Are HFOs, also referred to as low GWP refrigerants, the solution for the cooling of the future? The question of what is the ideal refrigerant is dominating the refrigeration industry once again. Let’s start from the beginning.
HFCs (partly fluorinated hydrocarbons) and F-gases were intended to replace CFCs and HCFCs, which have been gradually banned since 1987 and proved extremely damaging to the ozone layer in the 1980s.
As the name suggests, the difference between the new HFCs and PFCs and the old HCFCs and CFCs is not huge. They are merely the latest development of the respective preceding substances, but come from the same chemical building block. Even in the case of the allegedly future-oriented HFO refrigerants, only their stability has been reduced.
The rapid decay of these substances reduces the GWP or CO2 equivalent. The effects of the decomposition materials do not play a role in this. The refrigeration industry has been adopting this transitional solution for years now, as they are a simple and supposedly cost-effective option in the short term.
Refrigerants with a low global warming potential (GWP) are advertised as climate and environmentally friendly and are intended to be the urgently needed alternative to HFCs. However, low GWP refrigerants are little more than an evolution of F-gases and were developed exclusively to meet the requirements of the F-gas Regulation regarding low global warming potential.
However, anyone who thinks about sustainability from a holistic and long-term perspective knows that low GWP refrigerants do not represent a real solution. The term “low” GWP only refers to refrigerants that have a lower GWP value than refrigerants used previously. In fact, the new refrigerants are just a blend of old refrigerants with HFOs there to reduce the GWP – and thus merely act as expensive bridge refrigerants.
HFOs are designed solely to achieve low CO2 equivalents. But true sustainability also has environmental protection in mind. These aspects are already being worked on at EU level in order to keep air, water and soil pollution under control. Synthetic refrigerants can therefore simply no longer meet the current requirements for sustainability and future viability.
Low GWPs harm the environment and people in a completely different way. The substances, especially their degradation products, become new environmental pollutants that cause considerable concern. Among other things, pollutants such as trifluoroacetic acid (TFA) and hydrofluoric acid (HF) can form.
The by-products hardly degrade in the environment and pass into soil and water. There are also no reliable facts about the stability and efficiency of many low GWPs, as is evident from the examples of R1234yf and R1234ze.
Using low GWPs still entails unknown risks and does not effectively protect the environment. Approximately 17% of the annual global energy consumption for refrigeration is primarily due to the lack of energy efficiency of chillers.
Refrigerants with a low GWP alone are therefore of little help. A suitable refrigerant only unleashes its full potential when combined with optimised energy efficiency in the form of a high-performance chiller.