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Are climate-friendly cooling chips the future of refrigeration?

August 23, 2021

Are climate-friendly cooling chips the future of refrigeration?

Chemicals used in air conditioning, freezers and refrigeration have long hurt the environment by destroying the ozone layer and polluting water sources, but technology is starting to change the way we keep cool.

Phononic, a startup based in Durham North Carolina, is using a material called bismuth telluride to make so-called cooling chips.

On Wednesday this week, it said it has secured $50 million (€42,470,000) from Goldman Sachs Asset Management in funding.

So how do cooling chips work?
When electricity runs through the chip the current takes heat with it leaving one side of the chip to cool and the other to heat up, says Tony Atti, Phononic co-founder and CEO.

The chips can be as small as a fraction of a fingernail or as big as a fist depending on how many coolants are needed. So far they have been used to create compact freezers for vaccine transportation or for ice-cream at convenience stores.

It's about "cooling and heating our modern world responsibly, without toxic refrigerants," states the company.
A more recent and fast growing use is to prevent overheating in 'lidars', laser-based sensors in autonomous cars, and optical transceivers for 5G data transmission.

"The historical refrigerants that had been used for vapor compression systems, they are both toxic and global warming contributors," adds Atti.
While the global warming impact has been reduced in recent years, refrigerants still had issues with toxicity and flammability.

Can they be recycled?
While the bismuth telluride powder itself is toxic, when it is processed into a semiconductor wafer and made into a chip, it is "benign" and can be recycled or disposed as its meets all chip safety and disposal standards.

The cooling chips are manufactured in Phononic's own factory in Durham and for mass production the company is working with Thailand-based Fabrinet. The freezers for vaccines and ice-cream are built in China by contract manufacturers and carry the brands of Phononic's customers or in some cases are co-branded, he said.

The funding will be used to build out high-volume manufacturing and to expand Phononic's markets and product line.

Atti declined to share the latest valuation of Phononic but said it was "north of half a billion dollars". Previous investors include Temasek Holdings and private equity and venture capital firm Oak Investment Partners.

In future, the company suggests that it will have the ability to invent things "previously unimaginable", from cooling mattresses and motorbike helmets to cooling outdoor installations.

Learn more at here.

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