This cool innovation offers a green alternative to refrigerants

This cool innovation offers a green alternative to refrigerants

Toronto-based Enersion’s system converts solar radiation into cooling, heating and electricity — producing four times more energy than solar panels alone.

Hanif Montazeri has always been obsessed with devices. Growing up in Iran, he and his brother loved to make electronic gadgets. Over the course of two summers in the late ’90s, they even designed and fabricated an electric 18-wheel toy truck that could turn, signal and move at speeds of 4 km/h by voice command. And while Montazeri was pursuing his PhD in mechanical engineering at the University of Toronto in the mid-2000s, he was “always looking for the next great product.”

Less than a decade later, he might just have found what he was looking for in the form of a climate solution that can achieve as much as 60 percent savings in energy costs. In 2016, Montazeri and fellow engineer Arshan Singh founded Enersion, a Toronto-based company that provides emissions-free cooling, heating and electricity — as well as a viable alternative to refrigerants.

Enersion’s on-site system converts solar radiation to cooling, heating and electricity, producing four times more energy than solar panels alone. Hybrid photovoltaic panels produce electricity and heat, while solid nanoporous materials — which Montazeri first came across during his postdoctoral work — convert heat to cooling in seconds. That ability to cool without refrigerants could be a huge win in the fight against climate change.

“I can’t emphasize enough how awful synthetic refrigerants are,” says Montazeri, who is also an engineering professor at the University of Toronto. “They’re one of the worst things you can do to the environment.”

Refrigerants, which in addition to air conditioning are used in storage of food and medical products, in transporting perishable goods as well in the operation of equipment, such as IT systems, create potent greenhouse gases. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, HFC-134a, the hydrofluorocarbon that has been used in motor vehicle air conditioning since the 1990s, has a global warming potential more than 1,400 times that of carbon dioxide.

“We call synthesized refrigerants the plastics of air,” says Montazeri. “They stay for almost 100 years in the atmosphere.”

According to the National Resources Defense Council, reducing HFC emissions could prevent 0.5 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100, “a critical chunk of abatement needed to achieve the Paris Agreement’s 1.5-degree warming limit.” Targeting cooling systems could go a long way to meeting that goal. The use of air conditioning and fans for cooling accounts for about 10 percent of all global electricity use, the International Energy Agency reports. It’s the fastest growing use of energy in buildings, and as heat waves become more frequent that figure is set to rise even higher. By 2050, the IEA estimates two-thirds of households globally could be using air conditioning.

When Montazeri and the team were first developing the solution, other companies were working with similar technology. But their competitors’ products were prohibitively expensive. “We said, let’s make it our mission to make a system as green and clean and neat as they are offering, but find a different mechanical design so that it becomes affordable,” he says. “Because if it’s not affordable, it’s just science fiction.”

By 2019, after several iterations and prototypes, Montazeri and his co-founders were ready to try out their creation. The first test was at a data protection service company called Canada 15Edge Data Centres (now Whipcord Edge), where the system achieved an 83 percent reduction in electricity consumption. (It used waste heat from the data centre to provide cooling.) “Some improvements were needed,” Montazeri recalls. “But it was a great initial success.”

Montazeri and his team built on that early success and continued to refine their system. But, like many Canadian startups, they faced many challenges raising enough capital to increase production. “Canadians are making fabulous products but they’re not being adopted fast enough, so the companies end up going to the United States or simply do not have enough money to grow,” Montazeri says. “The people who build these products went through the university systems here. We’ve been supported by the Canadian ecosystem and many wonderful organizations. But I don’t think we can survive as a country if we don’t increase our appetite for risk.”

Funding from SDTC has been critical to its growth, he says. “Without their support, none of our commercializations could have been accomplished.”

Enersion was also able to take advantage of one of a federal program, Innovative Solutions Canada, which supports the growth of innovative small- to medium-sized enterprises. Through ISC, Enersion made what proved to be a fruitful connection with the Royal Canadian Navy. Among other things, ISC matches startups with federal departments looking to test new products. As Meiz Majdoub, a Navy commander explains, the program allows participants to designate a portion of their operations and maintenance budgets to try out different options. “And the cool part about the program is that we get to keep the technology.”

The Royal Canadian Navy contracted Enersion to create a commercial version of its prototype for a new training facility that should be completed early in the new year. “I knew Enersion was in the infancy of its commercialization, and this test will inform our need to decarbonize our operations,” says Majdoub.

Enersion has also sold its technology to a greenhouse in Calgary, through Quest, an Ottawa-based non-profit government organization that helps communities toward their net-zero goals, along with support from Emissions Reduction Alberta and the Natural Gas Innovation Fund. The result: greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced by 40 per cent per year, Montazeri says.

Right now, Enersion’s technology is most suitable for larger buildings — hospitals, offices, stores, condominiums. The company is exploring possibilities with a hospital in Victoria. Most recently, Enersion received a formal letter of interest from Con Edison, New York City’s electricity supplier, for a retrofit of the company’s historic headquarters. That’s potentially big news, a foot in the door to a massive city that uses steam for heating and creates a lot of wastewater that Enersion’s tri-generation system could use for cooling.

But Montazeri isn’t planning on stopping until Enersion’s technology is available for “everyone in the world to use.” For an engineer, he says, “that’s the grand prize.”

Enersion is one of seven companies in Mission from MaRS: Public Procurement, a special initiative that’s working to make it easier for communities to adopt climate solutions.

Illustration by Monica Guan; Photo courtesy of Enersion