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Cold chain under scrutiny as improved refrigeration proposed

Institution of Mechanical Engineers releases own report a week after the IIR conference into Sustainability and the Cold Chain. Proposal to use liquid nitrogen for energy and cooling will reduce reliance on diesel; refrigeration engineers need to work together on solutions says IMechE

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers has released a report highlighting how improving refrigeration in the cold chain will improve the developing world’s future by reducing food waste. The report: A tank of cold: cleantech leapfrog to a more food secure world, suggests setting up a network of liquid nitrogen energy hubs can reduce food wastage and solve electricity shortages without the reliance on diesel currently found in the developing world.
The report also calls for refrigeration engineers to get together to solve some of the cold chain engineering challenges. But the fact that the report was released a week after the International Institute of Refrigeration held its own conference on Sustainability and the Cold Chain has led to calls for engineers to improve communication amongst themselves first.

The IMechE said the growth in population in the developing world ‘will require new food systems to be established that create more rural-urban supply chains, and will need to produce new types of food to meet changing consumer expectations. All of this will need to be achieved in nations that are anticipated to be simultaneously experiencing the most severe impacts of climate change.’

It also notes that there are high levels of wastage, particularly in those areas with poor electricity service.”Much of the food produced for human consumption today does not actually reach a human stomach, as it is either ‘lost’ within the food supply system through spoilage, largely as a result of poor handling and inadequate infrastructure, or is discarded in the marketplace or home as ‘waste’ as a result of societal and consumerist behaviour. In both cases this wastage, which is estimated to be 30–50% of global production, is largely unnecessary and also represents waste of the associated water, energy and land used to produce this food. Tackling food waste requires cultural and societal change, whereas preventing produce losses is in most cases about the application of relatively basic engineering and management practice. Reducing food wastage provides an opportunity to help meet future growth in food demand while si”multaneously relieving pressure on natural resources and

The IMechE goes on to say that ‘Cold is the key to tackling the loss of perishable produce. In this regard, it is estimated that around a quarter of total food wastage in developing countries could be eliminated if these countries adopted the same level of refrigeration equipment as that in developed economies. Establishing a continuous chain of temperature-controlled cold environments from the point of harvest to the marketplace and on into the home – a ‘cold chain’ – is required.’

“The Institution of Mechanical Engineers has identified a pressing need in developing countries to connect local farmers with higher-value market options locally, nationally and internationally through cold chains. The challenge for the engineering profession is to do that in a way which minimises food wastage, is sustainable and avoids harmful emissions and air pollutants. In other words, we need to help establish sustainable and resilient infrastructure, fit for purpose in the local context from the beginning. There are two elements that are important; firstly, projects need to be affordable; secondly they must be safe, reliable, easy to build, operate and maintain.”

The IMechE report contends that energy storage is the key to mitigating intermittent and seasonal power supplies, with cryogenic energy storage a key way to provide both cooling and power.

Somewhat controversially, it say that cryogenic methods ‘would also avoid the use of traditional refrigerants in chilling equipment, which have environmental and health issues. The cheapest form of cryogenic energy storage is based on the use of liquid air, which involves the liquefaction of atmospheric air. Once liquefied, in addition to providing on-demand power and cooling for pre-cooling, chilling, freezing and cold storage, liquid air can deliver the energy required to drive a simple cryogenic piston engine that can form the basis of a zero-emissions refrigeration unit for transport vehicles. This is a particularly useful application, as the traditional diesel-fuelled unit not only suffers from energy security issues, due to its reliance on diesel, but also leads to environmental degradation through emissions of air-polluting nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, as well as greenhouse gases.’

The report finishes with three recommendations:

1. Governments of newly emerging and rapidly industrialising economies must prioritise support investment in cold chain infrastructure to improve food security, underpin development and help alleviate poverty. Providing farmers with opportunities to access higher-value market options for their produce is widely recognised as a key route to moving individuals and communities out of subsistence and poverty towards higher-level economic activity and increased well-being. For perishable produce, cold chain infrastructure is essential to ensuring that as much product as possible reaches the marketplace. Beyond this, encouraging and incentivising developments that are based on sustainable solutions, including renewable energy and clean technologies, offer opportunities for affordable routes to energy security and reduced environmental risk.

2. Donor country governments and development NGOs must support and incentivise aid recipients to develop sustainable cold chains using renewable energy and waste cold. Increasingly overseas aid from donor governments and NGOs is being allocated to development projects that help individuals and communities become more self-sufficient and resilient. A sustainable cold chain solution based on renewable energy, clean technologies and waste cold recycling should be encouraged and incentivised.

3. The UK engineering community should come together to define in detail the potential opportunities a joined-up cold economy presents for the developed and developing world. The UK has a substantial heritage in the industrial gases and broader cryogenics sectors. As a leader in the field of the industrial application of cold, as well as in renewable energy utilisation, clean technologies and energy systems integration for efficient resource use, the nation is well placed to lead on work to tackle the technical challenge of equipment scaling and explore the environmental and societal benefits of establishing cold-chain economies.

The reliance on cryogenics ahs already been challenged by the developers of SureChill, which uses phase change materials for low-energy storage.

SureChill’s Ian Tansley said: “The IMechE’s decision to thrust the cold chain into the media spotlight is highly commendable, as is its commitment to finding viable and long term solutions to implementing the cold chain in developing countries. Somewhat misguided, however, is the assertion that the answer to the current problem lies in renewable energy; the technological developments in this field both too complex and fragile to be operated by ordinary people. The issue, ultimately, is not that developing countries don’t have power – it’s that the power they have is both intermittent and unreliable.”

 “Happily, there is already a solution that doesn’t rely on renewable energy alone, and makes use of the existing albeit intermittent power source. Sure Chill technology is highly scalable, and can be adapted to fit anything from small coolers to walk-in cold rooms. We are confident that with the right development, this idea could be brought to market and Sure Chill technology could become the gold standard for the developing world.”


Read the full report (right)

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