A Clever Fix to the Biggest Climate Problem
By Jeremy Deaton
Climate change is a big, unwieldy problem with no easy fix. To stem the rise in temperature, we need to transform how we power our homes, fuel our cars, grow our food and get rid of our waste. The change won't happen overnight, and time is running perilously short, which is why we need to prioritize actions that will have the biggest impact.
As it happens, the most effective way to fight climate change is to make a better fridge.
Manufacturers use a class of chemicals known as hydrofluorocarbons as refrigerants in air conditioners and refrigerators. Regrettably, hydrofluorocarbons are prone to leaking into the atmosphere, where they trap an enormous amount of heat—thousands of times more than carbon dioxide—worsening climate change. In 2016, countries agreed to end the use the use of hydrofluorocarbons, but the phase-out will take decades, and the substitute chemicals are either toxic, like ammonia, or flammable, like propane.
It seems there is no entirely safe way to cool down a conventional fridge. So, instead of trying to update existing technology, some manufacturers are building a new kind of fridge—one that doesn't make use of potentially dangerous refrigerants.
North Carolina-based Phononic, Inc. is building thermoelectric refrigerators that use less energy, take up less room and pose fewer environmental risks than conventional refrigerators. The company's name refers to phonons, quantum particles that transmit heat. "A phonon is quite literally a heat wave," said CEO Anthony Atti.
Phononic's thermoelectric technology represents a real breakthrough in refrigeration. To appreciate what makes it noteworthy, it helps to understand how it differs from a conventional refrigerator. The fridge in your home takes advantage of a long-understood fact of physics—when a liquid evaporates, it soaks up heat. That's why sweating cools you down. Sweat absorbs heat from your body as it evaporates into water vapor. Conversely, when that water vapor condenses, it releases heat. Refrigerators make use of this phenomenon to cool food.
Liquid refrigerant flows through what are known as evaporator coils inside the fridge, absorbing heat along the way. As the refrigerant heats up, it turns to gas. The hot gas flows through condenser coils outside the fridge, where it releases heat and turns back into a liquid. The compressor raises the pressure of the refrigerant, thereby raising its temperature. As a result, the temperature of refrigerant is significantly higher than the temperature of the room, and it cools off quickly.
The whole system serves to gather heat from inside the fridge and release it outside. That's why the coils on the back of a fridge feel so warm—they are releasing heat captured inside. While this basic technology has worked for around a century, it has a few shortcomings. The compressor uses a lot of energy, makes a lot of noise and takes up a great deal of space. And, as mentioned above, the most common refrigerant is an extremely powerful greenhouse gas.
A thermoelectric cooler. Luis María Benítez
Phononic does away with all of that. To cool a fridge, it makes use of the thermoelectric effect, by which an electrical current can produce a difference in temperature. Run a current through a thermoelectric cooler, and the device will draw heat from one side to the other. Thermoelectric coolers make very little noise, take up very little room and make no use of dangerous refrigerants like hydrofluorocarbons, ammonia or propane. Unfortunately, thermoelectric coolers have largely been too expensive and inefficient to be used in refrigeration.
With the help of a grant from a Department of Energy program that funds cutting-edge research, Phononic developed new materials that would make thermoelectric coolers more efficient. In addition to using less energy, Phononic's thermoelectric coolers chill the inside of a fridge more slowly and evenly than the machinery inside a conventional fridge.
A Phononic thermoelectric cooler (left) and a compressor (right) that might be found in a conventional fridge. Phononic
"Because you're removing that heat and using the entire surface area of the product itself, the rejected heat is very low temperature, so we can stack multiple refrigerators in a room," Atti said. "We can stack them on top of one another. We can build them into cabinetry, and you don't have that high waste heat temperature that a typical compression system does."
Phononic is deploying this technology in a variety of ways—cooling electronics, chilling wine, refrigerating medicine and vaccines at hospitals, among other applications. Soon, the technology could be deployed in food delivery, which may cut down on waste from meal kit services, like Blue Apron or HelloFresh. These companies deliver food in packages lined with ice packs so the ingredients survive shipping. Those ice packs inevitably end up in the trash. Atti imagines instead using energy-efficient, battery-powered thermoelectric coolers on delivery trucks to keep food cold until it reaches its final destination.
A Phononic refrigerator. Phononic
"What we're proposing is that you would put one of our refrigerators or freezers right on the delivery truck, so this way you just pull the package right out and deliver it right to the door," Atti said. The company does not currently produce consumer refrigerators or air conditioners, but it could make a dent in those markets as it drives down costs. "We're not afraid to compete on cost, but what we're trying to demonstrate—and we've had a decent level of success—is how, at this stage, we can compete on value."
