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E27: It's only natural
Vinegar and alternative refrigerants
In the last edition I promised I was going to start talking solutions. I’ve covered a fair range of the various environmental issues and challenges around refrigerants. Time to change tack a little.
I previously mentioned the concept of switch-up, tighten-up and mop-up. Today we’ll start with switch-up part. One of the three legs of the analogy stool.
If you need a refresher on those ideas check out the link below.
The core switch-up message is the need to move away from fluorinated refrigerants, the majority of what’s in circulation today. To minimise their significant lifecycle impacts, we need to turn off those taps, and open up the taps on alternatives.
Switching-up is not just about changing the type of refrigerant either. We also need to reduce the total amount of refrigerant we put into use, as well as reducing the need for cooling (and heating) in the first place.
These I’ll cover in upcoming editions, but for today let’s stay on alternative refrigerants. I also recently attended the Eurammon symposium on the topic, which has just served to reinforce my thinking on this.
Despite being better for the environment on many fronts, non-fluorinated (often called natural), refrigerants still face an uphill battle in some places. They are less complicated to produce, much easier to dispose of, and cheaper. In my mind they face a similar challenge to that of…
I had a recent revelation around vinegar. Sure I’d enjoyed it in my salads and on my fish and chips. But I’d never appreciated how good it was for cleaning.
Where I live is cold and damp in winter, and there is a constant battle with mold (I’m renting and yes I’ve tabled all the recommendations). I’ve tried big-name chemical cleaners to little avail. A family member suggested vinegar and I was amazed at how well it worked.
Added to that, vinegar can be made from natural sources (e.g. fermented fruit juice), is cheap, relatively easy to make and biodegrades.
I thought to myself. Why isn’t there a guy on the TV shouting about how good vinegar is for cleaning. Why do I only see ads for synthetic chemical cleaners…
Hold that thought.
I’m going to revisit the problem here, just for a moment. Why again do we need to turn off the taps on fluorinated (what I call BigF) refrigerants.
The HCFCs, HFCs and HFOs refrigerants. It’s the F part. Generally speaking the process of adding Fluorine, creates a stable, inert and often well-behaved chemical refrigerant. The thing that makes them good however, is also their downside. They are complicated to make, and really, really, hard to get rid of. Which is why they either stay in the atmosphere for a long time (and trap heat) or for some, break down into PFAS (persistent ‘forever’ chemicals), or take a lot of energy to destroy.
Add to that many of the refrigerants are developed under patent, by large conglomerates, with large marketing budgets. My browsing and timelines are full of their ads these days.
If you are new to this space you might be wondering then. Are there alternatives? Is there a vinegar option for refrigerants? The answer is most definitely, yes!
It just so happens that there are a lot of naturally occurring substances that can be used as refrigerants. Many have been known about for a long long time. The common ones in use today are the ‘Natural 5’. Carbon dioxide (CO2), ammonia, water, air and the hydrocarbons.
They all exist naturally in the environment but that doesn’t mean there aren’t considerations of course. Water and air are fine, but the other three don’t get a free ride.
Newcomers may be surprised to see CO2 on the list, also hydrocarbons. But keep in mind that when used in refrigeration systems; they are contained. Propane combusted in your BBQ; not so good. Propane circulating endlessly inside your air-conditioner as a refrigerant; perfectly fine.
Hydrocarbons are flammable, and ammonia is toxic. But as with vinegar you don’t go splashing it in your eyes, you handle it with care and the same applies. We know how to handle these refrigerants. Ammonia is used for the cooling circuits in the international space station.
In the world of refrigerants, we no longer have ‘easy’ options. The climate and ozone side-effects have exhausted the easy options. All choices will involve accepting some compromise. Just as with vinegar, we might have to put up with a bit of smell. And granted it’s not perfect for all jobs, but there are other natural options we can turn to. See lemon juice.
Some in the BigF camp will try to argue the energy efficiency card. But there are now plenty of case studies to show that energy use can be equalled, and often bettered than existing BigF refrigerants. CO2 is arguably the trickiest from an energy standpoint, but recent advances in that space have closed up many of the gaps. For the record there are now well over 50,000 sites in Europe using CO2 as a refrigerant. Many in supermarkets.
While these refrigerants have been known about for some time, in the past we didn’t have the technology or the manufacturing means to handle them safely. Hydrocarbons were first demonstrated as a refrigerant in 1748. We’ve come a long way in that time...
I’d argue it’s partly because we’ve become comfortable with what is easy. BigF refrigerants are easy. Contractors know how to handle them, supply chains exist. Who wants to change the status quo or have to put up with a bit of an unpleasant smell.
They’d rather the chemical cleaner full of nasty stuff, but with the pleasant fragrance. Often oblivious to the wider concerns.
If we step back and look at the environmental problems associated with their production, use and disposal it becomes crystal clear. We have alternatives and they are ready to go.
We don’t just need to wean ourselves off BigF; we need to close the taps, and quickly.
Right, that’s all for this edition and ‘till next time,
p.s. The title track from last edition – Stand – was from the album ‘Green’ by REM. It was the first album of theirs I heard and led to the purchase of many more…
p.p.s If you’d like to dive into non-fluorinated refrigerants further there are plenty of resources. The Green Cooling initiative encourages the leapfrog approach below.
While I enjoy writing this Newsletter I also need to keep the lights on. If you know any companies or organisations that need support with managing and reducing emissions from refrigerants, feel free to reach out to me. You can reply on the email or check out Veridien RM for more information on where I can help. Merci :)
Fixed stuff here for newcomers
There is lots of news every week from the cooling industry and plenty of newsletters that cover it well. The intention is to keep this newsletter focused on the most prominent f-gases (fluorinated greenhouse gases), the most common of which are refrigerants and importantly their environmental impact. That’s the lane I’ve chosen - I’ll do my best to stick to it.
Below are the seven formal greenhouse gases that countries and companies should track, report and hopefully reduce.
Carbon Dioxide (CO2)
Nitrous Oxide (N2O)
Sulphur Hexafluoride (SF6)
Nitrogen trifluoride (NF3)
Plus the still circulating, ozone damaging chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), and the ‘new-generation’ hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs).
Hopefully you can spot the pattern.
Emissions from f-gases and refrigerants have been the fastest growing greenhouse gases over the past decade (more than CO2 and methane - check out IPCC WG3 summary for policy makers). They are also classed as super pollutants given their outsized global warming and other environmental impacts.
Some useful permalinks
The scale of the climate challenge can often feel daunting. This piece helps me take a step back and understand where we need to focus first - recommend a read.
There are plenty of technology solutions available to address the cooling and refrigerant challenge. You can find many of them here
Beware when the same entities who have contributed to the current f-gas problem propose you new solutions… This is a good place to get up to speed.