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Automotive industry to phase out environmentally-unsafe refrigerants
09 May 2017
Automotive industry to phase out environmentally-unsafe refrigerants

In line with the latest legislation in Europe, which came into effect at the beginning of the year, the automotive industry is required to phase out current environment-damaging refrigerants being used, and replace these with green alternatives.

Automotive air-conditioning systems currently run on R134a refrigerant. However, HFO1234yf has been introduced as the next-generation gas for car air-conditioners, according to speciality chemicals and gas supplier A-Gas South Africa.

R134a, or 1,1,1,2-tetrafluoroethane, is a haloalkane refrigerant with thermodynamic properties similar to R12 (dichlorodifluoromethane), but with insignificant ozone depletion potential, and a somewhat lower Global Warming Potential (GWP) of 1 300, compared to 2 400 for R12. HFO1234yf, or 2,3,3,3-Tetrafluoropropene, is the first in a new class of refrigerants with a GWP rating one 335th that of R134a, and an atmospheric lifespan about 400 times shorter.

HFO1234yf has similar cooling properties to R134a, which has been used as an automotive refrigerant since it was introduced way back in 1994 to 1995 as a replacement for R12. While R134a contains no chlorine, which is harmful to the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere, the problem is it does retain heat well, and therefore has an unacceptably high GWP.

While chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were common in the past, these were phased-out by the Montreal Protocol in the late 1990s, paving the way for the advent of HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons). Now the latest Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, ratified in October 2016, is looking to the future phase-out of the latter, and their replacement with HFOs (hydrofluoro-olefins), the fourth generation of fluorine-based gases.

With many international automotive manufacturers represented in South Africa, there will not only be a burgeoning demand for the new HFO1234YF refrigerant, but these systems will soon require servicing or recharge as well, necessitating both supply of, and training in, the latest refrigerant.

“That is ultimately where the aftermarket comes into the picture,” A-Gas South Africa sales representative Werner Terblanche points out. “Slowly but surely, as more and more of these vehicles are sold in South Africa, they will ultimately need to be serviced. Therefore, it is important for the industry to not only be knowledgeable about these gases, but also why there has been a need for this phase-out, and the ultimate benefits thereof.”

Furthermore, quality refrigerants are key in ensuring systems operate accordingly. Refrigerants that do not meet specifications can result in system failures. For example, a high moisture level will increase the acidity which, in turn, will corrode the system, leading to insufficient cooling or failure of the compressor, which can be costly to replace.

“Inferior refrigerants have surfaced in South Africa in recent years, sold by unethical importers, and often in generic disposable cylinders,” Terblanche highlights. Therefore, it is recommended that all repairs and servicing be carried by trained technicians and well-established automotive air- conditioning service centres that use quality, branded refrigerants.

“This is critical in terms of preventing equipment breaking down. Vehicle owners should further also be aware of which refrigerant their vehicle requires, in order to ensure that the correct refrigerant is gassed into the vehicle’s air-conditioning system. Should the incorrect gas be used, it could ultimately result in costly damage,” Terblanche elaborates.

 

While refrigerant has commonly been supplied in disposable cylinders, A-Gas South Africa, like other developed countries, is gradually moving away from this practice after it was determined that disposable cylinders also contribute to environmental pollution. “Disposable cylinders are a cheap, one-way packaging. Furthermore, the venting of refrigerants is illegal in South Africa,” Terblanche points out.

As these are pressure vessels, they must be cut or punctured before entering the waste stream. This results in the residual quantity of refrigerant, or ‘heel’, emitted to atmosphere. Where this procedure is not followed, the ‘heel’ remains until the container degrades, at which point the residual refrigerant is released.

Despite clear guidelines on packaging and disposable cylinders, it has been identified that unscrupulous end users are circumventing the one-way valve and refilling them with counterfeit refrigerants to make quick money, which is not only illegal, but extremely dangerous. In many instances, this involves bypassing an integral safety device built into the disposable cylinder itself to prevent overpressure. “This can result in an explosion if the safe operating conditions are exceeded,” Terblanche warns.

“We would like to see South Africa phase out disposable cylinders in favour of reusable cylinders that meet higher quality standards. This will help ensure that all safety and environmental standards are being adhered to,” Terblanche concludes.

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