Refrigerants: The Fluid That Changed the World and Will Change It Again

February 25, 2020—Researchers at JISEA assessed the current state of existing and new alternative refrigerants that are safe, effective, and do not deplete the ozone. The findings are published in the new report Refrigerants: Market Trends and Supply Chain Assessment.

Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, this study was done by researchers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory under the Clean Energy Manufacturing Center (CEMAC) umbrella, one of JISEA's key research programs.

The researchers focused on production, distribution, consumption, costs, and potential operating efficiency of alternative refrigerants in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems, as well as lesser known uses like aerosols, fire suppression, and chemical production.

History of Refrigerants

The first refrigerant was invented in 1840 for a compression ice machine to help treat patients with yellow fever. Then in 1928, Thomas Midgley with General Motors discovered chloroflurocarbon (CFC) refrigerants, the first-ever, non-flammable refrigerating fluid.

Midgley's discovery changed the world. Suddenly, cooling systems were safe and effective, impacting everyday life from in the home to industry. Hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC), one of the chemical compounds in chlorofluorocarbon, became a standard in almost every home air conditioning and refrigeration system.

Fast forward to the 1980s, scientists discovered that CFCs and HCFCs were depleting Earth’s protective ozone. In 1987, a global agreement called the Montreal Protocol was finalized, requiring complete phaseout of production and consumption of HCFCs in developed countries by 2030, leveraging worldwide participation to repair the ozone layer.

There is now great demand to find alternative refrigerant options. As countries in warmer areas of the world continue to grow, become more affluent, and demand more and more air conditioning and refrigeration, refrigerants will only become more critical.

Rapid Increase in Refrigerants Market

The global commitment to environmentally friendly cooling systems has established a vibrant market for innovative refrigerants and products that use them.

Alternative refrigerants include organic refrigerants—such as ammonia, pentane, carbon dioxide, propane, and butane—which combined account for more than 50% of the total market.

Hydrofluoroolefins, or HFOs, are another class of alternative refrigerants that have also emerged as a promising option. They reduce environmental impact while maintaining or potentially improving system performance.

Photo of a grocery store refrigerator.

Certain alternative refrigerants operate well for certain applications. For example, carbon dioxide works well in cascade systems, like grocery store refrigerators but is unreliable for smaller systems like vending machines. Photo by Dennis Schroeder.

Alternative refrigerant options generally have a smaller impact on climate change than their conventional fluorocarbon equivalents. Each option comes with pros and cons. For example, propane works well in smaller stationary air-conditioning and small commercial refrigeration systems like vending machines but is flammable if it leaks. Carbon dioxide works well in cascade systems, like grocery store refrigerators, but can be less efficient and expensive due to the high pressures involved. HFO-1234yf is a suitable drop-in replacement in vehicle air conditioning systems but is currently more expensive and slightly more flammable than the conventional HFC refrigerant R-134a.

Ultimately, the researchers stress that one size doesn’t fit all, and ongoing analysis will be important to pinpoint which alternative refrigerant works best for each application.

Supply of Alternative Refrigerants

In their analysis, researchers identified characteristics that are required for alternative refrigerant production based on the current manufacturing plants, including:

  1. Proximity to fluorspar, hydrofluoric acid, or other chemical feedstock, which are used to manufacture advanced fluorocarbons;
  2. Existing refrigerant manufacturing capital and experienced labor force; and
  3. Availability of cheap energy and labor.

The researchers found that the U.S. has a positive outlook for its refrigerant market with a stable supply of fluorspar from Mexico, whereas China has historically been the leading supplier.

American-based companies are currently leaders in innovation and production of advanced refrigerants. Honeywell and Chemours own much of the intellectual property associated with the production and usage of man-made alternative refrigerants. Honeywell opened a production plant in Louisiana in 2017, and Chemours started operating a plant in Texas in 2018.

Photo of a refrigeration system that has parallel pipes and compressors.

Inside view of a supermarket refrigeration and waste heat reclaim system. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL.

Continued Analysis Will Provide Insight for the Future

The refrigerants market is constantly evolving— regulations and costs are ever-changing; more advanced fluorocarbons are being developed; and technology to resolve safety issues is being developed.

With all of these changes comes uncertainty, which concerns many in the industry. While the upfront investment for new equipment and advanced fluorocarbons do pay off long-term, it’s deterring many in the industry from making the leap now.

The researchers expressed that continued analysis will be important for anticipating future trends in next-generation refrigeration as the phaseouts called for by the Montreal Protocol come into view. Efficient, affordable, environmentally friendly refrigeration is changing the future for buildings, homes, supermarkets, industry, and more.

This study was led by Chuck Booten, Scott Nicholson, and Margaret Mann from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and Omar Abdelaziz from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, under the Clean Energy Manufacturing Center (CEMAC) program.

For more information, see the full report.

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