Project targets illegal F-Gas sales


06 November 2020
Vicky Brock of Vistalworks

A Scottish company aims to spearhead a global bid to tackle the climate impact of black market greenhouse gases used in the refrigeration industry.

Vistalworks has secured funding from the UK Government’s innovation agency to launch a research and development project with the ultimate aim of reducing up to 840,000 tonnes of CO2 a year – equivalent to 100,000 homes' energy use.

It is planned that a software solution to help European enforcement agencies target the black market will be announced in time for the COP26 event in Glasgow next year.

Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are used in refrigeration and air conditioning systems, and their environmental impact means a quota system limits how much gas can be placed on the market each year.

But this has created shortages, fuelling a European online black market which has increased during Covid-19, exposing businesses such as builders, farmers and mechanics to illegal and dangerous products – and damaging progress towards tackling climate change goals.

The equivalent of around a third of the legally-allowed quota is smuggled into countries across Europe, financing organised crime.

Vistalworks, which has established bases in Glasgow and Estonia, develops tech solutions to protect citizens and economies from illicit trade, and is currently part of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre’s cyber accelerator programme.

With £60,000 funding from Innovate UK’s Sustainable Innovation Fund for the first phase of the HFCs project, the company will work with the Dundee-based Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science on a new software solution. 

The tech solution will automatically detect online illegal sellers of illicit fluorinated gases (F-gases), quantify and group patterns of illicit trade to detect organised criminal sellers, provide data to enforcement agencies across Europe, and ensure sampling/test processes can support successful prosecutions.

In phase two of the project, it is estimated the solution can reduce climate-related emissions and pollution caused by HFCs used in buildings and industry refrigerants and air conditioning by up to 840,000 tonnes of CO2 a year.

Vicky Brock, Chief Executive and co-founder of Vistalworks, said: “HFC greenhouse gases are available on a huge black market that most people have never heard of.

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“When COP26 comes to our home city of Glasgow in 2021, it is our ambition to
present a regulatory enforcement solution that can be used by the world to tackle the illicit trade in these greenhouse gases and directly reduce the associated social, climate and environmental harms. 

“Reducing the black market will enable legitimate businesses to 'build back better' from the COVID-19 pandemic, creating a more sustainable economy and directly tackling the illegal emissions threatening Net Zero targets in countries across the globe.

“At a time when nations are working to meet tough climate change goals, our software could be a major tool in helping companies, governments and enforcement agencies to tackle this illegal activity and help the environment.”

Innovate UK, as part of UK Research and Innovation, is investing up to £191million to fund single and collaborative research and development projects as part of the Sustainable Innovation Fund over the next two years. 

The aim of these competitions is to help all sectors of the UK rebuild after the effects of COVID-19. 

The Sustainable Innovation Fund is funding 1,103 projects, 1,069 UK businesses and totalling over £130 million in support across the UK. 

Innovate UK executive chair Dr Ian Campbell said: “In these difficult times we have seen the best of British business innovation. The pandemic is not just a health emergency but one that impacts society and the economy. 

“Vistalworks, along with every initiative Innovate UK has supported through this fund, is an important step forward in driving sustainable economic development. Each one is also helping to realise the ambitions of hard-working people.”