Brian Fricke: Pioneering refrigerant work delivers big gains in carbon footprint reduction

For nearly a decade, ORNL's Brian Fricke has investigated alternative refrigerants with low global warming potential for use in building equipment, such as commercial supermarket coolers and heating, air conditioning and refrigeration systems. Credit: ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

For nearly a decade, ORNL’s Brian Fricke has investigated alternative refrigerants with low global warming potential for use in building equipment, such as commercial supermarket coolers and heating, air conditioning and refrigeration systems. Credit: ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

When Brian Fricke walks into a supermarket, evidence of his scientific achievement is all around in the refrigerated cases housing the fresh fruits and vegetables. As an Oak Ridge National Laboratory building equipment researcher, Fricke has a long history of making sure that produce is kept fresh in an energy efficient and environmentally sound manner.

Nearly a decade ago, he led research and development in collaboration with industry to develop refrigeration that reduces greenhouse gas emissions and lowers energy consumption – a system now widely used as the standard in supermarkets throughout North America.

“Seeing new technology penetrate the U.S. market, you know it never gets old witnessing that equipment in action just as a part of my daily life,” Fricke said. “It’s a feel-good kind of thing to know I had a little something to do with it.”

The big chill

Fricke’s seemingly small contribution has had a big impact on the amount of greenhouse gases known as hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, that are released from refrigerators into the atmosphere. Within just three years of being on the market, the redesigned refrigeration system he helped establish reduced the nation’s annual carbon footprint by an estimated 340 million pounds by using carbon dioxide instead of HFCs as the primary refrigerant.

“My job as a researcher was to troubleshoot the system before it reached the market, making sure it’s safe and compliant and cost-effective in southern climates where use is high,” he said. “Industry looks to national labs to eliminate any problems so that they know the equipment is going to work as anticipated.”

As group leader for building equipment research at ORNL, Fricke guides a team of researchers dedicated to helping industry develop, demonstrate and deploy energy-efficient technologies in residential and commercial buildings. Fricke’s team works to improve the performance of water heaters, heat pumps, air conditioners, dehumidifiers, refrigeration systems and alternative refrigerants. They use experimental testing chambers, novel materials and computer modeling at DOE’s Building Technologies Research and Integration Center at ORNL to develop climate-friendly technologies.

Fricke’s research has helped industry deliver some of the building technologies research program’s most notable innovations, such as proving that the environmentally friendly N40 refrigerant developed by Honeywell would perform well as a standard replacement for commercial refrigerant R-404A. The industry-developed non-flammable and non-toxic N40 has a low global warming potential, or GWP. Fricke compared the performance of the two and determined that N40 increased the efficiency of refrigeration systems by 10%. This discovery later paved the way for R-404A to be largely replaced and prohibited for use in new equipment and restricted in pre-existing equipment.

“Working on this project was one of the most rewarding because the lower GWP refrigerant was actually commercialized and put into use, and the positive impact to the environment is measurable,” he said. “It takes a lot of patience and time to prove concepts, but the sooner we do that, the quicker we can help industry get that innovation to the marketplace.”

Collaborative impact

For Fricke, the legacy of the Honeywell project continues. One of the scientists involved in the N40 refrigerant work on the industry side, Samuel Yana Motta, recently joined ORNL’s building equipment group as a senior R&D researcher. Fricke will collaborate with Motta as the group lead, and he anticipates the two will continue to tackle the challenge of keeping refrigerants safe, efficient, cost-effective and environmentally sound.

“Regulations continue to change, and you’ve got to be prepared to change with that, to adapt and move fast,” he said. “Refrigerants will remain a hot topic for the long term.”

Fricke said the goal of his research team is to find solutions through collaboration. “Industry looks to us for assistance with technical issues; the idea is that we generate new approaches and find those answers so that progress is made, and the result is a more energy-efficient product,” he added.

Fricke learned the power of collaboration before he joined ORNL. The Kansas City, Missouri native, who earned his doctorate in mechanical engineering from the University of Missouri, spent nearly two decades teaching, working his way up the ranks from a research assistant to an assistant professor position. While lecturing at the university, he joined ASHRAE, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, where he met fellow mechanical engineers working in industry and universities, nationally and internationally, and at national laboratories across the U.S.

By engaging with a network of professionals, Fricke gained insight into how national laboratories can be a resource to spur the development of innovations, specifically for the frozen food industry. Fricke has since served in numerous leadership roles within ASHRAE, chairing committees dedicated to commercial food and beverage cooling, refrigeration and low-GWP refrigerants research. He has served as a primary investigator on several ASHRAE publications and has been awarded numerous research grants. It’s through ASHRAE where he connected with ORNL and decided to step away from the academic world and transition to a full-time position with a national laboratory.

“Teaching was rewarding but, you know, doing the research is the balance I needed,” he said. “And since I came to the lab in 2010, I’ve steadily grown professionally. I’ve been able to do the hands-on work, and now I’m leading the direction of our building equipment research. It’s the right balance I didn’t really know I was missing all those years in academics.”

Fricke’s work with the professional organization grew along with his lab career. He recently became an ASHRAE Fellow, a distinction awarded to a select few across the globe who have made significant achievements and contributions to the heating, air conditioning, refrigeration and ventilation industry. Fricke said he credits his father, who was an engineer making components for the nuclear industry, for inspiring his career path.

“I learned from him how to take things apart and put them back together again,” he said. “Everything has to work together just right with components, no matter the application. We still have much to work toward with refrigerants, to get it right for the long term.”

Fricke intends for that work to specifically help locally owned grocery stores, too.

“It’s important to make new technologies accessible and cost-effective for everyone. I think about the small, independent groceries like (those) I grew up with in Kansas City. They likely have different needs, and it’s important to address them. They need solutions, too,” he said.

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