fundamentals of refrigeration seem here to stay, the smallest of changes are making massive waves in operational costs, construction techniques and end results. Over the years, leaders in the industry have refined the materials and equipment that go into refrigeration systems and have made huge leaps forward. The most notable of all the developments is the more energy efficient compression units and along with them the advances in gases and lubricants.

In the earliest years of refrigeration, companies used large compressors and gases that took up space, were very noisy and contained ozone depleting gases that of course in today’s climate conscious world are no longer acceptable. The need to advance the technology led to the development of safer and more efficient gases. Compressors became cheaper to run and were able to run larger and more complex systems, and the gases that were developed were not only safer for the environment but much more efficient and versatile in their applications.

These developments have spread to many industries, not just foodservice.  Of course air conditioning is a big player in refrigeration technology, given that our air conditioned home spaces are technically one big fridge. A major test platform for foodservice refrigeration is the automotive industry. The need to fit smaller and more efficient equipment into more unforgiving machines has given our industry huge amounts of help. With cars becoming smaller and manufacturers stretching the boundaries of power and efficiency, we have seen the benefits of their research cross over into our world.

History shows that we have and will continue to make advancements in our industry and the technology we use. Our need to save money, build bigger displays and create more packaged food products will drive us to develop better equipment. Our partnerships with other industries will see ours move forward with great speed and strength.

Why is it more important than ever to push further?

With our industry constantly growing, a major factor has come into the picture over the last decade that will continue to see kitchen equipment evolve, and in fact it’s one of the most talked about problems in the refrigeration industry right now. Global warming. Global warming doesn’t just come from the power stations we use to run our equipment, it has been discovered that leakage of gases doesn’t only deplete the ozone, but also impacts global warming.

Currently there is a lot of talk about the GWP (global warming potential) rates of refrigerants. Over the past two decades, R404A has been replaced because of high GWP rates and R134 is being used as a replacement. The GWP of refrigerants is a long term concern of manufacturers but is also a highly controversial subject with many saying that more research needs to be done. With food processing being one of the biggest users of refrigeration systems, any hold-ups in technological advancements will have a knock on effect that could cause irreparable damage.

The food manufacturing industry is moving towards fresh processed produce with a longer shelf life. With companies developing foods that can survive for weeks in cold storage and remain fresh the entire time, our need for suitable storage units is growing. We see supermarkets and processing facilities growing to extraordinary sizes, more refrigerant being required for cabinets and systems, and the consumer’s growing appetite for more packaged and storable foods. If the technology doesn’t evolve with the growing market, we will see a restriction in supply and possible shortages.

So where are we going?

Well, forward of course.  As our industry has demanded better systems, there have been refrigeration breakthroughs that will help push us forward.

In Santa Clara in the USA last year Whole Foods Markets, a major market player, built the most advanced refrigeration system of its kind – the first hydrocarbon/CO2 cascade system installed in the US. In an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and remove HFC, (hydroflurocarbons) from all refrigeration systems, the US government has in recent times banned the use of many refrigerants. In doing so, developments have been made that see systems, particularly ones that use CO2 and propane as an alternative refrigerant, having a near zero greenhouse gas emission rate. Considering that our standalone supermarket industry (not within a centre or complex) contributed 17.9Mt of CO2 emissions in 2009 and estimates see it rising to 21.8Mt by 2020, this new technology is sure to be a winner, and represents a turning point in the development of more efficient and cleaner systems.*

This type of refrigerant is already making waves in commercial and domestic industries not only in the US but all through Europe and has even reached our shores with several big players working to have systems approved for Australian use later this year. Many similar styles of cascade systems are already in use in Australia with a variety of refrigerant gases, but the use of the new combination method of CO2 and propane as a primary refrigerant material still requires some government approval. No doubt the development and benefits being seen in the US are being closely followed here.

Further developments in the ground floor basics of refrigeration are also in the works and the way the industry uses a variety of systems – centralised DX systems, secondary loop systems and others – is being studied and developed.  Refinement and retrofitting of older systems is helping with controlling greenhouse emissions, but ultimately we need to see an industry-wide change in the methods and materials used. When you consider that the average standalone supermarket use the same amount of power and produces the same carbon emissions in one year as 1500 homes, there is a very obvious need for rapid change.

With a lot of hard work we will get there. In the past 100 years we have gone from having meat safes hanging in trees to drive-through refrigerated warehouses that can house football fields of goods and handle B-double trailers turning circles inside. With that sort of a history behind us, there is no doubt we can continue to move forward and build better systems.

Who knows, perhaps in a few years we will see a system that cools our food using reclaimed carbon emissions. Anything is possible.

Malcolm Richardson is an independent food safety consultant and BDM.  


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