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Opinion: Can heat pumps help the F&B industry reach net-zero emissions?
Siân Yates

Siân Yates

1 February 2024

Opinion: Can heat pumps help the F&B industry reach net-zero emissions?


Patricia Provot, president of the Americas at Armstrong International, discusses the US Department of Energy’s $169 million grant initiative for industrial heat pumps and its aim to reduce emissions in the F&B sector. Industrial heat pumps, coupled with circular thermal methods, offer substantial energy savings and CO2 reductions. Provot underscores the transformative potential of this technology and its role in decarbonising production facilities.





The US Department of Energy (DoE) is making moves to accelerate the development and deployment of electric heat pumps in America, recently awarding $169 million in grants to nine companies across 15 states to jump-start production.


The effort is part of a solution to help build a clean energy economy, create good-paying manufacturing jobs, improve air quality, help families and businesses save money on their energy bills, and bolster national security by reducing dependence on foreign adversaries for energy resilience.


Global thermal energy manager Armstrong International, where I serve as president of the Americas, was selected among the nine grant recipients to produce heat pumps for major energy-consuming industrial facilities like F&B processing plants. These plants, according to a recent report released by the Renewable Thermal Collaborative (RTC), are among the nation’s leading producers of emissions from industrial heat.


As a result, F&B companies face growing pressure to reduce their carbon footprint and proceed toward net-zero emissions. It’s a big ask, but fortunately, the thermal energy usage within the sector is almost exclusively low-temperature processes, providing a unique opportunity to decarbonise with heat pumps.


Pump up the heat

Heat pumps find their efficiency through heat transfer rather than heat generation, as it requires much more power to produce heat than to displace it. They can provide three to four times as much energy in the form of heat as they’re using in electricity, making them a crucial part of reducing demand for fossil fuels and bolstering the clean energy economy.


Research from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) shows that industrial heat pumps can cut the energy use associated with industrial process heat by up to one third and enable CO2 savings of between 30-43 million tons per year in the US –equivalent to the emissions generated by 6.5-9.2 million gasoline-powered passenger vehicles annually.


But there’s more to the story. Used in conjunction with an internal process heat exchanger network, industrial heat pumps can play a primary role in what is known as Circular Thermal. The method includes taking a stream of waste heat and channelling it back to the process where the energy is needed.


This three-step process includes de-steaming (conversion to pressurised hot water) all applications below 250°F, recovering direct heat when a positive differential temperature is available, and using industrial heat pumps for raising the temperature of low-grade heat to a temperature that is useful for the process. This is especially helpful in F&B processing—particularly with dairy products—where a significant amount of energy is required for sterilisation and cold storage, which leads to a lot of waste heat during the cooling process.


In fact, about 50-80% of the primary energy input used in these plants is waste heat. Just a small fraction of that fossil fuel-generated energy input is used for manufacturing the product, while the rest is released in the form of hot exhaust gases and radiating heat from hot equipment surfaces and heated products.


Because these factories simultaneously need heat at relatively low temperatures to operate effectively, the waste heat becomes a valuable energy source. But first, before capturing the heat and putting it back to work, plant operators first need to understand the flow of energy within the plant, where it is going, and how much of it ends up as waste heat.


A trained thermal energy expert can identify this flow of energy by utilising process integration (PI), a methodology for mapping and overlapping heat sources and heat sinks to optimise heat recovery.


A greener future

Thanks to recent advancements in AI, IoT, SaaS solutions and cloud-based services, this process has become much more precise. Engineers are armed with enormous amounts of data, allowing them to make more exact measurements and accurately report system behaviour.


Once the mapping is complete, operators can optimise the facility using the Circular Thermal methodology and build a roadmap to complete decarbonisation. Plants that achieve full optimisation are left with about 20% of their original greenhouse gas emissions, which can be removed with renewable sources at a minimal cost, leading to net-zero emissions.


Indeed, industrial heat pumps are not a new technology. They were first developed and brought to commercialisation for industrial use in the 1980s but failed to make their mark in the US due to the availability of cheap natural gas. However, with today’s climate crisis raising the urgency to rethink how we’re treating the planet, combined with recent advancements in technology, heat pumps are becoming a vital, cost-effective part of the answer to our energy crisis.


When used in concert with the circular thermal approach, they are now perhaps the best solution we have for drastically reducing the CO2 emissions from today’s food production facilities.

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