Making sense of synthetic refrigerants and their replacements.

With thanks to Craig Parker (Patton NZ), Steve Miller (Bitzer) and Rob Morgan (RefSpecs).

For those that may have missed it the world of synthetic refrigerants is undergoing pretty significant changes. Increasing global pressure from consumers and regulators on fluorinated or F-Gases has meant significant scrutiny of the effect of halocarbons on the environment.

Halocarbons are gases often used as refrigerants and are broken into:

  • CFCs (Chlorofluorocarbons): R11, R12, R113, R502
    HCFCs (Hydrochlorofluorocarbons): R22, R123
    HFCs (Hydrofluorocarbons): R134a, R404a, R407F, R438A, R410a, R507

These gases contain varying levels of fluorocarbons that have been identified as depleting the ozone layer and a lot of focus has been on removing refrigerants with a high Ozone Depletion Potential (ODP) from the environment. CFC’s and HCFC’s are both identified as ozone depleting and both are now banned.

Because of these changes HFC’s such as 438A and 407F have often been used as substitute synthetic refrigerants due to their lower ODP. However, attention is now focused on HFC’s high Global Warming Potential (GWP), with European countries now shifting regulations from containment of these refrigerants to limiting their use and implementing bans. This increasing global regulation is also seeing these synthetic gases experiencing on going price increases and shortages (for more on this and GWP see Managing rising refrigeration costs).

I spoke with leading suppliers RefSpecs, Bitzer and Pattons to give me a sense of how synthetic producers were responding to the changes and what alternatives are available. In general, it seems manufacturers are still working to come up with new alternatives with Patton’s citing that there are over 350 new refrigerants in testing and R&D. They also pointed to the fact ASHRAE and other regulatory bodies are looking for fewer options to enable smooth transitions through refrigerants and as a result, don’t expect anywhere that number will make it into the commercial environment.

So where does that leave us in NZ with our synthetic alternatives? Based on the information I received this is what we may be looking at in NZ:

Bitzer spoke of the F Gas Regulations in Europe as a key indicator of what will happen in this market with much of what becomes available driven by GWP ratings. Looking at the regulations it’s important to understand in Europe:

  • By 2020 Refrigerant’s with a GWP over 2000 are gone
  • By 2022 Refrigerant over the GWP of 1000 are gone
  • By 2030 all refrigerants must be under 500GWP

With the majority of suppliers and manufacturers producing or competing in the European market, it doesn’t take long to understand what is likely to happen here and ensuring you invest in new systems that will be future proofed against further HFC phase downs will be critical. 

Companies have been investing millions in developing a “new” breed of synthetic HFO refrigerants, initially for application in the Air Conditioning industry, with RefSpecs expecting this new generation to be available for refrigeration in the next 12 months.

Questions still remain around the application of HFO’s with companies such as Daimler, Mercedes and BMW focusing on pursuing a natural refrigerant strategy. High price points too are expected, given its new entry into the market and the fact patents for the technology are fundamentally held by two companies.

Looking once again to off shore trends the likes of R438A and R407F are being used as a short term measure to extend the life of existing capital equipment, with new equipment being designed more frequently to operate on natural refrigerants. And, in the back ground alternative technology such magnetic refrigeration is slowly unfolding, potentially taking away the need for gas at all…