Atti believes the technology could be a game changer. The way that solar technology is transforming energy and LEDs are changing lighting, thermoelectric coolers could give a long overdue makeover to refrigerators, freezers and air conditioners. The researcher turned investor turned entrepreneur said, "One of the things that irritated me when I was on the investment side was this belief that clean tech or sustainability could not be competitive." Now, he's intent on showing that next-generation refrigerators will do exactly that.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.
Many people shop online for everything from clothes to appliances. If they do not like the product, they simply return it. But there's an environmental cost to returns.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Dolf Gielen and Morgan Bazilian
John Kerry helped bring the world into the Paris climate agreement and expanded America's reputation as a climate leader. That reputation is now in tatters, and President-elect Joe Biden is asking Kerry to rebuild it again – this time as U.S. climate envoy.
Energy Is at the Center of the Climate Challenge<p>The <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/1/" target="_blank">effects of climate change</a> are already evident across the globe, from <a href="https://theconversation.com/100-degrees-in-siberia-5-ways-the-extreme-arctic-heat-wave-follows-a-disturbing-pattern-141442" target="_blank">extreme heat waves</a> to <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/12/" target="_blank">sea level rise</a>. But while the challenge is daunting, there is hope. Solar and wind power have become the <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2020/Jun/Renewable-Power-Costs-in-2019" target="_blank">cheapest forms of power generation globally</a>, and technology progress and innovation continue apace to support a transition to clean energy.</p><p>In the U.S. under a Biden administration, long-term national climate legislation will depend on who controls the Senate, and that won't be clear until after two run-off elections in Georgia in January.</p><p>But there is no shortage of <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2020-biden-climate-change-advice/" target="_blank">ideas for ways Biden</a> could still take action even if his proposals are blocked in Congress. For example, he could use executive orders and direct government agencies to tighten regulations on greenhouse gas emissions; increase research and development in clean energy technologies; and empower states to exceed national standards, <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-autos-emissions-california/defying-trump-california-locks-in-vehicle-emission-deals-with-major-automakers-idUSKCN25D2CH" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">as California did in the past with auto emission standards</a>. A focus on a just and equitable transition for communities and people affected by the decline of fossil fuels will also be key to creating a sustainable transition.</p><p>The U.S. position as the world's largest oil and gas producer and consumer creates political challenges for any administration. U.S. forays into European energy security are often treated with suspicion. Recently, France blocked <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/frances-engie-backs-out-of-u-s-lng-deal-11604435609" target="_blank">a multi-billion dollar contract</a> to buy U.S. liquefied natural gas because of concerns about limited emissions regulations in Texas.</p><p>Strengthening cooperation and partnerships with like-minded countries will be critical to bring about a transition to cleaner energy as well as sustainability in agriculture, forestry, water and other sectors of the global economy.</p>
Creating a Global Sustainable Transition<p>How the world recovers from COVID-19's economic damage could help drive a lasting shift in the global energy mix.</p><p>Nearly one-third of Europe's US$2 trillion economic relief package <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-07-21/eu-approves-biggest-green-stimulus-in-history-with-572-billion-plan" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">involves investments that are also good for the climate</a>. The European Union is also strengthening its 2030 climate targets, though each country's energy and climate plans will be critical for successfully implementing them. The <a href="https://joebiden.com/clean-energy/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Biden plan</a> – including a $2 trillion commitment to developing sustainable energy and infrastructure – is aligned with a global energy transition, but its implementation is also uncertain.</p><p>Once Biden takes office, Kerry will be joining ongoing <a href="https://www.un.org/en/conferences/energy2021/about#:%7E:text=The%20overarching%20goal%20of%20the,2030%20Agenda%20for%20Sustainable%20Development.&text=Accelerate%20delivery%20of%20United%20Nations,related%20issues%20at%20all%20levels." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high-level discussions on the energy transition</a> at the U.N. General Assembly and other gatherings of international leaders. With the U.S. no longer obstructing work on climate issues, the G-7 and G-20 have more potential for progress on energy and climate.</p><p>Lots of technical details still need to be worked out, including international trade frameworks and standards that can help countries lower greenhouse gas emissions enough to keep global warming in check. <a href="https://www.carbonpricingleadership.org/what" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Carbon pricing</a> and <a href="https://www.csis.org/analysis/how-can-europe-get-carbon-border-adjustment-right" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">carbon border adjustment taxes</a>, which create incentive for companies to reduce emissions, may be part of it. A consistent and comprehensive set of national energy transition plans will also be needed.</p><p>The global shift to <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2019/Jan/A-New-World-The-Geopolitics-of-the-Energy-Transformation" target="_blank">clean energy will also have geopolitical implications for countries and regions</a>, and this will have a profound impact on wider international relations. Kerry, with his experience as secretary of state in the Obama administration, and Biden's plan to make the climate envoy position part of the National Security Council, may help mend these relations. In doing so, the U.S. may again join the wider community of countries willing to lead.</p>
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By Maria Caffrey
As we approach the holidays I, like most people, have been reflecting on everything 2020 has given us (or taken away) while starting to look ahead to 2021.
