How do Refrigerants Impact the Environment?
Before I can answer that question there is the need to point out that there are a variety of different classes of refrigerants that are on the market today throughout the world. I will be going over the top three classes at this point in time. One thing to note is that yes, refrigerants do cause damage to the O-Zone and they do contribute to global warming… but when you compare them to other global warming contributors you will be shocked at the minimal effect that refrigerants have on today’s environment.
For example, check out the below pie graph from the EPA’s website. Notice anything? I do. One percent. Fluorinated gases contribute just 1% to the greenhouse gas emissions throughout the world. (Keep in mind these are HFCs we are talking about.)
CFC or HCFCs
CFCs, or chloroflurocarbons, were the first refrigerants that saw mainstream use through the world. The first of it’s kind was R-12 that was invented in the early 20th century by General Motors & DuPont. It began widespread usage in the 1920s and was the primary refrigerant for all applications up until the 1950s. During the 50’s an alternative to R-12 called R-22 was introduced. R-22 was easier on the compressors and didn’t require as big of pipes to flow through. This made things easier and also resulted in less part failures.
The problem with R-12 and R-22 is the Chlorine. It was found that in the 1970s that the Earth’s O-Zone layer was depleting above the Arctic. The O-Zone layer is a layer in the Earth’s stratosphere which contains a high concentration of O-Zone. O-Zone is a naturally forming molecule that helps to absorb the sun’s ultraviolet rays. It was found that Chlorine was a leading contributor to the depleting and cause to the hole in the O-Zone layer. A depleted O-Zone would mean more intense ultraviolet rays from the sun resulting in a variety of problems including Global Warming.
In 1987 the Montreal Protocol was announced. The Montreal Protocol is an international treaty across many countries designed to help combat the damaged O-Zone layer. One of it’s initiatives was to phase out CFCs in first world countries, and eventually throughout the world. In 1994 the United States discontinued R-12 in automotive applications. R-12 was replaced with the HFC alternative R-134a. R-134a does not contain Chlorine so it provided a solution to the O-Zone problem. In 2010, in compliance with the Montreal Protocol, the United States announced discontinuation of R-22 in future applications. All new machines would be orientated towards the new HFC R-410A. It’s the same story on this one as well, the 410A does not contain Chlorine.
Did the protocol work? In short, yes. The Montreal Protocol was a huge success throughout the world. It’s often regarded as the most successful international treaty to date. It is expected that the O-Zone layer will return to 1980 levels by the year 2045. But, something else was on the horizon…
In response to the Montreal Protocol companies needed to find an alternative to the widely used CFCs R-12 and R-22. The answer was HFCs. HFCs include R-134a, R-410A, and R-404A. (There are others, but these are the most popular at this time.) The first mainstream use of HFCs began in 1994 when we switched from R-12 over to R-134a in automotive applications. Shortly after we switched from R-502 over to R-404A. Lastly, in 2010 we switched from R-22 over to the HFC R-410A, also known as Puron.
So, we can celebrate now! No more CFCs and Chlorine damaging the O-Zone, right? WRONG. Come to find out HFC refrigerants have a very high GWP, or Global Warming Potential. GWP basically means how much heat a certain product can trap into the atmosphere. For example, Carbon Dioxide has a GWP of 1 and the R-134a HFC refrigerant has a GWP of 1,430. Quite the difference here. A table of refrigerants and their global warming potential can be found by clicking this link to the EPA website. We have a completely new problem to deal with now. Keeping that in mind, I am going to refer to the pie chart that I posted earlier that illustrates that yes, refrigerants are putting greenhouse gases into the environment, but the significance is so small compared to the other offenders. 1%!!!!
Now instead of the O-Zone layer everybody is concerned about HFCs and the greenhouse gases that they are releasing. The European Union has already banned usage of R-134a in all new vehicles and the United States is not too far behind. There were a lot of ‘voluntary’ measures announced in 2014 by the Obama Administration. You can read about those by clicking here. On top of all that the three North American countries have submitted an amendment to the Montreal Protocol that would eventually phase-out all HFCs throughout the world just as the CFCs were done earlier. Nothing has been decided and added to the protocol at this time but it is only a matter of time before it is added. The main opposition countries have begun to make concessions and I feel that over the next year we will see HFCs added to the protocol. R-134a is on the way out and R-404A is being voluntarily phased out as well. R-410A will be coming soon.
Third time’s a charm, right? Well, let’s hope so. To replace the HFCs that are slowly being phased out DuPont and HoneyWell have come out with a new class of refrigerants called HFOs. The first in it’s class is the 1234YF HFO. It is primary designed to replace R-134a. 134a has a GWP of 1,430 and the new 1234YF has a GWP of 4. This is obviously an improvement. HFO does not damage the O-Zone layer and it has a very low Global Warming Potential. The question is… what is going to go wrong with this one? There HAS to be another factor here that someone has not thought of. Don’t get me wrong I am all for having more efficient and cleaner refrigerant but at times it almost seems like we are running in circles chasing our tails. Either way DuPont and HoneyWell along with other companies are diving head into production and distribution of the new HFOs. Many automotive manufacturers have begun the switch as well.
Well, we went from damaged O-Zone layers to Global Warming Potential and Greenhouse Gases. Now we have the HFO alternatives coming to market with very little environmental detriments, or so we believe. Only the future can tell if HFOs are here to stay or if we will phase these out as well.
Thanks for reading,