Air Date: Week of December 4, 1992
Chris Spurgeon of member station WHYY in Philadelphia reports on the development of a new, CFC-free air conditioning system. It’s one of several new technologies emerging under the pressure of consumer action and international efforts to phase out the use of ozone-damaging chlorofluorocarbons.
CURWOOD: Signers of the international treaty to save the ozone layer recently agreed to speed up by four years the phase-out of chlorofluorocarbons, including freon. Freon is responsible for much of the destruction of the ozone layer. It and other CFC's are currently used in refrigerators and air conditioners. The pressure from the treaty has led a number of companies beginning development of freon-free air conditioners. Reporter Chris Spurgeon, of member station WHYY, visited one of these companies in Philadelphia.
SPURGEON: ICC Technologies is so excited by their new air conditioner, they've even set up a working model, right in their conference room.
(Sound of machine starting up)
GROSS: This is the air that would go into the building, and this is the air exiting the building, this is the waste air, and it's coming out, discharging the air at 60 degrees, and it'll keep going down, and it'll probably cycle on down to about 54 degrees, which is just what you'd get off an air conditioning system.
SPURGEON: That's ICC chairman Irwin Gross and ICC's chief scientist, James Kollner. Their model air conditioner about the size of a coffee table, and the sides are made out of plexiglass; that's partly so you can see how the machine works, and partly to convince skeptics that there isn't a conventional air conditioner hidden somewhere inside. The heart of this system is what's called a desiccant, a chemical that absorbs moisture out of the air. It turns out it takes much less energy to cool dry air than it does air filled with moisture, so a simple heat exchanger can do all the actual cooling. There's no compressor, no rows of pipes filled with coolant, none of that stuff. Desiccant cooling has been around for decades, but Irwin Gross says turning that knowledge into a marketable product took four years of research.
GROSS: We had to find both a way of creating air conditioning, and too, the ability to do it cost-effectively. There's no information or body of knowledge in this application, so we had to develop all the engineering, all the designs, and all the application technology ourselves, and then teach people how to do it.
SPURGEON: A lot of the research into alternative air conditioning is being driven by the pending phaseout of chlorofluorocarbons. Those gases, commonly called CFC's, provide the cooling in traditional air conditioners. But when those systems leak, or are thrown out, the CFC's escape into the upper atmosphere, where they damage the earth's protective ozone layer. Joseph Martorano, a senior engineer with the Philadelphia Electric Company, says a desiccant system avoids all of that.
MARTORANO: It doesn't get released, it's permanently sealed inside these packets, and what happens is that it just absorbs moisture, and all you wind up releasing to the atmosphere is hot, moist air that you're sending out to get cool, fresh, dry air, and that's the environmental benefit of it. There's no CFC's, there's no worry for ozone depletion, and in the long haul, they last a lot longer than CFC air conditioners will, because the desiccants last longer, they're just regenerating themselves constantly by being reheated.
SPURGEON: Desiccant systems are also more energy-efficient, which is particularly important for one of ICC's biggest customers --- the supermarket industry. A supermarket can spend ten thousand dollars a month, just on air conditioning, and even a small increase in efficiency can make a big difference in profits. Gross says a new desiccant cooling system would cost a supermarket about what a conventional air conditioner costs, and it saves enough energy to pay for itself in a couple of years. They can also be used in other buildings that are about the same size, such as small office buildings. If all this sounds too good to be true, you're right. Desiccant cooling systems aren't perfect. Many of them still need to incorporate a small conventional CFC-using air conditioner that acts as an auxiliary unit for particularly hot days. They don't work well in large buildings, like skyscrapers, and it'll be several years before you can get one for your house. But Martorano says, by the end of the century, when CFC's are banned, units like these should be ready.
MARTORANO: At the very short term, you'll get people like ICC and the other companies out there who right now are looking at these ideas, hopefully getting themselves established enough in the marketplace that they're there, and able to take up the load. So hopefully there won't be a wild scramble at the end. Everybody's just starting to ramp up.
SPURGEON: Right now, ICC may still be a bit ahead of their time. They've sold about 45 of their units so far, and at this point the company's still in the red. But company officials say they have even more energy-efficient units on the drawing board, and they expect to begin making a profit by the end of this year. For Living on Earth, I'm Chris Spurgeon in Philadelphia.
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