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Chill challenge: affordable off-grid refrigeration for developing countries

Engineers Without Borders USA (EWB-USA) has launched a challenge competition to develop innovative refrigeration technologies for off-grid households in the developing world.  

“As many as two billion people live without refrigeration,” said Andrew Dowdy one of EWB-USA’s engineers instrumental in developing the challenge, “It’s more than just a convenience, refrigeration can be an essential service, improving the quality of life for millions of people in a number of important ways, but has largely been an unaffordable option, especially for those that live without access to grid power.”  

The Challenge will provide up to 10 grants between $25,000 to $50,000 for the development of proof of concept prototypes for low-cost refrigerators and community ice-makers. EWB-USA seeks to address the refrigeration gap and push engineers and inventors in their thinking around refrigeration, especially the assumption that off-grid refrigeration will look a lot like on-grid.

“It is time to revisit that,” said Mr Dowdy, “We need to re-think off-grid refrigeration in two important ways. First, rather than continuing to try to adapt existing refrigerators to the off-grid market, we need to examine other refrigeration technologies to identify ones that may be more appropriate for off-grid customers and conditions. In addition, we need to rethink our definition of refrigeration to include not only household units but also other solutions such as community-sized ice-makers.” 

While individual household refrigerators may remain a long-term aspirational goal, EWB-USA wants to fill the refrigeration gap for the hundreds of millions of people who are projected to acquire electricity via 'mini-grids' or solar home systems.

Cathy Leslie, P.E., EWB-USA’s executive director, is especially keen on the idea, “Our mission is to lift people out of poverty and reliable, affordable and sustainable refrigeration is a huge step in the right direction. Successful solutions to our refrigeration challenge will be a game-changer for millions of people. We are extremely proud to launch the Chill Challenge, catalyse new thinking and see new developments. I’m excited.”

EWB-USA is proud to have ASHRAE as a Chill Challenge partner contributing to its expert panel of technical reviewers and providing outreach for the Challenge. “Off-grid refrigeration technology is growing but has yet to enter the marketplace in developing nations in a significant way,” says Rajan Rajendran, chair of ASHRAE’s Refrigeration Committee. “We hope that the outcomes and lessons learned from this competition will inspire greater participation and innovation that will ultimately provide communities with expanded access to affordable refrigeration technology that is compatible with off-grid energy sources.” 

The international development community also sees refrigeration as an integral tool in lifting people out of poverty. EWB-USA’s engineering team of Mr Dowdy and his colleague Larry Bentley took their challenge concept to the XPRIZE Foundation, making it to the semi-finals and drawing the attention and support of the Open Philanthropy Project who subsequently committed $500,000 to EWB-USA to establish the Challenge.

Refrigeration is key to supporting a number of Sustainable Development Goals set out by the United Nations, including health, nutrition, improving economic opportunities and reducing the burden on women by freeing up time spent travelling to the market daily for perishable foods. However, its high power consumption, combined with high off-grid electricity prices makes affordable refrigeration a challenge.

EWB is soliciting applications for the development of prototypes of either a small commercial refrigerator or a community ice-maker affordable for off-grid communities.  The competition will be open to companies, university teams, or individual inventors worldwide. 

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