Discover more from The Fluori-dated Newsletter
You make it easy
What's this all about again? I have a go at simplifying things... plus the GreenFreeze story
In this last week someone mentioned to me. I’ve seen your newsletter, but I’ve still got no idea what this is all about.
It is easy to forget what it was like when I was starting out on the journey. When I first discovered this problem, of refrigerants, for the first time. And all the questions that came with it. I’ve buried myself deep in this topic since then, and it is not always easy to recount what it was like. The life before all the acronyms.
So today I’m going to try and take a step back.
I came across this concept, originally from Richard Feynman and distilled nicely here by Sahil Bloom. The idea of truly learning through trying to explain a complex topic to a five-year-old. The “explain it like I’m five” approach really makes you think hard.
I had a good crack at it, and wrote a story about refrigerants for my kids. It definately helped. But while I’m going to try and simplify things in today’s newsletter, I’ll probably land a notch higher. Let’s call it an ELI15 version…
So before going too much further, I should restate what ‘this problem’ is all about.
How our reliance on certain refrigerants leads to environmental harm.
It’s a topic that’s important for everyone. Because we all suffer the consequences, and because we can also help influence the impacts. Consumers, employees, CEOs, and kids all have a role, because refrigerants touch every part of our lives (even if you don’t know it yet). They relate to our purchasing decisions, company risk exposure and career choices.
Many people will at some point be involved in buying a refrigerator, heat-pump, or air-conditioned vehicle (including second hand in some parts of the majority world). As well as buying food that has traveled through countless refrigerated steps, including trucks and shipping containers. Consuming streamed movies that pass-through data centres cooled with refrigerants. Working for, or buying from companies with their air-conditioned offices, factories, and vehicle fleets.
They. Are. Everywhere.
So, let’s break down the problem into some key points which I’ve simplified. I promise not to use any acronyms.
1. Refrigerants are invisible gases, contained within equipment all around us. They are responsible for making pretty much all air-conditioning and refrigeration (and some types of heating) work.
2. It is important to mention there are two broad groups of refrigerants. Fluorinated refrigerants which are man-made chemicals (let’s call them BigF), and natural refrigerants which are derived from substances already found in nature.
3. When they are doing their work inside equipment, they aren’t a problem. But being a gas under pressure, they sometimes escape through leaks in the equipment. Sometimes they escape a lot.
4. After escaping, they mix with the air around us, and gradually move up into the atmosphere. Many BigF refrigerants stay up there for a long time, often for decades.
5. The primary problem is that BigF in the atmosphere traps heat, contributing to global heating. They are much better at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. Older types of BigF harm our protective ozone layer. Newer types of BigF break down quickly, return to earth in rain, and pollute our water.
6. Many refrigerants are man-made chemicals in factories. The manufacturing process also uses a lot of toxic stuff, creates pollution, and uses significant energy (this is the upstream problem).
7. BigF refrigerant gases are also hard to dispose of, and there’s lots being produced. There are few incentives for doing the right thing when the cooling equipment reaches end of life, meaning a lot goes up (the downstream problem).
8. Of all the gases that contribute to global heating, BigF have been the fastest growing. The urgency exists because we need to make deep emissions cuts this decade. With these refrigerants, their short-term impact is big.
9. While some BigF refrigerants are being phased out, there will be millions of tons still left in circulation. Few organisations track their use or disposal and they continue to reach the atmosphere. There is no way to bring them back and planting trees won’t help.
10. We have solutions. 1. Reducing the amount of BigF that enters circulation is the first step. 2. Reducing leaks is next and 3. Making sure it gets disposed of properly is paramount. If you need a hand with these steps, when you’re ready, let me know or check out what we do at Veridien.
For sure I’ve left out a few details, and like everything there are nuances (yes a refrigerant also has a liquid form). You’ll find me covering them in other editions of the newsletter, but for today I wanted to boil it down to basics.
And it goes without saying, that we need to make every effort to power all these refrigerant containing systems with clean energy sources. And reduce the need for their use in the first place…
Did the simplification work? What key messages did I leave out? Feel free to leave a comment and share your thoughts.
Note. I can’t help including a few acronyms. For those curious what I’m referring to for the BigF refrigerants. I’m talking the CFCs, HCFCs, HFCs and HFOs. You can find more on these down below.
Where the F-Gas Hides
Each week I provide an example of where f-gases are utilised, or used to produce something. They are present in more things than most people realise… #wherethefgashides
I was trying to think of an obvious one for today, staying true to the simplification theme.
What’s simpler than domestic refrigerators, the humble fridge? But of course, it’s not that simple…
Some quick history. For a long time, the prevailing BigF refrigerant used in domestic refrigerators was R12 (Freon™️). This gas, however, was one of the CFCs found to degrade the ozone layer, and subsequently phased out.
There was a large push in the 1990s to switch across to the HFC gas R134a, which we now know is highly climate damaging. Many fridge manufacturers went down this path.
However, this is where the interesting part kicks in. Greenpeace Germany were watching the CFC phase out, and could also foresee problems with the HFCs. They decided to build their own proof of concept fridge using non-BigF, natural refrigerants, which offered the least environmental impacts. The program was called GreenFreeze.
Just like there is today, there was significant pushback from the legacy industry, using various tactics to prevent take up of alternative refrigerants. However, the GreenFreeze program ploughed ahead and managed to sign a manufacturing agreement with a struggling East German manufacturer.
Despite numerous obstacles being put in their way, they managed to garner public support and subsequent orders of the new refrigerators. This development helped convince the legacy appliance manufacturers that this was the way forward, using natural, non-BigF refrigerants. They were also very energy efficient.
What is amazing, is that this program then snowballed to the point where many other production lines around the world converted to natural refrigerants (mostly r600a), including in China. As of last year almost 75% of new units globally were using it. There was one major country holding out though...
Helpfully, in 2021 the US started shifting their production across to r600a also. As of last year however, 89% of the US refrigerators still contained climate damaging BigF R134a which will all need cleaning up (source US EPA).
All told there are now over one billion refrigerators running safely on natural refrigerants (source UNEP). Sufficient evidence that when correctly designed and implemented, natural refrigerants, even with flammable properties, are a viable solution.
One other fun fact. There are also BigF gases used in the insulating foams of fridges. If you weren’t aware you can catch up with my recent newsletter article here.
In the past the quantity of gas used in the fridge insulation (for making the foam bubbles), was two to three times the amount used in the refrigeration system itself. That’s why insulation foams are also a big part of the environmental problem. You can’t just dump them on the scrapheap, as so often happens unfortunately.
If you’d like to dive deeper into the history of these refrigerants (including the GreenFreeze story), check out this terrific paper from Dr Daniel Colbourne and the IOR.
Right, that’s all for this week and ‘till next time,
p.s. The title track from last week – Paper Tiger – is one of my favourite tracks from Beck – found on the 2002 album, Sea Change
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 is 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)
There is also 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.