Climate Risks Posed by Refrigerants Underscore Urgency for Sustainable Alternatives, Say Experts

by Ethan Kim
Refrigerants and Climate Impact

When approached to repair a relatively new air-conditioning system, Jennifer Byrne, who owns and operates Comfy Heating and Cooling, often inquires whether the residence has recently undergone renovations. In her experience, particularly in West Philadelphia, she frequently encounters subpar renovations where essential steps like pressure testing are skipped, resulting in the leaking of cooling chemicals known as refrigerants and the formation of ice inside the system.

“This is a commonplace issue in this area. People often complain about multiple issues in their newly purchased, flipped homes, including air conditioning systems that freeze up,” said Byrne, as she unpacked equipment from her work vehicle.

Such issues are far from trivial. Leaking refrigerants are extraordinarily harmful to the Earth’s atmosphere, with some research identifying them as “the most potent greenhouse gases known to modern science.” They are proliferating at an alarming rate.

One prevalent refrigerant, R-410A, is a case in point: It is 2,088 times more harmful to the climate than carbon dioxide, which is released from burning fossil fuels. As a result, current methods of climate control are paradoxically contributing to climate instability.

To mitigate this, the Clean Air Act has instituted strict regulations against the intentional release of most refrigerants. With a mandate for the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce one category of these chemicals by 85% by 2036, the race is on to innovate and adopt more environmentally friendly alternatives.

Byrne’s vehicle is replete with specialized tools and equipment, including sealed cylinders to store the potent R-410A. During repairs, she safely collects the leaking refrigerant into these cylinders.

However, residential air conditioners are only one conduit through which refrigerants enter the atmosphere. They also contribute to the increased frequency of extreme weather events.

Eckhard Groll, a leading authority on refrigeration and the head of mechanical engineering at Purdue University, notes that air conditioning systems in gasoline-powered cars are another significant source of refrigerant leaks. An estimated 25% of refrigerants from all cars leak out annually, equating to about 100 million pounds of released chemicals in the U.S. alone each year.

Moreover, supermarkets are the second-largest contributors to refrigerant leaks, due to their complex piping systems. Danielle Wright, the executive director of the North American Sustainable Refrigeration Council, states that the average supermarket loses roughly 25% of its refrigerant every year. “It may not be a matter of cutting corners, but it is certainly more economical to allow the leak than to build a leak-proof system,” she observed.

Companies like A-Gas Rapid Recovery have emerged to reclaim and recycle refrigerants. Mike Armstrong, the President of A-Gas in the Americas, indicated that refrigerants can be reused and have a lifespan of up to 30 years. The company specializes in purifying and repurposing these chemicals.

With existing legislation and ethical considerations, old practices of venting gases into the atmosphere are now both illegal and immoral, says Anthony Nash, an A-Gas network training manager. Any unusable refrigerant undergoes a high-temperature pyrolysis process for safe destruction.

While the chemical industry is searching for more sustainable replacements, the introduction of cleaner alternatives has been sluggish, particularly in the air conditioning sector. Some of these new chemicals are indeed less harmful to the climate but may possess other drawbacks, such as flammability.

Researchers are even considering the use of carbon dioxide as a refrigerant, although this would require entirely new systems due to its need for extremely high pressure.

Progress is also being made in the realm of solid refrigerants. Jarad Mason, an assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard University, is optimistic about this emerging technology, which has the potential to be applied across various settings, including homes and commercial buildings.

“The demand for heating and cooling will undoubtedly increase, making it imperative that we develop sustainable and economically viable solutions,” Mason emphasized.

Note: The climate and environmental coverage by Big Big News is supported by several private foundations. All content is solely the responsibility of the Associated Press.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Refrigerants and Climate Impact

What is the main environmental issue discussed in the article?

The article focuses on the detrimental impact of leaking refrigerants on the environment. These chemicals are highly potent greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

Who is Jennifer Byrne and what problem does she frequently encounter?

Jennifer Byrne is the owner and technician at Comfy Heating and Cooling. She often encounters issues with air conditioning systems, particularly in newly remodeled homes, where refrigerants leak due to shoddy installations.

What are some common sources of refrigerant leaks mentioned in the article?

The article identifies three main sources of refrigerant leaks: home air conditioning systems, cars, and supermarkets. Each presents a significant risk of releasing these harmful chemicals into the atmosphere.

How harmful are refrigerants compared to carbon dioxide?

One of the most common refrigerants, R-410A, is mentioned as being 2,088 times more damaging to the climate than carbon dioxide. This makes refrigerants among the most potent greenhouse gases known to modern science.

What are some measures being taken to address this issue?

The Clean Air Act prohibits the intentional release of most refrigerants. Companies like A-Gas Rapid Recovery are involved in reclaiming and recycling refrigerants. Additionally, there is ongoing research to find more sustainable and less harmful alternatives.

What challenges are there in adopting cleaner refrigerants?

There are multiple challenges in transitioning to cleaner refrigerants, including lobbying from chemical and HVAC equipment manufacturers, as well as existing codes and standards. Some alternatives also present other risks, such as flammability.

What are solid refrigerants and why are they considered promising?

Solid refrigerants are substances like the mineral perovskite that can absorb heat under low pressure to cool their surroundings. They are considered promising because they could be used in a wide range of applications, from fridges to commercial buildings, and present a potentially more sustainable alternative.

Who are some of the experts and organizations mentioned in the article?

Experts like Eckhard Groll, head of mechanical engineering at Purdue University, and Danielle Wright, executive director of the North American Sustainable Refrigeration Council, are mentioned. Organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and A-Gas Rapid Recovery also feature prominently.

What is the timeline for phasing out harmful refrigerants according to U.S. regulations?

According to the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency is required to phase out one family of these chemicals by 85% by the year 2036.

What is the article’s outlook on the future of the refrigerant industry?

The article suggests that the industry related to reclaiming and recycling refrigerants is likely to grow four to five times in the next few years. It also notes that research is ongoing to find more sustainable alternatives to current refrigerants.

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Rachel G October 14, 2023 - 2:28 am

What’s up with the supermarkets? Leaking 25% of their refrigerant every year seems careless. Cost-cutting shouldn’t trump environmental concerns.

John D October 14, 2023 - 5:33 am

Wow, I had no idea refrigerants were this bad for the planet. it’s scary to think a common AC unit can do so much damage.

Alex P October 14, 2023 - 7:22 am

“Business is booming” for the reclamation industry, yet we’re in a crisis? Seems ironic, but I guess it’s better than nothing.

Sara K October 14, 2023 - 10:00 am

The fact that cars leak so much refrigerant is news to me. Just another reason to move away from gasoline cars, I guess.

Steve L October 14, 2023 - 12:22 pm

Those EPA rules seem way overdue. And 2036 to phase out 85%? That’s too slow. We don’t have that kinda time.

Timothy Brown October 14, 2023 - 2:16 pm

Solid refrigerants sound promising. Hoping more research can make it a viable option soon. We seriously need it.

Maggie Smith October 14, 2023 - 9:27 pm

So the chemical industry is looking for alternatives, huh? about time, I’d say. We’ve known about this issue for years!


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