The move from 141-b affects both the cold chain and the final chilled container – domestic refrigerators. ‘Pentane has safety and storage issues,’ Fan explained. ‘These can be costly to solve, and it is easier for larger players to do this. But medium and small companies have problems with safety.’
Another problem, he said, is that HFOs are too expensive for most of the market. ‘Perhaps the next step, if not to use pentane, is to use a mixture of 245 or water and 245,’ he said. ‘There are formulations in the market at the moment. The answer changes from customer to customer. Whoever can make the right additive package with silicone will make money in the domestic refrigeration market.’
Two or three biggest producers use pentane, Fan said, and they also use a mixture of 245, pentane and LBA and C5. These combinations give low K factor and high insulation. Refrigerators made this way are exported to Europe, and the balance are sold domestically. However, most pentane-blown fridges made in China are sold in China.
For machinery makers, it looks like the era of rapid refrigerator production capacity growth has passed. Ge said that in 2018, the Chinese market shrank slightly.
Hennecke sales manager Sawyer Chen agreed. ‘A lot of investment has happened,’ he said. ‘Now it is slowing; they have enough capacity for the market. New business is about retrofitting or replacement of old machines.’
He added that five to eight years ago, they received many enquiries for the new plants. ‘Now there are about half the number of projects and they are more complex,’ he said. We have to include new customer demands. Historically, there was just one mix head, while now there can be two. Processing is more complicated.’
‘China is even exporting food to Vietnam – they have the demand,’
Frank Zang, Bradbury
In China, he said, 80% of refrigerators are made at three production hubs, in Guangzhou, Chengado and Hufai. Hennecke has even had projects to retrofit all of the machines on an individual production site.
Cannon’s Ge said his company is more focused on customisation of production. This is becoming necessary to meet customer demands as refrigerator makers move away from standard products.
In the future, it is possible that there will not be a fixed size for a refrigerator, leaving manufacturers having to deal with different, and more complex, product mixes. By using digital technology the final customer will send their needs one by one to refrigerator manufacturers. Haier has already started doing this.
Consumer demand is changing, too. ‘The trend in China is for consumers to want larger domestic refrigerators,’ Chen said. ‘These can be 500L capacity, or bigger. To meet this demand, refrigerator producers need bigger fixtures, upgraded mix heads and meters. They also need rigid polyurethane formulations with a high flow rate.’
'New business is about retrofitting or replacement of old machines'
Sawyer Chen, Hennecke
The rate of fill has doubled over the past 10 years, he said. About 10 years ago, flow rate was typically 1kg/second, but now it could be 2kg/second. ‘We need big mix heads and have to adopt to the components which are being made,’ Chen explained. ‘This could mean a change the injection point. This has been done traditionally from the bottom through the compressor core. Now, it is about using two or three injectors, or moving to vacuum-assisted filling processes. When the process changes, then the machinery has to change.’
Chen said his company builds machines to customer demands, but standard machines are more commonly supplied. About 20% are customised. The cold chain sector faces challenges These include regional imbalances in warehouse capacity, and some produce sectors such as agriculture are battling with first-mile logistics problems. Meanwhile, Hubei, Hunan and Shandong provinces have too much capacity and, in some cases, outdated facilities. In 2018, a total of 2 million tonne of refrigerated warehouse capacity was hard to lease to users.
Despite these problems, with a rapidly growing cold chain and an established domestic refrigeration market, there are plenty of opportunities for raw material suppliers and machinery makers in China at the moment.