In a very transient and changing sector, “the only stable ingredient I can see at the present stage is ammonia,” says Chris Sturman, chief executive of the Food Storage and Distribution Federation. Safety concerns surrounding its use can be resolved with clear regulations, making ammonia a viable long-term solution as the alternative to HFCs and addressing the need to fully comply with the F-Gas Regulation.
Anyone working in a particular industry for over 30 years is sure to acquire a broad understanding of the various trends driving change in their sector. This can certainly be said of Chris Sturman, chief executive of the Food Storage and Distribution Federation (FSDF), which represents the food and drink logistics sector in the UK.
Big changes driven by HFC phase-down
At the start of his career, Sturman was operating ammonia systems but as time went on he saw the sector transition towards R12 and R502, which were subsequently phased out and replaced by the now moribund R22. He also saw R134a and R404A become increasingly popular, and again watched on as they became subject to what is in effect a binding phase-out. Sturman now sees the market at a crossroads: expand its uptake of low-GWP HFCs and repeat history, or do a full-360 and return to tried and tested ammonia systems.
“In Europe there has been a significant amount of change, mainly because of the phasing down of HFCs. The F-Gas Regulations are the driver,” Sturman says. A review of the use of f-gases in the refrigeration industry – in the framework of the EU F-Gas Regulation – led to the implementation of a phase-down over the next 15 years, aiming to cut the use of high-GWP f-gases by 79% before 2030, he explains. This will in effect make production uneconomic and prices have already risen substantially, he warns.
The FSDF was founded in 1911. From its roots in the cold storage sector, it now represents the interests of the entire UK food and drink logistics industry. Its members include supermarket giants Sainsbury’s and Tesco, as well as storage or transport companies like Seafast, XPO Logistics and Cold Move. “The role of FSDF is very much to help our members, to represent the interests of the sector and to come out of this process in the most cost-effective and economic manner,” Sturman says.
Leading by example
The food logistics chief argues that replacing high-GWP refrigerants with medium-GWP HFCs (for example R407F instead of R404A) can play a short-term role in helping companies to prepare for the phase-down. In new equipment, however, he believes that high-GWP HFCs are no longer an option. Instead, HFCs should be replaced with “ultra-low or nil GWP” natural refrigerants such as ammonia or CO2, which will not be affected by the market restrictions.
“The need to invest in alternative technology to HFCs for refrigeration can be a short-term financial burden. Nevertheless, we must focus on the long-term benefits. By taking a lead in technological and chemical modernisation, the refrigeration industry has the chance to lead by example.”
Clear regulations addressing safety concerns
Ammonia was the standard refrigerant 60 or 70 years ago, Sturman says, remarking that after having tested many new substances, companies seem to be returning to it. “Companies are looking at reinvestment programmes. Ammonia seems to be the most popular, because it is efficient, tried and tested, and there are no secrets about it. It is a very transient and changing world. The only stable ingredient I can see at the present stage is ammonia,” Sturman says.
However, some market players have expressed concern about ammonia, which has toxic properties and can be explosive in certain circumstances. Sturman cites the United Kingdom as a shining example of how clear regulations can resolve such concerns.
In the UK, strict regulations govern how ammonia refrigeration systems must be installed, operated, maintained and repaired. This is included in the EU ATEX regulations, which are built into DSEAR, the Dangerous Substances and Explosives Atmospheres Regulations introduced in 2002.
“With the appropriate management systems in place, I think a lot of these particular concerns have been resolved,” argues Sturman. He estimates that 70-80% of all static temperature-controlled facilities in the UK are now ammonia-based. CO2 applications, meanwhile, are less widely adopted, but Sturman says they are on the food logistics radar, with companies currently evaluating their performance in both static and mobile plants.