The type of refrigerant used in automotive air conditioning systems is changing. Although R-134a refrigerant was used until recently in late model vehicles, most new cars and light trucks are now being equipped with A/C systems that use R-1234yf refrigerant. Other refrigerants are still being considered as alternatives down the road, but for now it looks as if R-1234yf will be the primary refrigerant.
The Europeans phased out R-134a in new vehicles in 2017. European rules require any new refrigerants to have a global warming potential of less than 150. The U.S. EPA also wants car makers to use R-1234yf to lower the overall carbon emissions of the vehicle fleet.
The latest EPA rules say vehicle makers must discontinue using R-134a in new vehicles built for the North American market after model year 2021. R-134a can still be used for some export vehicles, but only until 2025. After that, R-134a will be discontinued in new vehicles - although production will continue for servicing older vehicles that have R-134a A/C systems.
Carbon credits will be given to auto makers who make the switch to a refrigerant that has a lower Global Warming Potential (GWP).
Though R-134a poses no danger to the ozone layer if it escapes into the atmosphere, it is a "greenhouse gas" with a fairly high global warming potential of 1300 (compared to 1 for carbon dioxide, which is nature's own greenhouse gas). A leak that allows only an ounce or two of R-134a to escape into the atmosphere may not seem like a big deal, but over time it all adds up, especially when you multiply small leaks times the hundreds of millions of vehicles that now share planet Earth with humanity.
According to November 2006 report by the Energy Information Administration, vehicles in the U.S. leaked 50.8 thousand tons of R-134a into the atmosphere, equivalent to to over 66 million tons of greenhouse gases. The emissions are 7% higher than in 2004, and up 273 percent since 1995.
North American auto markers began replacing R-134a A/C systems with ones designed for R-1234yf. Auto makers are also redesigning their A/C systems following goals in mind:
* To use less refrigerant. Some newer A/C systems now use only 13 to 18 oz. of refrigerant, which is much less than the 24 to 60 oz. charges that most older A/C systems use. As time goes on, we will see more and more of these low capacity A/C systems in new vehicles.
* To reduce refrigerant leakage 50% over the life of the vehicle. This requires using improved seal designs, hoses and o-ring connections.
* To improve cooling efficiency 30% with more efficient condensers, compressors and operating strategies (things like variable displacement compressors that run all the time rather than cycle on and off). Mercedes has this now.
* To reduce the cooling requirements inside the passenger compartment 30% by using reflective coatings on glass, heat reflective paint, and venting the interior during hot weather.
Changes are also being made to reduce refrigerant losses when the A/C system on a vehicle is serviced. The latest generation of refrigerant recovery machines do a better job of removing all of the refrigerant from the system. Older machines can leave as much as 20 to 30 percent of the old refrigerant charge in the system. The residual refrigerant can escape into the atmosphere when the A/C system is opened to replace parts. Some of the newest machines can pull up to 95% of the refrigerant out of the system to reduce the amount of R-134a that escapes into the atmosphere.
Auto makers have also been adding leak detection dye to the refrigerant in some vehicles to make it easier for technicians to detect refrigerant leaks. A leak will leave a telltale stain that glows greenish-yellow or greenish-blue when illuminated with an UV light source. Leaks as small as 1/8 oz. of refrigerant per year can be detected this way.
The Europeans auto makers are still considering other refrigerants as possible alternatives to R-134a and R-1234yf in future vehicles. They want A/C systems to be as environmentally benign as possible. That means no chlorine-containing CFCs that cause ozone depletion, an no refrigerants that could add to the global warming problem (which includes R-134a). Any new refrigerants must also be nontoxic and safe, though that doesn't necessarily mean nonflammable.
For more information, see Flammable Refrigerants
In an effort to address these issues, a group called the Alliance for Responsible Atmospheric Policy (ARAP) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held a series of meetings to discuss and evaluate alternatives to R-134a. The first of these meetings was held in 2003 by the European Commission in Brussels. As a result of that meeting, the European Commission decided to allow carbon dioxide, HFC-152a and other refrigerants as possible replacements for R-134a.
CO2 as an Alternative Refrigerant
When used as a refrigerant, CO2 (called R-744) requires extremely high operating pressures (up to 1,800 psi on the high side, and 350 to 400 psi on the low side), compared to 300 to 400 psi on the high side for R-134a. The reason the pressures are so high is because CO2 does not condense in the refrigeration circuit. It remains in the gaseous state. Consequently, the front heat exchanger is called a "cooler" rather than a condenser.
CO2's main attribute is that it has virtually no impact on global warming or ozone depletion. CO2 is also nontoxic in small doses but concentrations over 5% can be lethal. It is also cheap (about $10 for a 20-lb. cylinder) and nonflammable. Numerous test vehicles with CO2 A/C systems have shown that CO2 does provide cooling performance comparable to R-134a. Mercedes has been a big supporter of R-744 as an alternative refrigerant, and has used it in S_Class models.
SAE has developed service fitting standards for R-744. Leak detection presents a challenge because natural levels of CO2 in the atmosphere may be higher than the amount emitted by a leak from an A/C system. Some type of ultrasound or infrared equipment may be required to find R-744 leaks, but dyes may also work or plain old soap bubbles.
R-152a (HFC-152a) is almost a straight drop-in substitute for R-134a. The molecule is similar to R-134a except that two hydrogen atoms are substituted for two fluorine atoms. It has similar operating characteristics to R-134a but cools even better. One test in an otherwise unmodified Saturn Ion found that A/C duct outlet temperatures were several degrees C lower with HFC-152a. Fuel efficiency was also up 10% at idle, and 20% at highway speeds. The system typically requires only about two-thirds of the normal charge with HFC-152a and can be used with current desiccants.
