A team of researchers have found a new material that acts as an effective coolant for refrigerators and air conditioners, yet is less toxic, more environmentally friendly, less flammable, and cheaper than current technology.
The results will make keeping food fresh and keeping rooms cool much safer, greener, cleaner, and cheaper.
Currently, most air conditioning systems or fridges use gases called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) or hydrocarbons (HCs) as a coolant. Not only are these gases toxic poisonous, but they can also cause fires. Additionally, if old fridges and AC units are not disposed of correctly (to capture the gases) then HFCs or HCs that are released into the atmosphere are highly damaging to the ozone layer and a major contributor to global warming.
“Refrigerators and air conditioners based on HFCs and HCs are also relatively inefficient,” says Dr Xavier Moya from the University of Cambridge, who led the study and is an expert in the field of solid coolants. “That’s important because refrigeration and air conditioning currently devour a fifth of the energy produced worldwide, and demand for cooling is only going up.”
Despite all the drawbacks, the current technology is relatively simple. As the journal Phys.org explains, “Conventional cooling technologies rely on the thermal changes that occur when a compressed fluid expands. Most cooling devices work by compressing and expanding fluids such as HFCs and HCs. As the fluid expands, it decreases in temperature, cooling its surroundings.”
Schematic of traditional refrigerating system
For years, scientists have known about solid materials that could replace the potentially harmful HFCs and HCs, but as yet have been unable to make them as effective.
Now the breakthrough has been made using plastic crystals of neopentylglycol, as when placed under pressure these solids have been found to have excellent cooling properties. They operate well at room temperature, and are widely available in the manufacture of paints, lubricants, polyesters, and plasticisers. Crucially they are also cheap.
Using them as a coolant is relatively straightforward, as well as being more efficient than current techniques. This is a point highlighted on the Cambridge University website when it described how, “With solids, cooling is achieved by changing the material’s microscopic structure. This change can be achieved by applying a magnetic field, an electric field, or through mechanic force. For decades, these caloric effects have fallen behind the thermal changes available in fluids, but the discovery of colossal barocaloric effects in a plastic crystal of neopentylglycol (NPG) and other related organic compounds has now levelled the playfield.”
Schematic of the BaroCaloric effect in a refrigerating system
While the new material is referred to a plastic, the term only refers to the substance’s malleability, not its chemical contents. Plastic crystals lie at the border between solids and liquids.
NPG’s molecules are made up of hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen, and are nearly spherical, interacting with each other only weakly. As a result of these loose bonds, the molecules are able to rotate freely.
Compressing them yields large thermal changes as the molecules are forced to reconfigure themselves. The level of cooling achieved is comparable with that found in modern fridges with HFCs and HCs.
Dr Moya, together with his colleagues from the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya and the Universitat de Barcelona, have now published the details of their discovery in the journal Nature Communications, where they state that, “Here we show that plastic crystals of neopentylglycol (CH3)2C(CH2OH)2 display extremely large pressure-driven thermal changes near room temperature due to molecular reconfiguration, that these changes outperform those observed in any type of caloric material, and that these changes are comparable with those exploited commercially in hydrofluorocarbons.”
The researchers are now working with Cambridge Enterprise, the commercialisation arm of the University of Cambridge, to try and bring the technology to market. While this will involve many challenges, the long list of advantages that the plastic crystals have over more traditional coolant materials will give the new business a good chance at success. Especially considering that the material is already widely available and inexpensive.
Beyond the profit, the breakthrough will also make analysis of novel refrigerants ‘cool’, drawing investment and study of the use of the colossal barocaloric effect in refrigeration systems.
As the researchers note, “Our discovery of colossal barocaloric effects in a plastic crystal should bring barocaloric materials to the forefront of research and development in order to achieve safe environmentally friendly cooling without compromising performance.”
Before chemical industry 4.0, before Amazon, before Windows 97, before even the Internet, industrial chemical suppliers picked up the phone, wrote a letter, and sent a fax to offer their chemical products to prospective clients.
