As the industrialised world follows its commitments to reducing pollutants and emissions that damage the planetary environment, the industry should expect important changes. From energy production to manufacturing to even everyday consumer goods, companies must adjust their processes, protocols, and even which chemicals they use.
Companies that embrace these changes earliest will have the most efficient and effective transitions because they can run the bugs out of their system before changes become mandatory. Fortunately, in the case of a soon-to-be-banned chemical such as the refrigerant R22, replacements such as those made of hydrocarbons are already available.
In the 1980s, scientists discovered that a dangerous hole formed in Earth’s protective ozone layer during certain times of the year. This allowed more cancer-causing ultraviolet rays to penetrate the atmosphere to the planetary surface, threatening health and safety. When science discovered that the culprit lay in hydrochlorofluorocarbons, all 197 members of the United Nations in 1989 signed the Montreal Protocol, banning their use.
Some products, like spray can deodorants, disappeared almost immediately. Other areas, such as refrigeration, received more time for compliance. Australia emerged as a leader in meeting international mandates, especially in refrigeration, which falls under the Ozone Protection and Synthetic Greenhouse Gas Management Act of 1989.
Australia has worked toward phasing out R22. Only a little over one-fourth of refrigeration units use R22, which significantly helps the country meet the required mandates.
Hydrocarbon and other all natural refrigerants will soon replace all existing fluorocarbons, but this represents a major step forward in environmental safety. They come from all natural components and have little adverse effect on the all-important ozone layer.
Refrigerants composed of hydrocarbons use substances extracted from “wet” natural gas. Natural gas, when extracted from the ground, may or may not contain condensables. These substances include propane and isobutane used in hydrocarbon refrigerants. Gas that contains these at a rate of 0.1 gallons per 1,000 cubic feet is considered 'wet' and that at a lower rate is called 'dry'.
With massive fields of natural gas just discovered in the last 20 years, such as the Marcellus, Utica, and Barnett fields in the United States, hydrocarbon refrigerant prices should remain reasonable. This should help the transition to these more environmentally friendly products even easier.
Hydrocarbon refrigerants use a natural reaction to keep refrigeration units cool. The unit keeps the hydrocarbons in a pressurised liquid state. When the pressure gets removed, the hydrocarbons revert to their natural gaseous state. The reaction that occurs during transition pulls in heat, ensuring that the unit cools.
Hydrocarbon refrigerant use may work better for the environment, but their use does not come without risk.
Since hydrocarbon refrigerants come from natural gas, they require some care in use due to flammability. Leaks in air conditioners, especially in automobiles, carry the most risk. Most issues, however, stem from “do it yourself” replacement of depleted hydrocarbon refrigerants in the unit. Some kits simply put barbecue grill propane into the refrigeration or air conditioning unit. Many countries, such as the United States, outlawed this practice. Canada and other countries, however, still permit it.
Additionally, hydrocarbon refrigerants have as much place in an R12 or R22 unit as diesel fuel in a conventional gasoline engine. Gaskets and seals made for these older units cannot handle hydrocarbon refrigerants and will degrade quickly, exposing the unit to possible fire or explosion.
Certainly, the use of hydrocarbons in refrigeration and air conditioning units somewhat increases the risk of fire. This has caused a great deal of fear and hesitance to use them. Much like gasoline-powered automobiles and gas stoves, however, hydrocarbon refrigerants can be perfectly safe to use.
Those installing hydrocarbon refrigerants should stick to a few common sense techniques to mitigate risk. First, make sure that during installation that the area has adequate ventilation to prevent a build-up of gas that can cause a fire or harm people in the area. Also, make sure that the area has smoke detectors and a fire extinguisher handy.
Importantly, technicians should use manufacturer-recommended equipment rather than torches when working with hydrocarbon cooled machines. They also need to take special care to use the proper refrigerant product consistent with the refrigerator or air conditioner manufacturer’s instructions.
As Gareth Halliday, Engixo General Manager explains that for bigger plants, EX rated extraction systems and gas sensors can be used to activate pump down systems and goes on to say:
As a hazardous area approved contractor, my team is instructed to complete initial surveys and plant inspections to document any potential areas of concern and implement safety measures, such as segregation of electrical components and switch gear, to mitigate future risks.
Technicians and other users should let simple common sense and best practices guide how they work with and treat hydrocarbon refrigerants. When treated properly, they will pose no more threat than gas stoves, automobiles, or propane grills.
Most concerns about environmental mandates rightly include those of cost. Most businesses, even many major corporations, have narrow profit margins. Hydrocarbon refrigerants, however, come with savings over current products in use, bringing up to 30 per cent savings. Isobutane based refrigeration currently dominates the European market. US adoption has gone more slowly but could pick up if advocates push cost savings as opposed to environmental benefits.
Those cost savings will remain in place as natural gas production continues to expand in the US, Russia, and elsewhere, keeping world prices low.
Hydrocarbon refrigerants pose significantly less danger to individuals using the equipment and the environment itself. Many current refrigerants contain noxious chemicals that pose harm to humans who accidentally touch or ingest them. Hydrocarbon refrigerants, however, pose little threat if accidentally breathed in small amounts consistent with a leak.
Most people feel they have to choose between less expensive and more environmentally friendly. When a product combines the two, it becomes a common sense choice. Hydrocarbon refrigerants pose no threat to the ozone layer and less of a threat to the bottom line than traditional materials. The main issue beyond this lies in fear of using a potentially flammable material in an unfamiliar setting. Education and getting used to the notion should wear down initial resistance in a relatively short period.
With mandates coming into place soon, product education on hydrocarbon refrigerants should become a priority.