It's not easy being green: The refrigerant industry goes back to the drawing board — again

Jan. 1, 2020
For the uninitiated, DP-1 was one of a few "miracle blend" refrigerants rolled out last year, on which high hopes were placed to save our industry. But they just didn't work, and the companies involved with these refrigerant blends have kept quiet as

DP-1 is dead.

For the uninitiated, DP-1 was one of a few "miracle blend" refrigerants rolled out last year, on which high hopes were placed to save our industry. But they just didn't work, and the companies involved with these refrigerant blends have kept quiet as to what went wrong.

"What happened was, all those blends that Honeywell and DuPont and other companies were working on for one reason or another did not pass muster," says Paul DeGuiseppe, manager of service training for the Mobile Air Conditioning Society (MACS).

TRENDS & MARKET Analysis

The auto industry, especially overseas, is looking to cut its usage of the environmentally unfriendly R-134a yet find a replacement that will efficiently operate in a vehicle's air conditioning system throughout myriad external conditions.

So far, we have yet to attain the best of both worlds.

The bottom line is, R-134a, our mainstay refrigerant, is living on borrowed time, because of its high Global Warming Potential (GWP).

How does all this affect the aftermarket? To replace R-134a will likely involve an overhaul to the current infrastructure of shop A/C recovery machines, not to mention retooling cooling-related auto parts.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved the use of R-152a as an alternative, but it is mildly flammable.

A sidenote to this EPA ruling is the requirement that R-152a systems be designed to avoid occupant exposure to concentrations of the refrigerant above 3.7 percent in the passenger cabin for more than 15 seconds even in the event of a leak.

The agency also is requiring a label be placed on the systems noting the refrigerant's flammability. R-152a has a GWP of 130.

For now, the U.S. can afford to wait for R-134a's replacement because there are no pending mandates; however, for Europe the clock is ticking. Following the F-Gas Directive on Mobile Air Conditioning, which mandates that 2011 model-year vehicles need to have a refrigerant with a lower GWP than 150, automakers are scrambling to find an alternative technology that meets EU mandates. In comparison, R-134a has a GWP of 1,300.

Automakers also are currently banking on CO2, also known as R-744, and its attendant benefits and downfalls.

(At press time a symposium on alternative refrigerants was being conducted in Phoenix, but inside sources were not very optimistic over any new miracle blends being introduced).

Behr Hella Service, an OE thermal products supplier with a sizeable stake in the European marketplace, is preparing CO2 ready systems, but company officials are clear that they will follow the lead of the automakers, many of whom have not made formal commitments to any one refrigerant technology.

Behr Hella Service, an OE thermal products supplier with a sizeable stake in the European marketplace, is preparing CO2 ready systems, but company officials are clear that they will follow the lead of the automakers, many of whom have not made formal commitments to any one refrigerant technology.

"We've been testing (R-744) for 14 years now, getting it ready for production," says John Tepas, chief engineer, HVAC North America, for Behr Hella Service. He says CO2 has an eight-minute faster cooldown than current refrigerants in use. "And it's the only option that's out there that has literally the absolute minimum global warming potential." CO2 has a GWP of 1, and is, in fact, the poster child for these environmental standards.

Using CO2 in a car would likely decrease fuel efficiency due to the extra load it would place on the engine, says DeGuiseppe. "A lot of the components will need to be heavier." CO2 is highly pressurized and the components involved will have to be thicker to protect driver and vehicle.

Also, climate of the vehicle in question plays a significant role in this refrigerant's success.

For example, "The CO2 would be a better option in cooler climates like Germany," says Elvis Hoffpauir, MACS president. "If you look at places where there's heat, CO2 does not lend itself to those conditions."

CO2 also runs into efficiency problems at high temperatures, admits Tepas, who adds this problem can be mitigated through redesign of front-end modules, making sure the hot air is properly displaced and not recirculating into the wrong parts of the vehicle.

HFO-1234yf is a single component taken from one of the aofrementioned "blends" that were touted last year, but this substance also is flammable.

"Delphi is developing options that meet the new regulations, including the DuPont/Honeywell proposed HFO-1234yf that could replace R-134a as the refrigerant used in automotive air conditioning systems compliant with the EU legislation," says Frank Ordoñez, president of Delphi Product & Service Solutions, who adds that HFO-1234yf has a GWP of 4.

"In addition to this option, Delphi has developed systems that use R-152a in a secondary loop arrangement, which is being considered by some automakers as a back-up option for compliance.

He adds: "With respect to R-744, Delphi is developing components that can support that system for automakers that choose that option."

Ordoñeznez says new technology will play a crucial role in whatever transition the industry undertakes. "In addition to electronic components like sensors and actuators, there will be new HVAC systems that work with the new refrigerants," he says. "As with the onset of any new technology, it becomes even more critical for technicians to have access to the proper service parts, diagnostic tools and most especially, training."

Unfortunately, none of the current choices are "drop-in" refrigerants, which means they can't be used with current automotive cooling components and shop equipment. So, any change that occurs will most likely require an aftermarket overhaul.

1234yf, and last year's failed blends, were close to "drop-in," says Tepas, so manufacturers wouldn't have to change the fundamental design of heat exchangers. They would, however, have to change flow passages and anything else to accommodate the different thermodynamic properties. However, equipment for recovery and service would be very similar.

There are sundry lists of compatible elements to consider when the refrigerant of choice finally takes hold, Tepas cautions. "And that homework still has to be done."

And it's not a question of "if" R-134a will be replaced, only "when."

Elvis Hoffpauir, MACS president, says Europe will forge ahead, no moratoriums in sight.

As far as stateside: "The U.S. manufacturers are currently working to preserve a voluntary approach to solving the problem."