Later, as the wild, wild west of the world wide web took hold as the third millennium began, chemical industry supply chainers switched from ‘bricks’ to ‘clicks’ to gain their chemical trades. And so was born a plethora a start ups; Elemica, Omnexus, Rubber Network, Ariba, Covisinit, Quadrem, and Chemplorer hoping to find a business model to conquer online chemical trading.
While most focused on an order-to-cash or procure-to-pay process, some could be considered original online chemical marketplaces. Some ideas were badly executed, others had the right idea at the wrong time; none truly succeeded.
E-business in 2019 has matured, allowing for a series of different solutions that has seen a slower, more cautious spread of online chemical marketplaces. Their differences stemming from their different starting points.
As Simon Hardy, a chemical industry consultant at Elemica, notes, “In today’s business economy we see Chemical Companies taking various approaches to generating marketplace revenue. From the industry itself you have solutions built by the Chemical industry, which are Chemondis, OneTwoChem and Covestro Select. There is also a group that has either come from chemical distribution or saw a gap in the market and created a company to address it. These include companies like GoBuyChem and Pinpools. Agnostic platforms such as Alibaba and Amazon are also growing share in this marketplace. Recently, we have also seen interest from eBay, which already has a very successful B2B Marketplace operating for the Aviation Industry.”
Despite the action of the larger players, there remains a long list of online chemical trading spaces created as start-ups; Buyersguidechem, Lookchem, and Globalchemmade; all striving to make their presence known. Which ones will survive will depend on three main factors:
- Functionality. The smoothest webpage with the widest product choice.
- Investor staying power. For how long will the backers of these companies be prepared to take losses (in the hope of becoming the next Alibaba) before they pull the plug?
- The entry into the market of another big player. As Hardy mentioned, Alibaba, Amazon, and eBay have already made tentative expansions into industrial chemical sales. But what if Bayer, DowDuPont, or INEOS made a sizeable investment. Their know-how, market influence, and bank balance could be a game-changer.
Hopefully, the chemical industry is wise enough to avoid the B2C style campaigns of click-bait marketing, but no one can be certain that the market will not head in that direction.
Whilst chemical procurement officers are typically of above average intelligence, we are all still human and prone to the same basic marketing tools that sell ice cream and toothpaste. Most likely, the chemical industry will get the online market it deserves.
Instead, we can only hope that online markets that are more customer-centric will find success.
As Hardy notes, “Today’s buyers want to order in a B2C way, where they know where their order is at all times and when and where and what time it will be delivered.”
Having information at the touch of a tablet is the true benefit that online chemical marketplaces can offer. And while it may seem far-fetched for an industry with such long lead times and complex logistics to reach this goal; time and money can achieve great things.
Because, if, within the next decade, only 10% of the chemical industry’s annual $5 trillion revenue flowed through online marketplaces it would create a $500 billion sub-sector. Money like that could make a pretty smooth website and order tracker.
While the ability to turn agricultural waste, such as corn stalks, wheat straw and husks, or even sewage waste, into industrial chemical feedstock has long been achievable in the lab, full scale commercial production has been slow to progress.
While bioethanol sourced from corn, sugar beet or cane, potatoes, sunflowers, sorghum, fruit, and other biomass feedstocks have had greater success, the industry’s future is still uncertain due to these products uses as food or animal feed. By focusing on wheat straw waste, chemical industry ecologists and entrepreneurs are hoping to improve the economics by gaining free and easy access to chemical raw materials.
As the wheat stalks are inedible to animals, they are typically only used as livestock bedding or are left in fields in an attempt to return their nutrition to the soil.
As the scientific journal, Phys.org observes, “The development of new bio-refining technologies based on agricultural waste is seen as key to reducing Europe’s dependency on fossil-based products. According to a White Paper by the International Council on Clean Transportation, about 144 million tonnes of wheat residues accumulate each year in the EU.”
