There are few modern technologies used so widely in today’s world that have had such an impact then refrigerants and refrigeration. I say this but most people do not even think about refrigeration. It was just something that was always there. You go to the grocery store and buy some ice cream without a second thought. You go to the butcher and buy a steak. You go to a movie theater on a hot summer day and enjoy the air conditioning while you watch your movie. All of this and more would not be available if it wasn’t for refrigerants.

I consider refrigerants, refrigeration, and air conditioning to be a ‘hidden’ industry. I started my career in the trucking industry and just like the refrigerant industry trucking is something people just don’t think about. Going back to the same grocery store analogy when people walk into a grocery store they expect food to be there. They do not question how, why, or where it came from. They just expect it. The same can be said with refrigeration. People expect their ice cream to be cold. People expect their frozen dinners and their frozen vegetables. People expect their home to be cold in the summer.

But what are refrigerants? How long have they been around? What would the world look like today without refrigerants? I am going to answer this and more over the next few sections of this page. I hope to have you read on.

Refrigerant Classifications

Before I get to in-depth on the history, uses, and applications of refrigerants I want to take some time now and go over the main classifications of refrigerants that can be found in the world today. Yes, I know that there are more out there but what I am attempting here is to give a basic overview of the most popular classes on the market today and a brief synopsis of them.

  • Natural Refrigerants
    • These refrigerants aren’t created in a laboratory and are in fact can be found naturally in nature.  The most popular of these refrigerants is R-744, or Carbon Dioxide. Another one you may recognize is R-717, or Ammonia. I list these refrigerants first as CO2/R-744 was one of the very first refrigerants used in air conditioning going all the way back to the early twentieth century.
  • CFC’s or Chloroflurocarbons
    • CFC refrigerants were some of the first as well. Sure, R-744 beat everyone to the punch but if we look at the overall success and popularity then the CFC R-12 refrigerant takes the cake. R-12 was invented in 1935 by a partnership with the General Motors corporation and the DuPont company and immediately after that date they exploded with popularity. CFC refrigerants were phased out in the 1990’s due to the Chlorine that they contained and the harmful effects that the Chlorine had on the Ozone layer.
  • HCFC’s or Hydrochloroflurocarbons
    • HCFC refrigerants are CFC refrigerant’s friendly cousin. These refrigerants are very similar and rose in popularity right about the same time as well. The most common HCFC refrigerant which I’m sure all of you have heard of is R-22. Just like it’s CFC cousin HCFC refrigerants were also phased out due to the Chlorine that they contained. The most recent phase out of R-22 is still going into effect and it will be completely phased out by 2030.
  • HFC’s or Hydroflurocarbon
    • HFC refrigerants came around as an alternative to the Ozone damaging CFC and HCFC refrigerants. HFC refrigerants are widely used today. Some of the most popular ones are R-134a, R-404A, and R-410A. HFCs are actually in process of being phased out across the world as well but this time it’s not due to their Ozone depletion. Instead, they are being phased out due to their Global Warming Potential, or GWP.
  • HFO’s or Hydrofluroolefin
    • HFO refrigerants are the newest and greatest thing. Again, in an effort to replace the currently used refrigerant HFOs are designed to take the lead while the HFC refrigerants fade into the past. At this point in time, September 2017, the most popular HFO refrigerant is the 1234YF. Honeywell and the Chemours company are pushing the industry forward with their development of the new HFO line of refrigerants and we can expect many new refrigerants to be displayed over the coming years.
  • Hydrocarbons, or natural refrigerants.
    • Hydrocarbons are a type of refrigerant that has been around for decades. They are also known as ‘Natural Refrigerants.’ This is because they are naturally occurring elements rather than manufactured in a lab. Some Hydrocarbons include R-290 (Propane), R-600a (Isobutane), or R-1270 (Propylene). These refrigerants are used sparingly depending on the application needed. They are highly flammable and must be handled with care.
  • Miscellaneous Refrigerants
    • These refrigerants are just that, unaffiliated. They don’t belong to a specific class of refrigerants like the others. Most of these refrigerants are from the early days of refrigeration technology and are no longer used today either due to environmental or toxicity concerns. A few of the refrigerants in this category though were used to create some of the more prominent refrigerants we know today such as R-11, R-12, and R-22/

