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Where are the cooling gases that will neither warm the earth nor make a hole in the ozone layer?

Randal Newton is leading the effort in his company to develop less harmful refrigerant gases (Photo by Ingersoll Rand)

Refrigerant gases have been global villains since it was found that they depleted the ozone layer on top of the earth’s atmosphere. The Montreal Protocol that included a calendar to phase out these gases has been hailed as the most successful global environmental treaty till now. Then it was found that the replacement gases were warming the entire atmosphere, so the Kigali Amendment to the Protocol was agreed in 2016 to phase out these gases in turn. See: HFC phasedown will be climate win for India, Coolants that warm earth on way out, finally, India vows to kill super greenhouse gas

So where are the new generation refrigerant gases? There is a lot of research going on to develop them, and a few are already in the market. Ingersoll Rand is a multinational firm deeply involved in this process, with laboratories in Bengaluru and Chennai as well as abroad.

At the recent World Sustainable Development Summit organised in New Delhi by the Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), Randal Newton, Vice President of Enterprise Engineering at Ingersoll Rand, spoke to on the latest developments. Edited excerpts from the interview:

Tell us about the work you’re doing on refrigerants.

Refrigerants are very tricky chemicals. They have to be safe. They have to be energy efficient. They have to be cost-effective… In 2014, we made a commitment that we would reduce the global warming potential of all our products by 50% by 2020, and that we would develop new lower global warming potential refrigerants for all of our products by 2030. Our chairman committed USD 500 million to develop more energy efficient lower global warming impact products over the next five years.

There are really two stages to what I’d call refrigerant change. We’re under an intense time limit to get changes. So, our development of new refrigerants has taken two forms. One is, the things we can do with refrigerants today or tomorrow or in very short term that would significantly reduce their global warming potential without having to make any significant design changes to our product. We believe that is the fastest way to make an impact. This is a situation where if you just make the change by 2050, it’s probably too late because we’re continuing to release all these high global warming potential refrigerants till 2050.

So, we can make incremental changes very quickly without having to do significant design changes on our product. That’s a way to buy some time.

The second part of this is that you look for refrigerants that will have a long-term solution. Even if they require significant design changes, the long-term solution is one that we can embrace. Industry is willing to make that investment one time. If they have to make it two or three or four times, it becomes very restrictive from a cost standpoint…

There are a couple of examples. We worked with one of the chemical manufacturers to find a replacement for R44A. R44A is a very very high global warming potential refrigerant. It’s used extensively in the refrigeration industry. We use it in truck trailer refrigeration products. We were able to launch a refrigerant a few years ago in Europe that preserved, in fact even enhanced, the energy efficiency of our unit while reducing the global warming potential by more than 50%…

We have done similar things with refrigerants R123. We were able to launch R1233CD, which is a long-term refrigerant but required some significant design changes, which we did two years ago…

We have done a similar thing with our refrigerant 134A, used in large commercial product, that brings about a 60% reduction on global warming potential.

We’re working now on our alternative for 10A, which is the most popular refrigerant in the world. Short-term alternatives that may be able to reduce the global warming potential by 50 or 60%, and then, of course, still in the future, we’re working on our long-term proposals.

But it’s in this way that we’ve been able to make an impact and have been able to work towards our 2020 goal which is far in advance of the requirements of Kigali (the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which tightened the phase-out of chemicals that damage the ozone layer and warm up the earth’s atmosphere).

What about homes? What about family cars?

The industry, at least in Europe, moved to a refrigerant 1234YF for automobiles a few years back. The US market is also transitioning to 1234YF. It has a global warming potential that is significantly lower than 134A, which it replaced. It is considered a low flaming point refrigerant, so there has been some resistance by some of the automakers, but because it’s relatively low charge and because it’s in an outdoor environment I think the risk is relatively low.

So that transitioning is happening. That’s not the case with other transport products, like air-conditioners for buses, air-conditioning products for trains. We’re currently working on alternatives in those spaces, and the reason that hasn’t happened in those spaces is that those are much riskier from a flammability standpoint. There’s a lot more refrigerants in those systems. If that refrigerant was released into the occupied space, it could be a problem. And so, safety always has to be number one for us. We’re working on alternatives that will take the place of those refrigerants today.

For residential air-conditioners, by and large the world uses a refrigerant called 410A. India still uses a lot of R22, which is being phased out by the first Montreal Protocol. But by and large the world has moved to 410A. We’re working on alternatives to 410A. In fact, we’ve launched a product called R452B. It is a low flammability refrigerant, but it’s still flammable. In very small quantities, it can be substituted as a replacement for 410A with no design changes. You change the oil, you change the refrigerant, and the result is in fact higher energy efficiency, especially in high ambient (temperature) conditions like you have in India… I’m talking low charges now, because it does have flammability. But if you have low charge units, they can be substituted almost immediately.

Can you change the gas to this in your home air-conditioner?

If it uses 410A, if it’s a very low charge unit, you can change the gas. In the US, we use a lot of split systems, so that charges are probably too high. We’ll have to take additional safety measures to be able to use it.

We see more and more split systems here all the time.

It depends on the split system. If it has a very low refrigerant charge, it’ll be perfectly safe. But you have to keep the charge below what the flammability limit would be. So those alternatives are available today, without doing design changes…

We’re still working on long-term solutions, because as you get into larger split systems, we’d still prefer to have a refrigerant whose flammability is not in question.

When do you think India will move to the new refrigerants?

In commercial and industrial products, it is already moving. We see growth in India in places like data centres, hospitals, universities, airports, large buildings and shopping malls. Those kinds of structures require large commercial air-conditioning products. We have long-term alternative refrigerants available for sale today in India. They’ve been approved by the Indian government, and so refrigerants 1233ZD, 514A, are available today. And we’re selling them in India, even though there’s no requirement. We’re selling them in India today because customers favour a long-term approach. They favour an approach where they are putting high energy efficiency low global warming products. And part of it is their image, part of it is that they have green commitments, part of it is the ability to attract young talent where this issue of climate change is a big deal.

With regard to residential air-conditioners, China is starting to produce a lot of products very low charge products, that use propane as a refrigerant. And I expect that those products will be available in the very short term, products like 452B could be available any time if manufacturers choose to use them…

You know, the reality is that change is hard. Change is always going to be hard. But when we get commitments from leaders of our industry, when we get commitments from the governments, when we start regulating, it’s achievable.

Do you think commercial establishments are moving today because they can foresee new rules coming in?

It’s not just the new rule. In commercial products, we always make products with higher energy efficiency than what is regulated because there’s demand for it. We always want to be ahead of regulations with regard to lower global warming potential refrigerants because, even though in many cases it is not regulated today, the demand is there. We launched this product in Europe for truck trailer refrigeration ahead of any regulations, and something like 70% of our customers demanded that refrigerant, because it made sense to them, because it made sense in their industry, because they wanted to do the right thing.


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