Equipping Growth in Cold Chain sector

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Cold Chain

Equipping Growth in Cold Chain sector

“The government’s initiative of incentivizing the cold chain sector is one big step in pushing the growth of cold chain infrastructure. The government further strengthened its intent by announcing India Cooling Action plan, which seeks to integrate all cooling efforts in technology, manufacturing, efficiency and environmental issues. The future developmental perspective should be based on the methods and ways of operating or controlling commercial refrigeration that will save energy. Cold store operators should think of ways and control strategies to save energy,” emphasizes Mr. Asheesh Fotedar, COO, National Centre for Cold Chain Developement (NCCD), during an interview…

What has been the impact of Covid-19 pandemic on cold chain segment?

Asheesh Fotedar, COO, NCCD

The outbreak of Covid-19 and its fallouts like lockdown and near zero human-tohuman interface led its onslaught on nations across the globe, with India being no exception. The pandemic’s threatening impact on the economic and industrial stability led to major distress in various sectors and deep disruption in the global supply chain system. The silver lining, however, was that the pandemic had created a positive impact on the cold chain sector. It would be unfair to not point out that the rising distress affected the consumers. However, they became conscious of their eating habits and their awareness level towards health, wellness, and consumption of proteins, etc., to counter side effects of pandemic. This has resulted in increased consumption of milk and dairy products, fruits & green vegetables and products like meat, eggs, and seafood. The consumption of fruit & vegetables, meat and eggs saw a major surge during these times. Owing to which, distributors and producers started to indulge in the process of understanding the importance of cold chain. It allowed the cold chain segment to remodel itself and position itself as the major support system to people when everything looked in distress and jeopardy. 

The industry also took a challenge within and with all its resources, they allowed timely pickups and deliveries of all food and perishable fruit, veggies, and meats. It allowed people safety and a system where deliveries were made at home with minimum or no risk. With increased pressure from the secondary markets, it became very evident and necessary to ramp up the storage capacity as well as the cold chain transport.

With increased pressure from healthcare system to allow and transport vaccines to the last mile in a controlled temperature condition, the demand for storage and cold chain logistics saw a major spike. The efficient management of cold chain transportation was essential for maintaining the integrity of the products and vaccines to be transported. 

As per reports published by various market research organizations, the cold chain market is estimated to grow at a CAGR ranging between 10—14% in the Asia pacific region. India would surely feature in top countries in this robust growth due to its strong economic development and focus not only to counter economic setback due to pandemic but to grow at a faster pace to achieve its milestone of attaining a position among top three economies of the world. 

What were the challenges faced during Covid 19?

Due to mental distress and overall fear of getting infected by the deadly virus, I understand the dependence on packaged food, ready to eat (RTE), and soft beverages increased manyfold as it allowed people to store the products for longer period without venturing out. This, in turn, impacted the supply chain at back-end and due to multiple restrictions during the pandemic, the situation became very tense. It further impacted the back end as government started the initiatives of delivering free meals and food to migrant laborers. As the saying goes, ‘Necessity is the mother of all inventions’, the manufacturers introduced various products with increased shelf life, which allowed them to regulate the manufacturing system as well the supply chain. The result was that supplies were clubbed with other deliveries and a very well-oiled mechanism of mixed distribution was started based on the consumption pattern. It was also noted that dependence on organized retail and e-commerce took prudence, which has been effectively providing the necessary spine strength to the whole system to encounter the most unexpected challenge that mankind had to face in last 100 years. These challenges created an opportunity for the development of food value chain backed by a robust cold chain model that allows storage of perishable and high value products for a longer time. These factors have propelled the growth of cold chain and its importance is now paramount.

How has it evolved over the years and how is it slated to grow from here on?

The cold chain sector has evolved at a very dynamic speed over the years. Let me explain. Cold chain is a step-bystep process, and one mismanaged step can result in break in the chain. Its two very distinctive steps include stationary Cold storage and distribution through controlled temperature transport. The government started to understand the importance of storage way back in 60s and by 80s, the specific storages and capacity built up was notified in various five-year plans. 

In and around year 2000, the Cold chain was mostly cold storages and sector was mostly pumped by Hospitality and pharmaceutical research companies, dairy, and ice cream industry at that time. The government, by this time, understood the role of Cold chain and floated many incentive schemes for setting up of these types of facilities, which would allow farmers, traders to set up these types of cold stores for storing and processing their produce. In around 2003, with the arrival of fast food chains in India, the concept of walk-in coolers and walk-in freezers started to pick up pace and the concept of maintaining cold chain gathered steam as these groups maintained back-end kitchens, known as commissaries, from where fast food was transported in refer trucks and in case the walk-in cooler or freezer would become out of order at the store, the food would not be delivered and maintained under temperature-controlled condition in the refer vehicle.

