Huge potential for food transport refrigeration
The National Research Foundation (NRF) has identified what is known as clean cold technology as a possible focus for investment.
It is examining the possibility of commissioning Nanyang Technological University (NTU) to undertake a study that will profile Singapore's demand for cooling up to 2030, and determine the economic value of a "cold energy economy" here.
A cold energy economy is one where "waste cold" that arises as a by-product of industrial processes is stored, transported and recycled for use in air-conditioning, refrigeration, to cool data centres or even to propel an engine, said Dr Yeoh Lean Weng, who directs energy and environment research at the NRF.
Dr Yeoh told The Straits Times: "NRF has done a technology survey, and we think that the technology has changed since the Economic Development Board looked at this in 2012. (The new technology) may facilitate better applications for cold energy."
The largest untapped source of cold energy here would be the liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal on Jurong Island, where imported LNG stored below -160 deg C has to be regasified before it can be used for power generation. All that cold is lost to seawater during regasification, although this may soon change.
Last week, the Energy Market Authority awarded grants to two research teams from the National University of Singapore that are exploring new technologies to desalinate seawater alongside an LNG terminal, using the cold energy it emits.
But the NRF, together with the National Climate Change Secretariat, wants to do a deeper study to see how feasible it is for waste cold to be stored and moved around the city and to assess how substantial the energy savings would be, said Dr Yeoh.
Last July, Singapore pledged to the United Nations that it is committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions intensity by 36 per cent compared with 2005 levels by 2030, and to stop emission levels from growing beyond 2030.
"The study will tell us, based on the current technology, what are some of the things we can do, and what is the supply and demand (for cold energy in Singapore) that we can work with. If there are certain areas that still require some research and development, we will fund those areas," said Dr Yeoh.
He did not disclose how much NRF intends to pump into cold technology, but expects the NTU's initial study to cost around $400,000 and take 10 months to complete if it is approved by NRF's evaluation panel in early April.
Professor Louis Phee, chair of NTU's school of mechanical and aerospace engineering, said: "Singapore is definitely on the lookout for other sources of clean energy, and this is a good example. That's why we're so interested. We have people in clean energy, fluid mechanics and thermodynamics people, and if we can harness this excess cold, we can put it to good use."
The team has engaged Dearman, a British engineering company and a pioneer in cooling technologies, to act as a consultant to their project.
"They've done a full-scale feasibility study in the United Kingdom, and hold patents for certain background technology. If it is viable, we can license some of their technologies and then build on it," said Prof Phee.
For example, Dearman has found a way to use liquid air as an energy store. Air becomes liquid when it is cooled to -196 deg C and kept in an insulated cylinder. Once exposed to ambient heat, liquid air boils and the pressure from that can drive a piston engine, while giving off large amounts of cold.
Dearman completed tests on one such engine this month, and the company hopes to put 30 trucks with zero-emission refrigeration systems on the road for commercial trials in Britain, Europe and the United States by the end of the year.
The potential for harnessing waste cold for food transport refrigeration alone is huge. Right now, chiller vans consume up to 20 per cent of their diesel to keep their refrigeration units running, and these units create more air pollution than a modern truck engine.
Professor Toby Peters, chief executive of Dearman and visiting professor in power and cold economy at the University of Birmingham, said after visiting NTU last year: "I think it's a very smart call by Singapore to start engaging, because there's a greater demand for cold in hot countries than in cold countries, and this is a major market opportunity where those people who can get the lead can have potential economic value."
Correction note: The article was edited to clarify that the Energy Market Authority awarded grants to two research teams from NUS.