Greener Alternatives for Existing Refrigerants

For many years, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), an organic compound made up of carbon, chlorine, and fluorine, were widely used as refrigerants, propellants (in aerosol applications), and solvents. In the early 1980s, scientists discovered a dramatic thinning of the ozone layer over the Antarctic each spring and attributed it to the use of CFCs. In response to Antarctica’s intense seasonal depletion of the ozone layer, the Montreal Protocol, which called for drastic reductions of CFCs, was introduced in 1987 and soon adopted by 24 countries, including the US.

To replace CFCs, the chemical industry introduced hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), ozone-friendly, organic compounds in the 1990s. Decades later, scientists discovered that while these compounds do not cause damage to the ozone layer, they are potent greenhouse gases with significant global warming potential and the race is on to replace them as quickly as possible. The good news is that alternatives have been around for years, and today, both Greenpeace and GE offer alternative cooling refrigeration agents.

For many years, Greenpeace has campaigned for climate-friendly alternatives and in the early 1990s, worked with scientists to create GreenFreeze refrigeration technology. GreenFreeze is made up of a batch of common hydrocarbons, propane, and isobutene, which turns from liquid to gas at room temperature and absorbs heat in the process. According to Greenpeace, “GreenFreeze uses hydrocarbons as the blowing agent for the insulation foam and as the refrigerant. Hydrocarbons are ozone friendly, and have minimal global warming impact when used in refrigeration.” Greenpeace made the technology readily available to the world, and GreenFreeze technology is now used in more than 800 million refrigerators worldwide, and is expected to continue growing.

In 2011, after petitioning the EPA to approve the use of isobutane in household refrigerators, GE unveiled their first home unit cooled with a hydrocarbon refrigerant as a substitute for HCFCs. According to a GE press release, “the new refrigerant not only reduces appliance greenhouse emission caused by off-gassing, but it also improves efficiency, making the technology a double bonus for U.S. consumers.” This technology is already at work in commercial coolers and air conditioners. In 2014, the EPA approved the use of hydrocarbon refrigerants in “self-contained room air conditioners, including packaged terminal air conditioners and packaged terminal heat pumps, window AC units, and portable AC units designed for use in a single room.”

Cleaner, safer, and more efficient alternatives to HFCs and HCFCs are readily available and large corporations are integrating them into new technologies all the time.