With the advent of retail in 2004-05, it started to realize the amount of fruit & vegetables that was lost due to ineffective Cold chain infrastructure was equal to GDP of some countries. In addition, it was understood that this loss is loss to farmers and to prevent & safeguard the interest of farmers, a holistic approach was initiated within the sector. Major transformations started to happen, and every step of the Cold Chain process was given vital importance. Grading and Sorting, precooling, blast cooling, storing and creation of distribution hubs and then transporting the perishable cargo in controlled temperature conditions became essential part and supply chain transformed and evolved into a Value Chain.

The evolution has been sturdy & fast, and the best part of this growth journey is that the journey seems to have just begun though the case is different. The sector has an innate dynamic character, which will constantly propel it on the wings of growth and in the next thirty years, don’t be astonished if you see Cold hain sector as one of the leading sectors in building a new Indian economy.

What are the latest technological interventions in this segment?

Cold chain is an engineering process, and all its subparts derive its work done with the basic principle of energy consumption. The question here is how much energy consumption? The next hing is how to derive energy efficiency out of the subparts to make the cold chain a part of sustainable growth. The answer lies in the use of modern technologies and designs. 

In earlier days, the large industrial cold storages used to run on bunker coil system and technology & design was never considered important. To maintain the level of CO2 at particular level in cold storages, doors were produced at the top of cold storage, which would be opened to infuse fresh air from top and at the ground, all the doors would be opened, which would allow the stale CO2 inhibited air to be flushed out. Whatever was available from a supplier was what a consumer had to be content with. 

In the recent times, a lot of emphasis has been given on technology and designs. There are modern refrigeration technologies, which use compressors that can be controlled via microprocessors for effective energy conservation. These technologies effectively work on controls and electronic sensors, which command the refrigeration system to optimize the work done equivalent to the requirement of energy to cool the required area, which is holding the produce. In addition to the Controlled Atmosphere (CA), technologies have been adopted for the preservation and storage of apples up to more than 5 months. CA conditions enable the apples to remain as fresh and juicy as they are plucked from the trees. Besides, IQFs, spiral freezers, dehydration plants, grading & packing lines with optical graders, scientific ripening technologies, material handling systems, new racking designs, BOPTs, docking stations, refer containers with dual temperature systems working on hybrid mode, modern sliding door systems, sectional doors on docks, etc., are being widely used in today’s cold chain industry. With the intervention of these technologies, the cold chain segment is witnessing a very rapid phase change. 

Give us a major overview of cold chain infrastructure and some processes. What, in your view, is the role and development of Refrigerants?

The main objective of cold chain is to keep the products safe and extend the shelf life of the perishable produce. It is the process of extending the holding life of those products, which cannot exist in natural conditions at the time of their harvest and are dependent upon conditions like controlled temperature, humidity, specific storage pattern, controlled flow of air inside the storage areas.

In a cold chain, the place where the produce is first brought and subjugated to conditions relevant in extending the holding life is known as PACK HOUSE. Depending upon the nature of produce and its specific requirements, a Pack house can be a normal shed, or it can be a place where essentially, produce undergoes curing if required, washing, grading, sorting, precooling and then shifting either to a cold storage or transported in refer truck to the market for sale and consumption. 

The requirement of temperature and the process as defined above depends upon the produce and the product. For example, ice cream is manufactured in continuous freezers, which are derived from semi-solid mixture of milk and other ingredients at around –4 deg C. The packing is done at the outlet and the material is shifted to blast freezers where this semi-solid liquid is blasted in a high volume of air at -30 to -35 deg C for about four hours to prevent crystallization of ice cream. It further hardens the ice cream and allows the entrapment of air in the ice cream rapidly to prevent it from losing weight and shape both. This hardened ice cream is then shifted to freezers, which are run at -18 deg C with minimum air flows and pull-down time designed up to 18 hours and so. This ice cream is then loaded in refer containers, which are maintained at -20 deg C and transported to retail outlets where the product is stored in chest freezers till, we consume it. In the same way, chicken freezing has a different process and to prevent rigor mortis, the chicken after slaughter must go under different processes before it’s chilled to reduce its core temperature of 40 deg c and then blasted at an air temperature of -35 deg c in 3 hours’ time before it is stored at –18 deg C to -20 deg C.

In other instance, like citrus, it is important to precool the produce up to 80% of its storing temperature in max 5 hours’ time. The humidity level has to be near 95% and air flow level has to be maintained at around more than 100 CFM. Once the precooling is done to remove the farm heat, the shelf life of produce increases by 7 to 10 days. This allows the produce to be shifted to a cold store where the remaining 20% of required temperature (1 deg C) is attained in around 16 hours’ time and humidity levels maintained at around 95%. Similarly, for different types of produce, different type of processes, temperature, and humidity levels along with control of gases and flow of air, are recommended and are to be followed to ensure that they are safeguarded against early ripening and deterioration. 

