Hydroflurocarbons, or HFCs, are a class of refrigerants that can trace it’s first uses and origins back to the 1980’s. HFC refrigerants contain Hydrogen, Fluorine, and Carbon. They are similar to their HCFC cousins except without the Chlorine. In today’s world, October 2017, HFC refrigerants are the most widely used refrigerant across the globe. They can be found in automotive, chillers, air-conditioners both commercial and residential, refrigerated transport, and much much more.
In recent years there has been a push to phase out HFC refrigerants. This push is not due to Chlorine but instead due to HFCs’ Global Warming Potential, or GWP. The GWP on HFCs are thousands of times higher than that of Carbon Dioxide. That means that each vent or leak of an HFC refrigerant into the atmosphere directly contribute to Global Warming. Again, as I write this article today, October 2017, there is not one specific new class of refrigerants that will take the torch away from HFCs. The war is between the newer HFO refrigerants or the tried and true Hydrocarbon or Unassigned refrigerants such as R-290 or R-744.
Popular HFC Refrigerants
- R-134a or Tetrafluroethane. R-134a is the standard refrigerant used in automotive applications.
- R-404A is a mixture of R-125, R-143a, and R-134a. This refrigerant is used in chillers, refrigerated transport, ice machines, and other applications.
- R-407A is a mixture of R-32, R-125, and R-134a.
- R-407C is a mixture of R-32, R-125, and R-134a.
- R-410A is a mixture of R-32 and R-125. 410A is the standard refrigerant used for home and commercial air-conditioning. If you have a air-conditioner from 2010 or greater chances are it takes R-410A.
- R-32 is a key component in one of the most popular HFC refrigerants known as R-410A. In recent years it is also being used as replacement for R-410A in residential and commercial air conditioning.
Other HFC Refrigerants
More Information on HFCs
To understand where HFC refrigerants come into play in the refrigeration world we have to look back to the original beginnings of refrigerant. We have to look back to CFCs and HCFC refrigerants such as R-12, R-502, and R-22. In the mid 1930’s the DuPont and General Motors company created a safe, cheap, non-flammable, and durable alternative refrigerant to the Hydrocarbons that were already on the market. These alternatives were the CFC and HCFC refrigerants.
Not soon after this innovation the use of CFC and HCFC refrigerants exploded across the United States and the world. It didn’t matter if you were looking to cool off in your car, your home, driving a refrigerated truck, or just grabbing a beer out of the fridge. All of it was ran by CFC and HCFC refrigerants.
It was in the 1980’s that a problem was discovered. Two American scientists, Mario Molina and Shepwood Rowland, from a California university were the first to notice Chlorine’s effect on the atmosphere. (Remember now folks, all of these CFCs and HCFCs contain Chlorine.)
These two scientists found that when a CFC refrigerant was exposed to ultra-violet irradiation that the Chlorine atom would detach itself from the CFC molecules. The remaining residue is oxidized resulting in the creation of a Chlorine oxidized molecule and a new residue. The Chlorine atom and Chlorine oxidized molecule move their way up to the stratosphere. Within the stratosphere there is a layer called the Ozone layer. This Ozone layer protects the Earth from ultra-violet rays and irradiation. What these scientists found out is that all of this Chlorine from CFC and HCFC refrigerants was working it’s way to the stratosphere. When it reached the stratosphere the Chlorine began to attack and weaken the Ozone layer.
Over decades of using CFCs and HCFC refrierants Chlorine began to accumulate in the stratosphere and overtime a hole began to form in the Ozone layer. Now, I say hole but this wasn’t a hole per-say. Instead, there was a weakening of strength in the layer. So, while there was not a hole the thickness of the Ozone was decreasing and decreasing rapidly thanks to the CFC and HCFC refrigerants.
The Ozone prevents harmful UVB wavelengths of ultra-violet light from passing through the Earth’s atmosphere. Without it, or with a weakened version of it, a variety of bad things could happen. Some of these include a much higher increased chance of Skin Cancer, more severe sunburns, more chances of cataracts, and a whole host of other problems.
After discovering the weakening of the Ozone layer nations banded together in what is seen as one of the greatest and most effective treaty’s every made. In 1986-1987 the Montreal Protocol was created and signed by over one-hundred nations across the world. This Protocol was an international treaty designed to protect the Ozone layer and to completely phase out the chemicals responsible for the weakening of the Ozone. The treaty went into effect in 1989.
This my friends is where our friends the HFC refrigerants come into play. It was in the same 1980’s decade that the development and distribution of HFC refrigerants began. Like with any new product there was a lot of trial and error over the years until the right product was found. HFCs really made their debut here in the States in the year 1992. This was the first year that the majority of automobile manufacturers stopped using R-12 refrigerant and made the switch over to the new HFC R-134a alternative.
