Bill Gates backs green air conditioning startup

Software billionaire Bill Gates is investing in air conditioning startup Blue Frontier, a company that aims to develop technology that will improve air conditioning efficiency and reduce harmful environmental impacts.

Blue Frontier has received a $20 million round of funding, with backers including Bill Gates’ investment fund Breakthrough Energy Ventures, among others. According to its website, Blue Frontier’s goal is to create “gigaton reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by decarbonising building cooling”.

The company says its new air conditioning systems reduce electricity use by up to 90 per cent by combining dew-point-style sensible cooling with liquid desiccant dehumidification. The desiccant is recharged and stored when electricity is the “cleanest” or lowest cost, and later used to deliver cooling when electricity is “dirty” or costly. This technology will replace system refrigerants with a salt solution, acting as the liquid desiccant that performs both cooling and dehumidification.

Dr Daniel Betts, CEO of Blue Frontier, says the company is delighted with the support shown in the funding round.

“Our partnership with these sustainable investors enables the immense global environmental impact of our technology – to bring affordable, efficient, sustainable air conditioning with low-cost energy storage to buildings around the world – and to reduce the cost to utilities of supplying carbon-free electricity for cooling.”

According to Betts, Blue Frontier uses one-third to one-fifth the amount of refrigerants required in a conventional system and, due to its unique construction, the units can use a refrigerant with a lower global warming potential (GWP).

“The combined effect is an 85–87 per cent reduction in our system’s contribution to global warming,” says Betts.

The Blue Frontier system does use refrigerant, but not for cooling; instead, it is used for operating the heat pump that regulates the salt concentration of the desiccant.

“Thus, the refrigerant and refrigerant-carrying equipment never meets air entering the building or the interior of the building,” says Betts. “This gives us an enormous advantage to use readily available refrigerants that are mildly flammable, without putting at risk the safety of the people in the building.”

Blue Frontier’s liquid desiccant can be located inside the unit in a small plastic tank, essentially storing the cooling capacity to be used when it’s most needed, says Betts.

“The storage also allows us to consume the bulk of our energy when renewable energy is abundant and when electric grid congestion is low. We avoid consuming electricity during peak demand periods that are powered by fossil fuel peaking plants.”

Blue Frontier says its systems addresses “every major issue associated with present-day air conditioning” by providing a replacement for packaged rooftop units that dominate the commercial buildings market.

The Blue Frontier technology was originally developed at the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), with Blue Frontier obtaining rights through an exclusive license in 2018.

Pilot installations are set to begin in the second half of 2022, with pre-commercial units planned for installation in 2023. After that, the product is expected to be available for use in commercial buildings in 2023, before launching in the residential market around 2026-27.

Image courtesy of Blue Frontier.

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