We Need More Than Listening<p>By now we have all become sadly accustomed to the current administration sidelining scientists, most prominently Dr. Anthony Fauci, because the facts they provide do not fit with the political rhetoric of the moment.</p><p>I have <a href="https://www.csldf.org/2019/08/22/csldf-helps-climate-scientist-maria-caffrey-fight-for-scientific-integrity/" target="_blank">my own history</a> of filing a scientific integrity complaint with the National Park Service (which falls under the Department of the Interior) after senior ranking employees attempted to censor one of my scientific reports. I know all too well the damage and pain that these actions cause, not just for the individual scientist, but also because these <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/attacks-on-science" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">attacks on science</a> over the last few years have undermined sound, evidence-based decision making.</p><p>President-elect Biden has repeatedly said that he will <a href="https://thehill.com/homenews/521638-trump-biden-will-listen-to-the-scientists-if-elected" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">listen to the scientists</a>. While this is certainly a welcome change, listening can only take us so far. This past week Lauren Kurtz from the <a href="https://www.csldf.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Climate Science Legal Defense Fund</a> and my colleague <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/about/people/gretchen-goldman" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gretchen Goldman</a> published <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ten-steps-that-can-restore-scientific-integrity-in-government/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an article</a> listing 10 actions the new administration should implement to show their commitment to strengthening government science:</p><ol><li>Clearly prohibit political interference and censorship.</li><li>Protect scientists' communication rights.</li><li>Acknowledge that attempts to violate scientific integrity, even if ultimately not fruitful, are still violations.</li><li>Protect federal scientists' right to provide information to Congress and other lawmakers.</li><li>Commit to incorporating the best science as part of agency decisions.</li><li>Elevate agency scientific integrity policies to have the full force of law.</li><li>Publicly release anonymized information about scientific integrity complaints and their resolutions at every agency.</li><li>Institute an intra-agency workforce, potentially under the White House <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/2020-09/strengthening-science-and-si-at-ostp.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Office of Science and Technology Policy</a>, to coordinate scientific integrity efforts across agencies, foster discussion of policy improvements, and standardize criteria for policies across agencies.</li><li>Strengthen whistleblower protections.</li><li>Ensure that policies cover all actors who will be dealing with science.</li></ol>
Time for Action<p>I have spoken to many scientists, particularly federal scientists, who are eager to turn the page so they can hurry back to the work they had been doing before this administration, but I urge caution in assuming that things can be "normal" again.</p><p>Before Trump, I naively thought the scientific integrity policies established during the <a href="https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2016/12/19/scientific-integrity-policies-update" target="_blank">Obama administration</a> would be sufficient. I never imagined that any administration could so willfully ignore and attack expert advice and evidence that is intended to protect us and our public lands.</p><p>I have personally witnessed how hard our federal scientists work. They put in long hours with minimal pay (far less that what they could get if they worked in private industry) to pursue one simple goal: to make things better for the nation.</p><p>We need stronger scientific integrity policies to protect these people and their work. But more than that, we need stronger scientific integrity laws because they also benefit society.</p>
By Andrea Germanos
Environmental campaigners stressed the need for the incoming Biden White House to put in place permanent protections for Alaska's Bristol Bay after the Trump administration on Wednesday denied a permit for the proposed Pebble Mine that threatened "lasting harm to this phenomenally productive ecosystem" and death to the area's Indigenous culture.
<div id="da98c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="478a197b7c59c92787c92bec92f1ac39"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1331662923710693376" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Bristol Bay forever, Pebble mine never. #NoPebbleMine #SaveBristolBay https://t.co/CBQ9zuy8A5</div> — Save Bristol Bay (@Save Bristol Bay)<a href="https://twitter.com/SaveBristolBay/statuses/1331662923710693376">1606328156.0</a></blockquote></div>
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OlgaMiltsova / iStock / Getty Images Plus
By Gwen Ranniger
In the midst of a pandemic, sales of cleaning products have skyrocketed, and many feel a need to clean more often. Knowing what to look for when purchasing cleaning supplies can help prevent unwanted and dangerous toxics from entering your home.