China puts the chill on ozone depletion in its Montreal Protocol push

Offshore construction in Yantai, Shandong Province, at sunset.

Chinese legend tells of a time when a great battle left holes in the sky. The hero of the story, Goddess Nüwa, used her power and wisdom to patch the sky and end the devastating catastrophe. Her story is echoed today, albeit a little less dramatically, as China is helping to restore the ozone layer with the adoption of a new technology in refrigeration.

Keeping things cool comes at a high environmental price as ozone-depleting substances (ODS) are traditionally the elements key to refrigeration. But with new technology at Moon Tech (formerly Yantai Moon), a large-scale Chinese industrial refrigeration company, cooling systems are getting an environmentally friendly overhaul.

Moon Tech’s Deputy Chief Engineer, Jiang Shaoming, explains that the technology breaks one system into two, and replaces the harmful hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) with two chemicals, ammonia and carbon dioxide (CO2), that create a cooling effect when mixed together at the right time.

“The ammonia first cools down a bit and then works in the middle-temperature zone. And CO2 enters the low-temperature zone. The operation of the whole refrigeration system relies on the interaction of the two refrigerants,” she says.

“This project is one of the greatest successes of my entire career.” — Jiang Shaoming, Deputy Chief Engineer at Moon Tech

The Montreal Protocol

Almost 30 years ago, the world agreed to stop using the substances that bore holes in the protective stratospheric layer, the ozone layer, at an alarming rate. With the thinning of the ozone layer, the planet was exposed to cancer-causing sun rays that damaged plant and animal life. Recognizing the dire cost of inaction, world leaders quickly signed the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, an international pact to eliminate the use of these harmful substances.

China joined the Montreal Protocol in 1991 and has since carried out a vast national programme to meet the ODS phase-out targets. The country has passed a series of laws, regulations, policies and standards that, according to the head of its Foreign Economic Cooperation Office (FECO), in the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, has helped the world’s largest country take great strides towards meeting its Protocol commitments.

“Over the past two decades, the total amount of HCFCs, Freons and halon that we have eliminated in both the production and the consumption sectors accounted for more than half of the amount eliminated in the same period by all other developing countries,” says Chen Liang, Director General of FECO.

Systems using the ammonia and carbon dioxide cascade technology are produced in Moon Tech’s factory in Yantai. All the equipment can be monitored and controlled remotely.

Back at Moon Tech, engineers including Jiang Shaoming developed a way to prevent 425,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide filling the atmosphere. That’s the equivalent of greenhouse gas emissions from over 96,000 passenger vehicles driven for one year.

According to Jiang, this new technology is not just good for the environment, it’s cheaper for the consumer too. “CO2 is less expensive and it’s a natural refrigerant, so the operations and maintenance costs are lower. Energy-wise, it can save about 10 percent or more electricity when compared to traditional refrigeration systems,” she said.

Technology transfer

Supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and FECO, the initiative received the Ozone Award in 2017. Through its Montreal Protocol Unit, UNDP helps developing countries to eliminate ODS by promoting technology transfer and technical assistance, building capacity, encouraging partnership with the private sector, among others.

“This project creates a baseline that can be replicated and scaled up in China and globally”, says Agi Veres, Country Director at UNDP China Country Office. “China has a lot to offer to the world, and with UNDP’s network and capacity we can facilitate a lot of that good technological innovation and interesting new policies going to other countries,” she adds.

Moon Tech’s innovative technology can now be found in Taiwan, Uzbekistan and Indonesia, but the company’s president says that initially it wasn’t easy to get even Chinese companies to buy the equipment using the new technology, let alone to sell it to a global market.

“In the beginning it was really hard to convince our clients to switch to the new system. One of the issues was that the ammonia and carbon dioxide cascade technology puts a relatively higher pressure on the compressor, valve and pipe. And this increased the price of the equipment by about 10%, which meant that the initial investment was higher,” says Li Zengqun, Moon Tech president.

This new technology cuts China’s annual emissions equal to that of the pollution generated by 52 million full tanks of gas in a car. The benefits are undeniable.

The challenge with patents

Annually, China’s new technology cuts the pollution equal to that generated by 52 million full tanks of gas in a car.

Even though the country seems to be in the right path to phase out ODS, enforcing regulations created to protect the ozone layer in small and medium enterprises remains a challenge.

“China’s refrigeration and air conditioning industry is very large, and the small and medium enterprises have shortcomings in meeting the required technological and market application capabilities,” says Zhang Zhaohui, Secretary-General of the China Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Industry Association.

Patents for the new technology, Zhang says, is too costly for small businesses to bear, and with enough small businesses in operation unable to compete, meeting the overall goals of the Montreal Protocol will be difficult.

But the technology is out there and China, along with the rest of the world, is committed to the Protocol. Scientists have seen a halt to more ozone depletion and are seeing a stratosphere healing. Patching the holes in the sky is not just a legend anymore.

Story by Michelle Alves de Lima and photos by UNDP/Mike Atwood

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