Big changes are underway for the refrigerants industry worldwide.

The production and use of climate-warming fluorinated gases in European industries continues to decline, thanks to new legislation which aims to slash emissions. Emissions from one class of refrigerants, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), will be reduced by two-thirds by 2030 in Europe, and the Australian refrigerants industry looks set to follow suit.

To understand why these changes are happening, it’s helpful to know what substances are used to keep our air conditioning systems pumping out that arctic blast in the office, or stopping the milk from spoiling in the fridge.

Traditionally, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) were used as refrigerants and in aerosol sprays, but have been gradually phased out due to their damaging effects on the ozone layer. They are also potent greenhouse gases, so their decreased usage has extra benefits in reducing impact on climate change.

As the use of CFCs and HCFCs has declined thanks to the signing of the Montreal Protocol, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) have been increasingly used in their place as an alternative, as these do not contain chlorine and hence do not destroy the ozone layer.

Unfortunately, HFCs come with their own environmental issues. They are part of a group of substances called fluorinated greenhouse gases (F gases), a family of synthetic gases used for a range of industrial applications, including in the refrigerants industry. F gases have a high Global Warming Potential (GWP) – their effect is up to 23,000 times greater than carbon dioxide according to the European Directorate-General for Climate Action.

There is now greater interest in other refrigerants: low GWP synthetics, such as hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs), as well as natural refrigerants including ammonia, carbon dioxide, and hydrocarbons. These two groups reportedly have a much lower impact on global warming, and low GWP synthetics in particular have the potential to be much more energy efficient, reducing the indirect impacts of refrigerant leakage.

Nonetheless, some environmental organisations claim that using low GWP synthetics is still an unacceptably risky process. Greenpeace states that both HFCs and HFOs produce toxic by-products during their production and decomposition, such as trifluoroacetic acid (TFA), which is toxic to aquatic ecosystems. They also produce highly toxic hydrogen fluoride gas when they burn.

It’s not just the environmental impacts of fluorocarbon refrigerants that are concerning. The Australian Refrigeration Association notes that while all refrigerants (including natural refrigerants) can be dangerous and need to be handled with care, some HFCs and HFOs carry greater health and safety risks compared to others.

It’s important to note, however, that the potential risks of low GWP synthetics are still very much under debate, with no clear-cut answers surrounding their use. In fact, tradespeople are strongly encouraged to thoroughly read the Material Safety Data Sheets that accompany refrigerants, as there can be discrepancies: the MSDS for the same material may carry different information from different suppliers, or two countries may each produce a different MSDS for the same refrigerant.

Natural refrigerants appear to be a logical solution. They are highly energy efficient, with low GWP and no ozone depletion potential. They are not patented by chemical production companies, are more cost-effective and are readily available for a wide range of applications.

According to Tim Edwards, president of the Australian Refrigeration Association, the benefits of natural refrigerants are important to Australia.

“Natural refrigerants are extensively used in Australia and worldwide,” said Edwards in a media release. “There are 400 million domestic refrigerators in use worldwide based on hydrocarbon refrigerants but a vanishingly low level of safety incidents.”

With high GWP refrigerants set to be increasingly phased out by 2030, it seems many original equipment manufacturers and the synthetic refrigerants industry have accepted that the industry looks set to change – and soon.

The upcoming Australian Refrigeration Association’s HVACR Energy Efficiency seminars, held in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, will discuss the key issues impacting on the refrigerants industry in Australia, including the shift towards low GWP refrigerants and more energy efficient solutions.

The Australian government has also passed legislation to encourage transition from fluorocarbon refrigerants to natural refrigerants, and has endorsed policies that call for the phase out of fluorocarbon refrigerants worldwide.

Edwards believes Australian companies are ready to make natural refrigerant solutions more readily available.

“Australian companies are at the forefront of developing solutions to replace HFCs with energy efficient solutions,” he said. “Failure to deal swiftly with HFCs will only make the job of reducing global warming emissions more difficult.”