Refrigerant Impacting Today’s World

I mentioned in my intro but I am going to bring it up again here. Without refrigerants and refrigeration our entire way of life changes and when I say change I mean catastrophically. Nearly everyone in the world today uses refrigerants either first hand or second hand. I don’t care if you don’t have an air conditioner. If you have a refrigerator then you are using it. If you like to eat meat then you are using it. If you like dairy, you are using it. I could go on and on.

But instead of doing that I am going to paint you a picture. A picture of what the refrigeration industry had on the American city of Chicago. If we go back quite a ways all the way back to 1865 we will find that the Union Stock Yard has begun construction on the outskirts of Chicago. The goal of this stockyard was to provide an easy and centralized way to slaughter, butcher, and distribute livestock across the nation.

The Chicago Stock Yard
The Chicago Stock Yard

Over the years since it was built the stockyard experienced exponential growth. From the Civil War until the mid 1920’s Chicago produced more meat then any other place in the world. At it’s peak the Chicago stockyard was slaughtering eighty million animals a year, employed nearly forty-thousand people, and spanned over three-hundred and seventy five acres. There were twenty-three hundred livestock pens that could accommodate seventy-five thousand hogs, twenty-one thousand cattle, and twenty-two thousand sheep at any one time. It was a massive operation.

Why am I talking about the Chicago stockyards you may ask? Well there were two reasons that Chicago became the meat capital of the world and held the title for decades. The first was the railroads and Chicago’s proximity to the Great Lakes and the Mississippi river. There was another reason though why this stockyard flourished so much and for so long and that is refrigeration. Thanks to refrigeration refrigerated railcars and trucks were able to easily transport and distribute the meat that was slaughtered and processed in Chicago without any worry of it spoiling.

While the stockyards eventually died off in the 1970’s the effect still lingers on. Nowadays farmers find it more cost effective to butcher locally but they still use those refrigerated trucks and railcars to transport the meat to a main distribution facility, to a hub distribution facility, and finally to the grocery store. All of this entire supply chain process falls back to the technology of refrigeration. If it wasn’t for refrigeration you’d either have to get your meat by slaughtering it yourself or by going down to the local butcher and hoping that he has a freshly slaughtered cow waiting for you.

Refrigerant History

Ok. So we’ve gone into how refrigerant affects and how it is instrumental in our daily lives now let’s take a brief look at the history of refrigeration. How did the idea come about? Where did it come from? Who was the first real inventory of refrigerants? Let’s find out!

The question here folks is how far back do you want to go? We could go all the way back to Before Christ where citizens used to harvest the ice and snow from the mountains. They would store this harvested ice and snow in their ‘ice cellars.’ Their motivation for doing this? To cool their drinks. No air-conditioning or trying to preserve meat. Nope, they just wanted cool and refreshing drinks.

Let’s skip ahead quite a bit. Believe it or not the first traces of artificial refrigeration dates back as far as the 1750’s. In 1755 William Cullen designed a small refrigeration machine. He used Ether as the refrigerant, boiled it using a pump, which in turn absorbed the heat from the surrounding air. He actual had ice form on his unit as well.

Right around this same time period there was a very famous name that had experimented with refrigeration. In 1758 Benjamin Franklin collaborated on a project at Cambridge University. The goal of the project was to rapidly cool an object by means of evaporation. The test ended in success by having the thermometer measure at seven degrees Fahrenheit while the ambient temperate was at sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit.

There were many other experiments over the next hundred years. I won’t go over every single one of them but instead will skip ahead to a milestone. In 1856 the first vapor-compression refrigeration system was built by James Harrison. On top of that he had built an artificial ice-making machine in 1851 and the first commercial ice making machine he released in 1854. By 1861 over a dozen of his systems were in operation. All of this was done by using Ammonia as his primary refrigerant.

