US Secretary of State John Kerry called this week’s agreement to ban HFC refrigerants “a monumental step”. The right wing pundits said “Obama Just Banned Air Conditioning! I am HOT Over THIS!” Neither statement is entirely true. In fact, there are perfectly good alternatives to HFCs that have been around for years.
Perhaps the most interesting one is Greenfreeze, which came from an unusual source: Greenpeace. When CFCs were banned under the Montreal Protocol in 1987, the big chemical manufacturers insisted that HFCs were the only replacement that would work in existing refrigerating technology. Greenpeace, which had campaigned for the ban of CFCs, disagreed, and found scientists who mixed up a batch of common hydrocarbons, propane and isobutane, which has the same critical property that everyone with a propane barbecue knows about: it turns from liquid to gas at room temperature, absorbing heat in the process. They gave it the cute name: Greenfreeze. They found an almost bankrupt fridge factory in the former East Germany and soon fridges running on the stuff were common across Europe. Greenpeace writes:
GreenFreeze is a triumph of "can do", inspiring proof of workable solutions to climate change. When we made GreenFreeze freely available to the world, it revolutionized the global household refrigeration market. Today there are more than 800 million GreenFreeze refrigerators worldwide. GreenFreeze technology represents between 35 and 40 percent of the 100 million domestic refrigerators and freezers produced worldwide each year. Looking ahead, the share of hydrocarbon-based refrigeration is expected to continue to grow.
There was nothing new in this; that’s what most fridges used back in the 1930s. But fridges were not very efficient then, and used a lot of refrigerant, more than three pounds of the stuff, enough to be dangerous. CFCs were seen as a much safer alternative. But new fridges use far less, as little as 2 percent of what the old fridges had, the equivalent of two butane cigarette lighters. As Greenpeace notes, “The risk of explosion is minimal: it takes between 17 g/cubic meter and 39 g/cubic meter to create an explosive mixture. Therefore, if the refrigerant were to leak outside the refrigerator, an explosion would be nearly impossible.”
Except in the land of American Exceptionalism, where somehow, one is allowed to drive a car filled with many gallons of extremely volatile gasoline, but the car’s air conditioning cannot run on dangerous isobutane. Where the manufacturers have complained that the fridges are too big and the demands of the automatic defrost to onerous to risk having a flammable refrigerant. Greenpeace notes that “the tentacles of the chemical industry are still using their influence to avoid that from happening and preventing Americans having climate friendly fridges at home.”
There were some inroads; John Laumer noted a few years ago that GE was making fridges using isobutane refrigerants after the EPA made them legal in the US in 2011. There are now quite a few manufactured with R600a refrigerants. Laumer notes that they are even better than the fridges we are used to:
Iso-butane and propane (byproducts of oil refining) individually or in blends have a far greater heat exchange capacity than than any halogenated refrigerant. Hence, appliance designers specifying hydrocarbon refrigerants can utilize smaller compressors and heat exchangers, a lower volume of refrigerant, and thus achieve lower energy consumption, shaving weight, space, and cost. With less energy needed to get the compressor chugging, consumer electric bills go down. Hydrocarbon refrigerants also take less energy to make and have no toxic inputs during manufacture, are dirt cheap (pennies instead of dollars per pound) and do not require expensive and tricky recovery operations at end of product life.
And yes, it is already at work in commercial installations like these coolers for Ben and Jerrys, and it works with air conditioners too. In 2014 the EPA permitted the use of hydrocarbon refrigerants in “self-contained room air conditioners, including packaged terminal air conditioners and packaged terminal heat pumps, window AC units, and portable AC units designed for use in a single room.”
So once again, Obama is not taking away your air conditioning, there are safe alternatives to HFCs, and Greenpeace, so reviled in America, deserves a big tip of the hat for their work on GreenFreeze.