Opinions


Refrigerants by the Dozens

Growing List of HVACR Gases Will Eventually Sort Itself Out

December 9, 2013

From time to time, I’ve given talks on new refrigerants, primarily focusing on those utilized in the refrigeration sector. One of the slides in my go-to PowerPoint lists the different refrigerants available to contractors.

The last time I checked that slide, there were something like 25 on the list, and these were just the hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

The list also mentioned hydrocarbon (HC) refrigerants like propane, butane, and isobutene; CO2; and ammonia. But, since the last time I updated the document, all of those have gained greater prominence in commercial refrigeration. HCs have been given a seal of approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in some smaller applications; CO2 is growing in use in supermarkets thanks to system designs that allow it to be used in a transcritical manner; and ammonia has expanded from industrial exclusivity into the commercial sector.

So, I guess the next update will include some 30 refrigerants — although I would need to re-check the HFCs and HFC/HC blends that might have dropped from the market due to lack of interest or the emergence of an alternative for the same application.

The list may grow even longer, as the progress of hydrofluoroolefin (HFO) refrigerants continues to garner attention. HFO-1234yf is being introduced in Europe for automotive air conditioning. And, while 1234yf is not a candidate for stationary equipment, there are other HFOs being developed for such use. Most major refrigerant manufacturers have at least one developmental refrigerant (DR) under review.

So, it seems like every time I check out the situation, the situation changes. At the International Institute of Ammonia Refrigeration and Atmosphere America conferences this year, natural refrigerant advocates were promoting ammonia (R-717), CO2 (R-744), HCs (R-600a, R-290, etc. ) — and water (R-718) — as refrigerants. Well, water just adds one more to the list which is now … well … approaching the 40s.

I recently opened a current issue of Eurammon magazine and learned about R-723, which is 60 percent by mass ammonia and 40 percent by mass dimethylether, which is a propellant similar to isobutene when used as a refrigerant. I don’t know just yet what this means for the refrigeration sector, but it was mentioned prominently in a refrigeration publication, so, perhaps it’s time to add it to the list.

So, will this market continue to grow and grow?

No, the market will eventually sort itself out and settle. For one thing, it is pretty clear that there is no service van in the world that can cart around 30-plus canisters of refrigerants. Eventually, contractors will start to narrow the industry’s options to what works best for them, and their vans.

And, as I mentioned, the best refrigerants for certain applications will win out over others that might also work, just not as well.

From a regulatory perspective, should there ever be a global consensus on a phase down on production of HFCs, contractor attention and manufacturer intent will steer toward the best remaining refrigerant options. One aspect of this may relate to regulations steering the industry to, for example, low global warming — and only low global warming — HFCs. That also will clear out some of the “lesser” options.

So, things will eventually sort themselves out. But we will certainly never go back to the days when the refrigerant universe orbited around R-11, R-12, R-22, and R-502. In the meantime, it may take a second PowerPoint slide to lasso the current inventory of refrigerant options.

Publication date: 12/9/2013

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