In 1881 a New Zealand entrepreneur named William Davidson invented the first compression refrigeration unit for an overseas shipment. The next year his innovative ship sailed to London with a fully preserved shipment. It is widely seen as the first commercially successful refrigerated shipping voyage. Within five years after this first voyage other ships were built and over one-hundred and seventy shipments of frozen meat were sent from New Zealand to the United Kingdom.

Meat packing was the real push for innovation. By the 1890’s and the early 1900’s meat packing industries in Chicago had adopted Ammonia-cycle refrigeration units. By 1914 almost every location in the city were using the artificial refrigeration.

Around the time of the 1920’s if you were to go into a movie theater on a hot summer day you would be refreshed by the cold air blowing. There were air-conditioners around during these times but they were so prone to failure and so expensive to run that very few people or businesses could afford them. The most common refrigerant used during this time was Carbon Dioxide, or R-744. The problem that occurred with R-744 was the extremely high pressure that it had to run at. The high pressure caused components to fail over and over again. This constant failure caused a high cost entry point for a system and a high maintenance cost.

Everything changed when the General Motors corporation and the DuPont corporation teamed up together in the early 1920’s. The goal here was to provide an alternative refrigerant to either the dangerous refrigerants such as Ammonia or to the higher pressure refrigerants such as CO2. In 1928 they did just that. They improved the manufacturing process, the stability, and their toxicity of a CFC refrigerant. The technology was immediately patented. You can probably guess what this new refrigerant was called. Yup, R-12. R-12 was the basic building block of modern refrigeration today.

After this things began to happen fast. Not too long after R-12 was invented and began to be mass produced a new HCFC refrigerant was released known as R-22. These two refrigerants, along with a few others like R-502, were the ones that laid the foundation for the refrigerated world today. So, whenever you are grabbing a cold beer out of the refrigerator you should thank General Motors and the DuPont corporation.

Future of Refrigerant

The future of refrigerant is anything but certain. As I write this article it is towards the end of September of 2017. The era of CFC and HCFC refrigerants have all but ended. Sure there are still a few holdouts out there that still have their old R-22 air conditioner running but for the most part everyone has switched over to their new and improved R-410A HFC refrigerant. Give it a few more years and the only R-22 cylinders you’ll be able to find are the old rusted out ones that some guy kept in his garage for twenty years because he was going to use it down the road. Don’t believe me? Just check out some R-12 cylinders on E Bay and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

The question now is when exactly all of the HFC refrigerants will be phased out and replaced with either HFO’s, CO2, or Hydrocarbon refrigerants. Depending on where you look in the world some nations have already begun mass phasing out HFC refrigerants. As an example R-134a, the refrigerant used in most automotive applications, has effectively been banned across the European Union. In it’s place is the HFO 1234YF. If you move away from automotive and look more towards chillers or even vending machines you will notice that most of these have begun being switched to CO2 or R-744. On top of that if you look at other applications you’ll find R-290 or other Hydrocarbons being used. It’s a mish-mash of all different types of refrigerants spanning out across all of the applications.

There is a battle being raged right now between these refrigerants. I like to think of it as a battle of the old world versus the new. The old world are the tried and tested Hydrocarbon or unclassified refrigerants such as R-744. These refrigerants have been around for over a century. Sure, there were problems with them in the past but we now have improved technology and we can now make these refrigerants just as efficient, or as close as we can be, to the HFC refrigerants on the market today. The new world are the HFO refrigerants that are being developed in laboratories by the companies Honeywell and Chemours. These refrigerants are all new to the world. The HFO refrigerants are designed to be the best they can be and to give your unit the most efficiency as well as being environmentally friendly. The downside to this is that they are very expensive, at least starting out. The price may fall as time moves on.

So folks, who will win the battle? HFOs or Hydrocarbons? Who are you rooting for? Personally, I am rooting for the unclassified and Hydrocarbon refrigerants. I feel that we need a comeback to the classics and I also hate the idea of only a few companies having all of the patents on the HFO refrigerants. Let’s make the market a fair place and give others an even playing ground. Stick with Hydrocarbons and we got this!

Thanks for reading,

Alec Johnson