Clean Tech

Cooling the solutions for coolers

Mamuni Das | Updated on: Dec 18, 2018

Randal Newton, R&D head at Ingersoll Rand

Most customers want high energy efficiency and low pollution impact, says Randal Newton, R&D head at Ingersoll Rand

For Randal Newton, heading research and development at Ingersoll Rand means innovating for sustainable and energy-efficient refrigerants that can be used for cooling purposes in air-conditioners of various kinds.

For the company, an industrial manufacturer and a large player in refrigerants, with a global headcount of 40,000 and R&D centres in Chennai, Bengaluru, Shanghai and Prague, the core aim has been to find and widen adoption of refrigerants that lower the level of pollutants.

For this, Ingersoll has had to go for non-traditional methods, tweak existing ones and come up with solutions that are out-of-the-box and ‘green’ in the true sense of the word. Newton shares some insights in a free-wheeling chat with BusinessLine. Edited excerpts:

What are the cutting-edge areas of R&D in the refrigerants space?

Energy efficiency and sustainability are our focus areas. Traditional air-conditioning works on the principles of vapour compressing, evaporating, and cooling. The question is: are there non-traditional ways of air-conditioning?

Energy departments around the world are working on possibilities of using vibrant sound to cool the temperature and using cooling systems that would emit the heat to the stratosphere. We are doing some investigation in that area. However, most of our work is going on in the space of making all AC systems work efficiently, through machine-to-machine coordination, so that the overall systems work efficiently.

Our refrigerants are used in two types of products — devices and systems installed in hotels, hospitals, campuses and buildings. Ingersoll Rand also provides refrigerants to trucks.

What are the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of the new refrigerants being used in the market today? How do they compare with the older refrigerants?

We produce five to six refrigerants today for large commercial products and solutions. Globally, we have dropped from refrigerants that have 1,300 times the potency of carbon dioxide to one time or twice the potency of carbon dioxide. Potency indicates the global warming impact caused by each refrigerant compared with one kg emission of carbon dioxide. So, lower the potency, the cleaner is the refrigerant.

What has been the customer feedback for new and efficient refrigerants? Have you seen cases where customers are voluntarily adopting cleaner refrigerants?

In North America and Europe, 50 per cent of users are choosing the cleaner refrigerants. Two of our first customers were in Kolkata and Sri Lanka. The Government of India has now listed these refrigerants as those that can be used for government projects. One customer said that it needed to use environment friendly products to retain talent, as its young employees — who have to live with the impact of climate change — are aware of such issues.

Basically, most customers want high energy efficiency and low pollution impact. I cannot name the customers, but these are companies from varied spaces — high technology, industrial.

In products, we have not been as lucky with refrigerants with one to two-time potency. We are replacing earlier products with refrigerants that have half or one-third of existing potency. Take, for instance, home air-conditioners. They use R410A, the most used refrigerant which has a global warming potency of close to 2,000. We are now providing home air-conditioning customers a large number of products with refrigerants that have potency of 1,300. We also provide some products with a potency of 4,000 (based on customer demand). We are focusing on Hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs) in India.

Have you faced challenges with regard to new refrigerants which have lower global warming potency?

One key challenge is that many of the products that have low GHG emission may be flammable. This puts at risk the safety of people at work. We are working on codes and safety standards to find ways to use them safely. They are safety standards used by fire marshals around the world. To say it in technical terms: We are adopting some of them in the US — like IEC-2-40. My expectation is that India will adopt the IEC2-40 code. Products where this can be applied include Thermo King, which are reefer trucks and trailers with ability to move food and marine containers, and the Trane, which is used in residential and commercial air-conditioners.

Is the transportation industry adopting the newer products?

Yes, especially in Europe. Moreover, as trucks that are seven years old are sold off to other users, most customers buy newer trucks with better refrigerants to ensure good resale value. The acceptance rate of our products by customers was almost 100 per cent. We introduced refrigerants that did not require much of design change, which pushed up the acceptance levels.

Are you introducing products where new refrigerants can be used in place of older ones without any design changes?

Yes, we have introduced some such products in the US for commercial customers. This was when some refrigerants that were “ozone depletors” and pretty much caused ozone holes were phased out. For example, 514A (not an ozone depletor) is design compatible with R123 (which is an ozone depletor). These design compatible refrigerants may not be acceptable in the long term, but will lower the GHG impact.

What is the time lag that you see in adoption of products in developed markets and developing markets like India?

Europe is moving much quicker with its fluorinated-gas initiative (not a ban, but phase-out and carbon tax, etc) to cut emissions.

Countries like India have more time to phase out refrigerants, but they have adopted the newer refrigerants much faster. India, in my opinion, will want to go in for the latest technology voluntarily. In my meetings in China, I see they want the latest technology. They want to invest in technology that is 10 years ahead.

Industry will not invest in older technology. We are committed to bring new refrigerants with less GHG emissions.

What was the new product that you introduced in India for the first time recently?

We have sold centrifugal chillers for some of our biggest customers in India. They could be for airports, hospitals, indoor arenas for basketball… I think you will see more adoption of just pumping cool water to buildings. The world is going to need more air-conditioning and window AC is not the way forward.

In India, real estate is likely to adopt the kind of system you see in hotels. In the US, developers do this. After all, people just want cooler air — they don’t care whether it comes from a system solution or window units. Buildings have to be designed like that.

How often do you see brakes put on products innovated by R&D teams?

More often than you think. We have an innovation team that works on the feasibility of innovation, and we hand the baton over to business to decide whether the product can be taken further.

How many patents do you have in your pocket?

They are not necessarily patents, they are intellectual property (IPs) of the company. We don’t spend a lot on patents unless we are sure of a product commercially. The R&D team worries about the product viability. We often say: fail fast, fail often. It’s ok.

Published on December 18, 2018
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