I have written before about the vital role the cooling industry in Europe believes it can play in developing countries where there is not yet an infrastructure for refrigerating food from "farm to plate."

Now, the potential for reducing food wastage through refrigeration at various parts of the so-called cold chain has arguably been clear for a while, but it has taken a combination of factors to give the proponents of the technology the necessary momentum to get their ideas more widely accepted.

Only recently have we have seen the perfect storm of:

  1. suitable technology being available at a suitable cost
  2. the appetite from the developing countries (and the bodies that fund them) for accelerating change
  3. the emergence of groups who have been able to establish such a thing as a unifying policy to drive it into action

Throw in a fourth factor the mounting global drive to reduce carbon, which includes phasing down HFCs thanks to last year's Kigali Amendment and it is clear we have reached a point where the technology of low-carbon refrigeration for both transport and storage, aka "clean cold," is getting a greater hearing than at any point before.

One of the prime movers in creating such a policy is the UK-based Birmingham Energy Institute indeed it was they who coined the phrases "clean cold" and "cold economy." In a previous column or two, I outlined how this coalition of academics and technology specialists has seized the initiative on matters such as refrigerated trucks powered by liquid nitrogen as a replacement for diesel engines, and on the potential for a nitrogen-cooled "zero carbon" infrastructure.

Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed a nitrogen-cooled theme here: The Institute has worked closely with Dearman, the inventors of the Dearman Engine, a patented refrigerated transport technology that uses liquid nitrogen (aka "liquid air") to provide both power to the truck and cooling to the container it is carrying, all with zero emissions.

The first zero-carbon transport trucks in the world are currently being trialed in the UK by retailer Sainsbury's, but Dearman and the Birmingham Energy Institute argue that the technology is readily transferable to nitrogen-cooled storage and generators, too.

The most recent report from the Institute is its most ambitious yet, setting out how clean cold can be used to meet no lesser target than the United Nations' 17 Sustainable Development Goals. In so doing, it makes the proposal that sustainable cooling can have an indirect effect on welfare as well as the direct effect on refrigerated goods.

The Institute's Professor Toby Peters sets the tone in the first paragraph of the report:

"Until recently cooling was the Cinderella of the energy debate but it is a pillar of civilization. Without it, the supply of food, medicine and data would simply break down. And life in many parts of the world would be scarcely tolerable without air conditioning.

"Yet billions of people in developing countries live without cooling and suffer the consequences daily through hunger and ill health. The lack of adequate 'cold chains' of refrigerated warehousing and transport causes 2 million vaccine-preventable deaths each year, and the waste of 200 million tonnes of food with consequences far beyond hunger and inflated food prices."

The proposal is based on a fundamental dual goal to offer a lower-carbon cooling alternative to HFCs, while providing a way to eradicate diesel from refrigerated transport. And all this while the population is both growing exponentially and demanding a higher proportion of cooling.

The challenge is clear, says Peters: "As the world's population heads to 9 billion by mid-century, increasing projected food demand by 60 percent, there is no question that we will need far more cooling. We will need it to conserve food, water and other resources; tackle poverty, hunger, health and climate change; and underpin growth and development.

"But if the new cold chains, data centers and air conditioners are cooled with conventional technologies, we will only solve one set of problems by creating another quite possibly an environmental catastrophe."

I don't propose to tell you how the Institute purports that clean cold can help with all 17 goals, but the first three goals are End Poverty, End Hunger and Healthy Lives, with which a refrigerated cold chain that tackles food wastage can clearly make an impact.

Less directly, reducing food wastage would also reduce wastage of a significant volume of water, thus helping with Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation. Intriguingly, it also proposes a method of desalination for seawater by freezing it and harnessing the energy storage potential of the ice.

Goal 7: Affordable Clean Energy, has a clear connection to the Institute's techniques using liquid nitrogen for transport cooling and energy storage, but the proposal also utilizes ground and water source heat pumps, among other techniques. It is not a huge leap to see how this approach also feeds into Goal 8: Economic Development and Goal 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure.

Perhaps more ambitiously, the Institute also claims that a clean cold approach to reducing food wastage can improve the health of the world's seas and forests, too. But that ambition pales into insignificance against the claim that it can contribute to Goal 16: Peace and Justice. However, it transpires that the claim is based on the fact that several wars and insurgencies have occurred due to food shortage, and that reduction of wastage can thus help here, too.

It is clear that Birmingham Energy Institute believes it can be a focal point for the research and policy drive for a clean cold infrastructure not just for Europe but for the world. In fact some might argue it is arguing for its ability to save the world, one tank of liquid air at a time. Readers across the Atlantic would be welcome to collaborate.

And lest anyone should imagine that this is just empty words, the report's Appendix notes in passing that the UK currently has around £100 million of research going on into clean cold technology at the moment. It appears the clean cold revolution is just beginning.

Read the full report at: http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/Documents/college-eps/energy/Publications/Clean-Cold-and-the-Global-Goals.pdf