Part of this development is the EU-funded OPTISOCHEM project, which is making good progress in transforming waste straw into bio-isobutene (bio-IBN), a chemical feedstock that is a precursor to numerous other industrial chemical products.
Isobutene – a precursor to numerous other industrial chemical products
The basic chemistry of the process involves converting wheat straw into hydrolysate which is then fermented into isobutene, which can be used to make a wide-range of industrial chemicals.
The enterprise leading the project, is called Global Bioenergies. Their website outlines the value in making a success of this method, stating that, “isobutene, one of the major building blocks of the petrochemicals industry, represents a market worth $25 billion and may one day address an additional market worth $400 billion.” Noting that already, “15 million tonnes are produced every year and are turned into plastics, rubbers and fuels.”
Now a key step on the road to success has been made, as Global Bioenergies has delivered the first sample of isobutene made from wheat straw to industrial chemicals giant INEOS for inspection.
As Jean-François Boideau, EMEA Commercial General Manager at project partner INEOS Oligomers, made clear in a recent press release, “To date, we have received several batches of bio-isobutene from Global Bioenergies for qualification purpose[s], and the quality is promising.”
Adding that, “During the next phase of the project, INEOS is ready to evaluate conversion of additional quantities of bio-isobutene into downstream products in order to assess the potential of this bio-based feedstock as a building block for end consumer applications.”
Encouraged by the results, Global Bioenergies is now focusing on increasing production to more industrial levels. As the company’s COO, Frederic Pâques, states, “We expect to produce several tons of bio-isobutene on this new non-conventional feedstock in the remaining periods of the project.”
The project has further been boosted by the April 2019 announcement of a €135m investment surge from the Bio-Based Industries Public-Private Partnerships (BBI JU). Their goals, as listed on the partnership’s website include:
- Increasing the yield of targeted bio-based product(s) by more than 20 percent compared to state-of-the-art processes.
- Reducing the production costs of bio-based products by 10-20%, compared to current market situation.
- Reducing energy consumption by more than 30% for bio-catalytic processes as compared to state-of-the-art production processes.
- Delivering savings, in terms of CO2 emissions per kg product by more than 20% for bio-catalytic as compared to state-of-the-art production methods.
And while these numbers may sound insignificant in a chemical industry that is dominated by fossil fuels, the ultimate rewards are well worth both the effort and the investment.
As analysis conducted by Bernard Chaud, Global Bioenergies’ director of industrial strategy, found, “If just 48 million of the 144 million tonnes of wheat straw waste produced in the EU annually was collected, it could produce 21 million tonnes of sugar that could feed 100 commercial biorefinery plants to produce a steady supply of biochemicals for use by different industries, including biofuels, and substitute the equivalent of 35 million barrels of fossil fuel per year.”
Furthermore, it would provide a boost to rural economies, as chemical plants would be located in the countryside near the fields where the feedstock is, bringing jobs to many of Europe’s poorest regions.
“It offers an additional revenue stream,” said Chaud in a recent interview with Phys.org. “(Farmers) will not only sell the grain, but also the straw.”
While the business model may sound simple, the practicalities of breaking down cellulose isn’t easy. As discussed in earlier SPOTCHEMI articles, numerous breakthroughs have been made in developing enzymes that are more efficient or resilient, but despite the low-cost raw materials, lowering costs remains an ongoing project.
As the environmental journal, Earth Island, reports “Over the past decade, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory [NREL] has brought down the cost of cellulosic ethanol from about $10 a gallon to $2.15 a gallon, primarily by bioengineering better enzymes.”
Employing cheaper enzymes with cheaper chemical feedstock will make for a more profitable bio-chemical industry.
But while profitability is at the heart of all chemical businesses, removing dependency on fossil fuels must also remain a goal, and one that remains in sight. As the BBI JU websites states, today’s bio-based chemical products are, “… comparable and/or superior to fossil-based products in terms of price, performance, availability, and environmental benefits. … [And] will on average reduce CO2 emissions by at least 50 percent compared to their fossil alternatives.”