IN² Spotlight: A New Way of Cooling Buildings

Commercial Buildings

March 29, 2023—Toxic refrigerants, excessive energy usage, uncomfortable humidity—problems with air conditioning are only getting worse. According to Blue Frontier CEO Daniel Betts, given present trends, by 2050, the electricity consumption of global air conditioning will equal to the entire consumption of electricity of both India and China today.

“Air conditioning is one of the blind spots in the fight against climate change,” Betts said. “We cannot deploy enough renewable energy in that time to cover that demand, and we need to be able to create and bring to market a solution at the speed of the problem. We want to transform air conditioning into a solution for the renewable grid, instead of being a headache to it.”

To help with the problem, Florida-based Blue Frontier is making an air conditioning system that is already three times more efficient than a traditional unit. It expands upon the idea of desiccant enhanced indirect evaporative cooling (DEVAP).

“It’s a completely new way of creating air conditioning for buildings,” Betts said. “We use a salt solution to create desert air conditions in a heat exchanger, removing humidity from the air, which then allows us to cool this air via a process called indirect evaporative cooling. The two processes, dehumidification and indirect evaporative cooling, occur within the single heat exchanger.”

Betts describes it as a second cousin, twice removed, from a swamp cooler, which is typically used in dry climates to add humidity to the air, cooling a space. The Blue Frontier system takes a mixture of outdoor fresh air and air coming from the building and dehumidifies it to the optimal conditions. The process is independent of outdoor air humidity. Then, it separates about 30% to 50% of the dehumidified dry air and redirects it within their heat exchanger to flow into channels submerged in cool water. The air in these channels absorb the humidity, which in turn cools down the remaining 50% to 70% of dry air which is flowing in adjacent channels. The cool, dehumidified air is brought into the building as conditioned air. The humid warm air is exhausted.

“You end up with lower temperatures than if you used a swamp cooler; closer to the dew point rather than the wet-bulb temperature,” Betts said, “and you can achieve this anywhere in the world regardless of outdoor humidity. We also make people more comfortable because we not only cool buildings, but we also dehumidify them. These two processes can be controlled in our technology to expand people’s comfort and improve indoor air quality. In contrast, conventional air conditioning brings into the building air that is close to 100 percent of relative humidity. We bring it in at around 50 percent, which is ideal for human comfort.”

The Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator (IN2) program helped Blue Frontier with two major steps: First, it helped them select and evaluate the non-corrosive salt solution they use, which is an alternative to emission heavy refrigerants used in conventional A/C units. The cooling industry accounts for around 10% of global CO2 emissions, three times the amount produced by aviation and shipping combined. Second, the IN2 program helped Blue Frontier to parametrically model more than 500 different designs so they could settle on the most optimal solution that can also get to market faster. Now, in phase 2 with IN2, they continue working to make it more efficient and lower costs and have conducted system prototype testing to validate models. Some of the results indicate that efficiency of the system can be increased by another 50 percent or more in the coming years. They are currently projecting a 60% reduction in energy use and 90% reduction in peak electrical demand, savings that will benefit both building owners and utilities.

“IN2 helped us jump this from a cool laboratory idea to where it could be transformational for the industry,” Betts said. “Phase 1 was how to build it. With phase 2, we built it, and we sent it to NREL, and they tested it. From that, the performance of the unit allowed us to move forward to field trials and early manufacturing with quite a bit of alacrity and confidence that we know what we’re doing.”

Blue Frontier began as an NREL collaboration but is now starting product field trials with the help of a new partnership with Canada-based Modern Niagara, a manufacturer that builds air conditioning units for buildings and is also Canada’s largest mechanical contractor. Modern Niagara helped build the first prototypes and Blue Frontier installed one of the first units at their Florida facility.

“It’s an actual air conditioning system. It went from IN2 lab testing all the way to real product and is now ready to go into buildings. That’s really exciting,” Betts said.

This progress allowed Blue Frontier to seek series A funding that is leading toward testing and early adoption of the units. They raised a $20 Million Series A round in July 2022, led by Breakthrough Energy, 2150 Urban Tech Sustainability Fund and VoLo Earth Ventures.

In finding clients, Blue Frontier began with commercial buildings because those structures often need multiple units and clients often control multiple buildings. This allows them to not only help with the systems of a building, but also help meet ESG or carbon reduction goals. Putting their units in buildings has a larger impact on the local grid and environment.

“Our goal is to start creating the scale of manufacturing that drops the cost of the unit so it can enter global market in both residential and commercial buildings,” Betts said. “We aim to unseat traditional technology in the next 10 to 20 years. I believe our grandchildren will not know what the old air conditioning systems are like.”

Over the next two years, Blue Frontier will continue with field trials, hopefully installing six to 12 units in 2023. Additionally, the company is creating a pilot manufacturing plant in Boca Raton, Florida, in a scalable way to help it grow. By end of 2025, Betts hopes Blue Frontier will have a couple of hundred units out in the field and can bring the product to market in earnest that year.

“One of the things that I’m super excited about this technology is that we are still at the start of its journey,” Betts said. “We will continue to see reductions in size, weight, and cost, while improving performance. We have more to learn, but we understand that there’s an enormous amount of market interest into this product.”

Learn more about the companies in the IN2 portfolio.

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