North America

Phononic Aims to Disrupt Cooling World with Solid-State System

During a televised interview on CNBC’s “Power Lunch” show on May 15 ( Tony Atti, CEO and co-founder of Durham, N.C., Phononic, discussed how the company’s solid-state thermoelectric cooling technology can be used on a drone that is transporting a small payload like a human organ for an emergency transplant. The PrecisionHawk drone sat on a table nearby.

“The weak link in cold-chain logistics is how to deliver any perishable good at the appropriate temperature,” he said. “With PrecisionHawk, we have been able to showcase a compact solution that runs off battery power with the drone itself for cold-chain transport.”

Drone transportation is one of several potential applications that the Phononic system can serve, in addition to current applications ranging from food retail to healthcare to optoelectronics.

As it enters a variety of sectors and partners with companies like Unilever, Pepsi Bottling Ventures and ThermoFisher Scientific, the decade-old company has been growing and gaining greater recognition for its compressor-free alternative to vapor-compression cooling systems. Phononic has 140 employees and has raised nearly $160 million in investment at a valuation of $284 million, said CNBC.

In May, Phononic was selected 17th on CNBC’s “Disruptor 50” list of cutting edge start-ups, marking the third time the company has been named to the list. Additionally, in 2017 the company received the Emerging Technology Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR program for its Evolve 5.5 ft3 Protect Plus undercounter refrigerator. That year the unit became the first sold-state refrigerator to earn ENERGY STAR certification in the refrigeration and frozen category.

Phononic currently has refrigerators commercially available up to 5.5 ft3, but the technology can scale to the 10-20+ ft3 range.

“Phononic’s solid-state cooling and heating technology is disrupting all industries where compressors currently play and those where they can’t, and we’re empowering innovators globally to rethink solutions to the world’s toughest thermal challenges,” said Atti in a statement.

For food stores, Phononic has partnered with Unilever to provide countertop ice cream freezers for placement at the checkout. Pepsi Bottling Ventures has installed Phononic refrigerators at the end of aisles near registers in some North Carolina supermarkets and convenience stores, said CNBC.

Phononic has also partnered with Singapore based Temasek Foundation Ecosperity to test its technology in air conditioning.

Other new partners include PNC Arena, a professional sports facility in Raleigh, N.C., and Bryte Labs, which is using the Phononic system to create cooling and heating zones in its BRYTE Bed.

To attract more partners, Phononic has created a “Design with Phononic” platform that welcomes collaboration with “engineers, industrial designers and manufacturers across the globe,” said Nicole Scott, director, product management, Design with Phononic.

“As Phononic enters its next stage of growth, it is focused on shifting from a creator to an enabler,” she said. “With this, Phononic has the potential to impact industries like HVAC, cold chain, wearables, furniture and bedding, smart homes and more.”

Phononic’s equipment is “price competitive in the market across both the life sciences and healthcare and food and beverage segments,” added Scott.

How it works

Phononic’s solid-state cooling and heating system is based on a small thermoelectric chip that Scott said enables “quiet operation, compact size, temperature uniformity and long-lasting reliability.”

According to Scott, thermoelectric chips are traditionally made of two copper-lined ceramic pads, connected by “legs” made of two different types of semiconductor materials. “As electricity flows through the semiconductor legs, the dissimilar materials create a temperature difference, making one side of the device hot and one side cold,” she explained. Phononic has expanded on this effect by solving “the complex thermal, mechanical and electrical problems typically associated with thermoelectric systems.”

Phononic has packaged this thermoelectric cooler (TEC) into what it calls a “Thermal Engine” – in effect, a solid-state heat pump, or what Scott called a “heat-accept-and-reject system.”

To generate its ultimate cooling effect, the Phononic system also incorporates two-phase natural refrigerants – low-pressure CO2 gas and water – “which are constantly and automatically flowing to keep temperature uniform in the refrigerated compartment,” said Scott. “CO2 is used on the accept, cold side, of the TEC, while H2O is used on the reject, hot side of the TEC,” where heat is released into the ambient air.

On CNBC, Atti explained that the system is moving heat from one side to the other. “The magnitude of the temperature gradient, coupled with the amount of heat it pumps per unit area, drives a cooling effect into the surface of the chamber that you want to make cold.” Moreover, he said, heat is driven around the entire surface area of a unit’s shell rather than focused at one point, allowing Unilever’s ice cream freezer to be located at the checkout counter.

A Phononic YouTube video ( further explains that the CO2 absorbs and transfers heat “away from the chamber and toward a solid-state heat pump whereit dissipates into the ambient environment.”

The Phononic unit, the video adds, comes equipped with “a dual redundant refrigeration system that, when coupled with early warning indicators, allows ample time to respond to potential issues before [they become] critical.”

The thermal engine is able to pump “ tens, hundreds, even thousands of watts,” said Scott. And because the Phononic system does not use a compressor, it can provide “up to 40% more storage capacity compared to systems that use a compressor” and utilize “up to 40% less energy compared to traditional compressor models,” she said.