Providing Affordable Refrigeration in Developing Countries


DENVER, Colorado — Engineers Without Borders (EWB) USA announced that seven recipients received grants as a result of its “Chill Challenge,” an initiative to create affordable refrigeration technologies and community ice-makers for off-grid communities in developing nations. These developments will lead to less food waste and improved nutrition for the poor and will also be crucial in delivering vaccines and other healthcare services to disconnected communities. These innovative developers created unique ways to access affordable refrigeration in developing countries.

Lack of Access to Affordable Refrigeration in Developing Countries

There are two billion people globally who do not have access to reliable, affordable refrigeration in developing countries. The Borgen Project recently interviewed Larry Bentley and F. Andrew Dowdy, the organizers of the Chill Challenge, to understand more about the motivation behind devising this challenge. Bentley, a retired engineer who helped to design and implement power systems for rural communities in 20 developing countries, spoke about his experience aiding rural bush clinics and regional hospitals in Liberia and Sierra Leone, where there was a severe lack of access to grid connection and working generators. This is a problem, Bentley stressed, because, without access to electricity, a large percentage of these clinics and hospitals cannot access necessities such as a sufficient water supply or oxygen concentrators. These concentrators absorb nitrogen and provide supplemental oxygen to help respiratory patients breathe.

Additionally, Dowdy, a retired engineer and diplomat who focused on energy policy issues that would bring electricity to developing countries, stated how a refrigerator is a “power hog” that requires a 24-hour operation. While this may not be a significant issue for places that have cheap, grid-based power, Dowdy says the cost of electricity for off-grid communities in the developing world is “5-10 times higher.” Consequently, even though a small refrigerator may cost $20-$25 per month, Dowdy states, this may add up to “10%” of a poor household’s total income. Low-income, off-grid communities are therefore less likely to purchase a refrigerator and have access to electricity.

“Chill Challenge”: Developing Low-Cost Refrigeration Technologies

Bentley and Dowdy devised the Chill Challenge to address the lack of access that off-grid communities have to electricity in developing countries. The evolution criteria were “centered on affordability and suitability” for use in developing countries, according to Bentley, with an added emphasis on innovation. The main question was: how could these technological solutions drive down costs such that impoverished people in remote, off-grid communities could reasonably afford these products?

The solutions concentrated around what the consumers at the “bottom of the pyramid” are more likely to demand, Dowdy states. This includes plans for larger refrigerators, which may be suitable for a shop, or ice-makers, which could provide refrigeration for many households or commercial purposes rather than individual household refrigerators. Below is a description of three out of the seven grant winners who received funding to develop their proposed technologies that provide affordable refrigeration in developing countries.

New Leaf Dynamic Technologies, New Delhi, India: Ice-Maker Powered by Farm Waste

This company will use its “GreenCHILL” adsorption technology to develop an ice-maker driven by farm waste, including wood, hay, biomass pellets, straw and cow dung. The ice-maker will be able to cool 15 metric tons of perishable goods, or 1,500 liters of milk, without using electric power or a generator at an affordable production cost of $0.02 per kilogram (KG). This price, Akash Agarwal, a cofounder, states in an interview with The Borgen Project, is 10 times cheaper than the “conventional system.” Furthermore, Agarwal affirms, the ice-maker is a “green solution” that enables farmers to be “completely independent” and have access to an energy source that is “available throughout the year.”

Clean Energy Processes (CEP) Laboratory, South Kensington, UK: Affordable Decentralized Off-Grid Ice-Making

The CEP Laboratory and Solar Polar will design a solar-driven diffusion absorption refrigeration (DAR) ice-maker that uses sunlight as a form of “radiative heat,” traps it into a fluid stream in “solar thermal collectors” and thereafter produces ice. In an interview with The Borgen Project, Christos Markides, a Chemical Engineering Professor who leads the CEP Laboratory, states that it was critical to design a system that may not have access to electricity or easy access to water to resemble the situation in many arid and remote regions. Therefore, Prof. Markides says, the ice-maker will not use a compressor or need electricity to operate and will instead use the ammonia, water and hydrogen to create pressure and temperature differences that create ice.

Xergy, Inc., Harrington, Delaware: Off-the-Grid Refrigerator Utilizing Solid-State Refrigerants

Xergy plans to build a refrigerator that is driven by thermal energy and uses “metal hydrides” to “metallurgically bond” with hydrogen gas to produce cooling. In an interview with The Borgen Project, Jacob Xerby, the VP of Operations, stated that this heat transfer through metal is “hundreds of times better” than heat transfer through a gas, leading to more efficient and cost-effective cooling. Furthermore, Xerby contends that solar thermal refrigeration is much more “economically viable” than nuclear, gas, fossil fuel, wind energies or photovoltaic (PV) energies.

The rest of the grant winners included the Ray W. Herrick Laboratories at Purdue University, which won two grants for its “Cold Storage Battery for Domestic Refrigeration” and its “Heating and Cooling for Agricultural Applications,” Solar Cooling Engineering’s “Solar Ice-Maker Using Key Components and Engineering,” and Arup’s “Passive Cooling Box.” 

How Do Refrigeration Technologies Impact Off-Grid Communities?

When off-grid communities gain access to refrigeration technologies, this means that there will be less food waste, safer storage for “high-quality” vaccines, fewer market trips to buy perishable foods and more opportunities for farmers to boost their incomes. This increased availability to the “cold chain” process, which extends the life of dairy products, fish, fruit and vegetables, can lead to amplified brain development and improve children’s education. This is because, Bentley asserts, students who “eat better, do better” in school. Access to refrigeration technologies can also reduce the burden on women and advance gender equality, Dowdy states, by reducing the number of trips that they take to the market to acquire perishable foods.

EWB’s Chill Challenge awarded seven grants to colleges and companies that commit themselves to expand the reach of affordable refrigeration in developing countries to low-income, off-grid communities in hopes of reducing food waste, increasing nutrition and fostering gender equality.

– Natasha Nath
Photo: Unsplash


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