Role and development of refrigerants 

The stratospheric ozone depletion and greenhouse effect due to refrigerant emissions have led to changes in the use of refrigerants. This has pushed for technological advancements in the refrigeration system and various companies have taken a leading role in the research and development of environment friendly refrigerant systems. The new challenges with chlorine free refrigerants is greenhouse effect. The aim must be the reduction of direct emissions. On a global level, the Kigali Amendment was adopted in year 2016 under the Montreal Protocol, in which phase down of HFCs was to start by 2019. The effect of gases, which have high GWP, are being changed with alternatives with lower GWP. The use of naturally occurring substances will have to be used more. For HFC gases, phase down alternatives is possible with blends with high proportions of HFO and possibly hydrocarbons, however, the disadvantage is in flammability. In addition, the other disadvantage to these blends is that more GWP is reduced, more will be the reduced refrigerating capacity and distinct temperature glides. This will limit the applications and will require specific demand for design of heat exchangers.

The natural refrigerants like NH3 have been used for considerable time in industrial refrigeration plants. It does not deplete ozone and has no direct GWP. It’s an attractive option against HFCs but there are some negative aspects, which restrict the wider use in the commercial area. The major disadvantage is higher discharge temperatures and single stage compression after certain evaporating temperatures and its usage in smaller plants. The lubricants need to be separated with complex technology and limit the use of direct expansion due to deterioration in the heat transfer.

The CO2 is non-ozone depleting with negligible GWP of 1, non-toxic, non-flammable and chemically inactive. In early days due to safety relevant characteristics, its widespread use was found in marine refrigeration systems. However, the discharge pressure with CO2 is extremely high and critical temperature is essentially low. CO2 can be used in cascade systems in ] combination with a booster stage for lower evaporating temperature and very beneficial applications can be seen for industrial as well as commercial refrigeration projects.

What are the development perspectives and challenges for this sector in future?

The government’s initiative of incentivizing the cold chain sector is one big step in pushing the growth of cold chain infrastructure. The government further strengthened its intent by announcing India Cooling Action plan, which seeks to integrate all cooling efforts in technology, manufacturing, efficiency and environmental issues. 

The future developmental perspective should be based on the methods and ways of operating or controlling commercial refrigeration that will save energy. Cold store operators should think of ways and control strategies to save energy. This can start with proper design of the system: Any cooling technology is not used to cool the spaces, but the main objective is to cool the produce stored into it. Every produce stored has a designed shelf life. After harvesting when the produce is cut off from its normal supply of food, the living process continues through utilization of previously stored food substances. To slow the living process by retarding its enzymic activity, it is preserved under conditions, which we know as Refrigeration. 

Every produce has a specific heat above and below freezing, respiration load, entering temperature, etc., which determines how much energy would be required to remove its both sensible and latent heat for controlling its spoilage. Then heat leaks, infiltration loads, heat produced by electric motors in cooling spaces put a lot of emphasis on calculation of heat loads. There must be focus on the reduction of energy consumption by cold stores and it can happen when we first know heat load calculations and then focus on three principal areas: Reducing heat loads on the store; Improved component design and its effectiveness in energy conservation and usage operations; and Cycled maintenance for improved operational efficiency of the refrigeration system.

In many instances, especially in frozen stores, temperatures are kept lower than necessary to provide a safety margin. Often operators apply strategies to save money by switching off the refrigeration systems during peak demand. During this period, the temperature within the room is allowed to rise and is then reduced back. The focus should be saving energy and money would be automatically saved. The use of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar is likely to play a role in reducing the environmental impact of the energy used by cold stores. There should improvements in the form of changing equipment, which are not energy efficient and technically worn out. These improvements have very short payback times and should be done in accordance with latest laws and policies that govern the sector. 

As stated earlier in October 2016, the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol brought another dimension to the mandate of the Montreal Protocol by adding the control of production and usage of hydrofluorocarbons. This is the most challenging aspect of this sector, and it is important to ensure our focus is renewed every time on the control and phasing out of these of gases which have high GWP. This control will add to climate benefit. The emissions of HFCs are also listed within the group of GHGs (Greenhouse Gases) under the climate related conventions i.e., Paris Agreement and previously the Kyoto Protocol. 

The impact of refrigerant is both direct and indirect. The direct impact arises from the fact that emissions contribute to Global Warming potential. The indirect impact is associated with the energy consumption, which directly results in higher generation of power to run these equipment. This pushes for burning of more fossil fuel and which, in turn, adds lot of carbon footprint to environment, thus creating a gas chamber effect on this planet. 

The goal for every designer, every organization should be capacity built up, which ensures minimizing direct and indirect impacts of all types of refrigerants. Cold chain solutions should be addressed through improved design, use of modern technologies and better field commissioning laid out maintenance practices, its lifecycle, and decommissioning procedures. The agencies should be vigilant enough for the enforcement of local regulations and preventive checks should be initiated to ensure that the system is operating in desired conditions, and which don’t harm our goal of sustainable growth, clean environment, and reduced energy consumption.

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