I recently attended the Chillventa exhibition in Nuremburg, Germany, which provides a biannual opportunity to see many within the European cooling industry in one place. The fact that so many manufacturers converge on Chillventa provides a rare chance to take the pulse of the industry and allows us to get an idea of what is on the collective minds of the supply chain.

This year, more than any other I can remember, there was a sense that the industry is on the verge of something significant.

The direction of travel appears to be on two fronts; the first, obviously, concerns refrigerants. The F-Gas regulations are driving the European industry toward lower-GWP refrigerants, and the Chillventa show saw refrigerant manufacturers unveil the first of their "ultra-low" refrigerant HFO blends.

The price we have to pay with ultra-low GWP is that the gases will inevitably be mildly flammable. This is the first trend for European cooling — there will be changes required when working with so-called A2L refrigerants and refrigerant manufacturers have called on the industry in Europe to be prepared for the consequences.

As much as these refrigerant manufacturers play down the amount of change that is required when working with mildly flammables, it is clear that all new installations will need to take into account new measures. The revised EN378 standard for design and construction of refrigeration standards is due to be published before the end of the year, bringing with it new terms for charge size and risk assessment for working with A2Ls.

On top of that, design engineers also will have to design their systems anew to accommodate them, as many of these gases exhibit a measure of glide. Despite the undoubted benefits these A2L refrigerants bring and this includes R32 alongside the HFO blends it is clear they can never be viewed as drop-in replacements, and should thus be seen as options for new systems, not retrofits.

Given this, it is not surprising that the teaser announcement from Honeywell, which it is on the verge of launching an ultra-low GWP refrigerant that isn't an A2L, was very much the talk of the show.

One of the most fascinating debates to emerge from Chillventa saw the manufacturers of the most fundamental refrigeration component the compressor squaring up to the refrigerant manufacturers. The compressor firms made no secret of the fact that they don't like being used as pawns while the refrigerant firms decide on their optimum gases.

The compressor makers made two things clear:

  • they want to work with a consolidated portfolio of refrigerant options, rather than expending time and money on qualifying their components on a wide range of different options from different manufacturers
  • energy efficiency is a key element that is too often overlooked by the refrigerant specialists in their quest for ever-lower GWP

Bitzer chief technology officer Rainer Grosse-Kracht set the mood by saying: "Refrigerant emissions account for just 0.33 percent of greenhouse gases in Germany, whereas 4.9 percent comes from the power station. We must ensure efficiency is paramount."

Honeywell European Managing Director Julien Soulet responded with the refrigerant manufacturer's perspective.

"We must remember that when it comes to compressors, refrigerant isn't the only part of the equation which leads to energy efficiency," Soulet said. "Perhaps they need to adapt their designs to get the best efficiency out of the refrigerants. We believe all the new HFOs should have better efficiencies than the HFCs thanks to their wider operating curves."

What both sides agreed on was that further collaboration is required to create the optimum efficient system — not just in components but in the system as a whole.

"There is great potential, and we want to work further with all industry partners to reduce both GWP and energy," Soulet said.

While this has all the makings of a spat, it seems clear that those involved with specifying lower GWP installations should weigh the options carefully, particularly if the refrigerant chosen does not offer energy gains, or at least energy neutrality on the gas it replaces.

This balancing of energy gains and direct emission benefits will be a key issue for all industries globally in the wake of the Kigali HFC phasedown.

But perhaps the most intriguing trend indicated by the Chillventa exhibitors was the changing nature of retail refrigeration.

A number of firms pointed out that the increasing desire for dominance in the grocery sector by online giant Amazon could threaten to disrupt the refrigeration industry as we know it. The increasing requirement for refrigerated goods to be delivered to the home could provide the ultimate in convenience refrigeration, providing the logical next step to the dominance of convenience stores, exhibitors said.

The significance of this driven by Amazon's Prime Now offering, promising delivery within an hour of ordering, and thus appealing to the food delivery market is that it signals a move from a stationary model of refrigeration, based on storing food in store cold rooms and display cases, to a mobile model, where the refrigerated goods are stored in centralized cold distribution warehouses and then transported in vans.

Thus, a potential future scenario could see a focus on monitoring and controlling temperature in the vans, together with much more emphasis on logistics, vehicle tracking and delivery schedules.

Control specialist RDM's sales director Enrico Mirandola sees a clear direction of travel.

"E-commerce will have a big impact, there is no doubt, on the major retailers," he says. "Amazon's presence could really be a big game changer in refrigeration. Food transportation is going to be very important, and the whole relation between retailers and their vans is going to change. The Amazon Prime Now offering promises delivery within an hour. If that extends to food in a big way, that will have a massive impact on the way refrigeration does business."

Another of the early adopters is cooling giant Emerson Climate Technologies. It believes developments in the cold chain the infrastructure between storage and delivery to the customer will not only impact convenience in the developed world, but will also provide access to refrigeration in the developing world that could have a dramatic effect on food wastage.

This has huge potential as globally $990 billion is estimated to be wasted on food spoilage, with another $32 billion spent on energy and $18.2 billion on facilities maintenance in the cold chain. Emerson points out that such potential promise to take refrigeration manufacturers in new directions away from the convention of in-store cold stores and display cases more toward a combination of central refrigerated warehouse and transport refrigeration, since in the developing world the food often has to be moved long distances to the point of sale.

It is why, Emerson Retail Solutions VP Ed McKeown points out, the company's most recent acquisitions are not in stationary refrigeration applications, but in cargo monitoring equipment.

"We now have a $40 device, which is all that is required to ensure that the food is kept in good condition from the warehouse or store to the customer," McKeown said.

The lure of providing refrigeration to developing regions via cold chain improvements, coupled with speedier delivery to customers in developed countries offers a compelling reason why refrigeration as we know it could be about to change. It is a rapidly moving scenario that all those involved in cooling would do well to note