As far as I know this is the first major switch away from CFC/HCFC refrigerants and over to HFCs. There isn’t a lot of data here that I could find so if I am incorrect here please let me know by contacting me. The point here is that this was the beginning and shortly after the rest of the applications began to switch to HFCs. The next big move was going after R-502. R-502 was found in a lot of your commercial and industrial refrigeration, ice machines, chillers, and a variety of other applications. The switch here was over to the HFC refrigerant known as R-404A.
Now, I’m not going to go through every phase out there was here. Instead I will just mention one more, the biggest one in fact. In 2010 the phase out of HCFC R-22 was put into place. R-22 was HUGE. Nearly every home air conditioner, commercial air conditioner, as well as even some refrigerated transport used R-22. The suggested replacement refrigerant was the HFC R-410A. Now, as I write this we are still in the phase out period of R-22. Yes, the date started in 2010 but the final date of one-hundred percent completion is the year 2030. Every five years or so the restrictions on imports and production of R-22 grow tighter and tighter. Eventually the cost on R-22 will be so expensive that no one will want to touch it.
Here We Go Again
Alright folks so it’s been twenty-five years since we started using HFC refrigerants. Just like before HFCs are embedded and used all across the country and the world. There is no chance of any more harm coming to the Ozone layer as these HFC refrigerants contain no Chlorine. So, we’re all good right? Wrong. We now have a new problem when it comes to HFC refrigerants. Well, a somewhat, new problem.
The problem we have now is not Chlorine but instead Global Warming Potential, or GWP. GWP is a measurement of how much heat a greenhouse gas can trap in the atmosphere. To set the scale at zero we compare the GWP of Carbon Dioxide, or CO2. The GWP of CO2 is one. That gives us our baseline.
Now, if we look at one of the most commonly used HFC refrigerants, R-134a, we can see that it has a GWP of 1,430 times that of Carbon Dioxide. Think that’s bad? Let’s look at R-404A. R-404A has a GWP of 3,922.
Every time an HFC refrigerant is accidentally vented or is leaked into the atmosphere it contributes to Global Warming. Refrigerants are seen as Greenhouse Gases and when they are released they float to the top of the atmosphere and act as an insulator to the earth and warms everything up, hence we have Global Warming.
So, now there is a big push across the world to begin phasing out HFC refrigerants just like we did twenty-five years earlier with CFCs and HCFCs. Here is where things get a bit messy though folks. In the 1980’s the United States’ Government signed the Montreal Protocol. This treaty pledged to phase out all Ozone depleting substances from use. On top of this the United States also added their own amendment to the Clean Air Act allowing them to ban Ozone depleting substances.
The problem we have here is that these same countries who banned CFC and HCFCs all that time ago are now trying to use this same treaty and this same Clean Air Act to ban non-Ozone depleting substances. Remember, HFCs don’t have Chlorine. That was their whole point. So, how may I ask can we ban something under the Ozone depletion law/treaty when this product doesn’t deplete the Ozone?
In September of 2016 the nations got together again and added an amendment to the original Montreal Protocol treaty. This amendment called the ‘Kigali Amendment,’ pledged to the world that these nations would begin phase outs of HFC refrigerants across their country.
About a year before this amendment was signed the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency announced a new rule to their SNAP program. (Significant New Alternatives Policy.) This new rule, called SNAP RULE 20, stated that the phase out of HFCs refrigerants would begin as early as 2018 in the United States. Again, the EPA created this phase out plan based off the backs of the Chlorine and Ozone depleting chemicals.
In August of 2017 a Federal Court ruled against the EPA stating that they had overstepped their bounds and that they could not arbitrarily phase out refrigerants that had nothing to do with the Clean Air Act. Honeywell and Chemours both filed for an appeal in September of 2017 and the rest has yet to be decided. I write this in October of 2017.
Whatever happens over the new few months is uncertain but I can comfortably tell you today that the end of HFC refrigerants is near. I do not see this going away any time soon. If Honeywell and Chemours lose their court battle here there will be another series of battles and pushes to get HFCs gone.
You may ask what will be taking their place. Well, at this point there are two options that the world has. We have the same Hydrocarbons that were used nearly one-hundred years ago. The upside here is that our technology has improved substantially from then. The problems we had with Hydrocarbons back then would not be happening today. In fact a lot of companies an countries are already using Hydrocarbons and other unassigned refrigerants such as R-744 and R-290 in everyday applications.
The other alternative we have is Honeywell and Chemours’ new HFO refrigerant line. HFO stands for Hydrofluroolefins. These are a new class of refrigerants that was built in the labs of Honeywell and Chemours. These refrigerants are designed to have zero Ozone depletion potential along with a minimal Global Warming Potential.
Regardless of what happens over the new few years HFCs will still be around for a while but they are sure to be eclipsed by the new technology and the push away from harmful GWP refrigerants.
Thanks for reading,