An environmental benefit of HFC-152a is that it has a global warming rating of 120, which is 10 times less than R-134a, but still a lot higher than CO2. That is why HFC-152a is currently used in many aerosol products as a propellant. Its main drawback is that it is slightly flammable (Class 2A), but it is not as flammable as propane or most other hydrocarbon-based refrigerants.
The first mobile A/C system to use HFC-152a was unveiled at the Mobile Air Conditioning Society (MACS) Worldwide tradeshow back in January 2004; a self-contained unit for off-road construction equipment that featured an oil-driven compressor. Made by Red Dot, the unit was a forerunner of future HFC-152a A/C systems to come.
Red Dot staff explained that the HFC-152a refrigerant used in the self-contained unit improves cooling capacity, decreases fuel use and helps protect the climate. The new technology also satisfies stringent new regulations proposed by the European Commission. Red Dot staff also said that the HFC-152a system uses new technology that will use hydraulic-driven compressors and secondary loop technology to increase reliability, safety and reduce the amount of refrigerant required.
The newest refrigerant that is currently replacing R-134a in late model vehicles is R-1234yf (also called HFO-1234yf). Developed jointly by Honeywell and DuPont, R-1234yf has thermal characteristics that are very similar to R-134a, so no major modifications to the A/C system are necessary. Better yet, R-1234yf has a global warming potential of less than one (less than CO2). Originally, R-1234yf had a GWP rating of 4. But the rating was lowered to less than one because R-1234yf breaks down quickly (10.5 days) if it leaks out of an A/C system (compared to 13.4 years for R-134a). The GWP rating for R-134a, by comparison, is a whopping 1200! Existing refrigerant leak detectors can also detect R-1234yf if it leaks. But R-1234yf is mildly flammable (though less so than HFC-152a), causing some German auto makers to question its safety. Further testing proved it is safe to use in automobiles.
R-1234yf is typically sold in 10 pound containers due to its high price (currently $60 to $70 per pound!). Consumers and do-it-yourselfers can purchase small cans of R-1234yf to recharge their A/C systems.
Click Here for detailed information about R-1234yf by Honeywell.
A new refrigerant blend for possible use in retrofitting current R-134a A/C systems is a blend of 56 percent R-1234yf and 44 percent R-134a. Performance is almost identical to R-134a, yet the blend reduces the refrigerant's Global Warming Potential (GWP) to 573 (versus 1430 for R-134a). The refrigerant is under consideration for possible use in Europe because several countries in Europe are limiting imports of R-134a because of its high GWP.
Historical News about Alternative Refrigerants:
SAE Says HFO-1234yf is Best Alternative Refrigerant for R-134a
The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) International Cooperative Research Program (CRP) says HFO-1234yf offers "superior environmental performance" for future mobile air conditioning systems that may be redesigned for alternative refrigerants.
The CRP1234-1 and CRP1234-2 programs, launched in 2007, have investigated the safety and performance of the new refrigerant HFO-1234yf. Under the direction of the SAE CRP members (who are international experts in this field from OEMs, Tier 1 and 2 Suppliers and independent test facilities), air conditioning system performance, material compatibility and relative risks of HFO-1234yf were evaluated. Based on these studies, HFO-1234yf was judged to have the lowest risk for use in mobile A/C systems compared to all of the other alternative refrigerants that are currently being evaluated. This is based on the Life Cycle Climate Protection analysis that estimates CO2 Equivalent emissions from automotive A/C usage (as described in SAE J2766).
Click Here to view the SAE CRP1234 report on HFO-1234yf.
The study was conducted in response to European Union regulations that will require all new vehicles made for model year 2011 and later to use a refrigerant with a Global Warming Potential (GWP) below 150. Current automotive A/C systems all use R-134a, which has a GWP of 1,430. HFO-1234yf has a GWP of only four.
October 15, 2009
EPA to Approve HFO-1234yf Refrigerant for Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) program
On Tuesday, October 13, 2009, EPA's Administrator signed a rule proposal that says HFO-1234yf is an acceptable substitute for CFC-12 in motor vehicle air conditioning, subject to use conditions. You can view the proposed rule on EPA's SNAP website at http://www.epa.gov/ozone/snap/.
GM to Use R-1234yf Refrigerant in some 2013 Models
GM says that starting in 2013, it will begin using HFO-1234yf refrigerant instead of R134a in the air conditioning systems in some Cadillac models (XTS luxury sedan and ATS sports sedan). This will help GM meet the new greenhouse gas emission rules. The Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid electric, however, will have an R134a air conditioning system (for now).
October 21, 2010
SAE Releases 20 New Standards for R-1234yf Refrigerant
The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has announced 20 new standards covering service procedures, service equipment and vehicle components for the new R-12354yf refrigerant. The standards require auto repair shops to buy all new equipment to service the A/C systems on new vehicles that are equipped with HFO-1234yf. The new equipment requirements are covered in J2911, which includes a provision that the recharging machine must test the A/C system for leaks. If a leak is found, the machine will not recharge the vehicle until the leak is fixed. J2843 covers recovery procedures.
J2845 will require technicians who work on R-1234yf systems to be certified in service and recovery procedures.
There is also a new standard J2842 that prohibits shops from repairing leaky evaporators, or fixing a vehicle with a used evaporator from a salvage vehicle because of possible safety risks. R-1234yf is mildly flammable, so the reason for replacing a leaky evaporator with a new one is to minimize the risk of a repeat leak that might allow the refrigerant to enter the passenger compartment.
Currently, there is no mandate in the U.S. to phase-in R-1234yf by a certain date, so the phase in will be gradual and will likely be spread across many model years as new vehicle models are introduced. This will likely create a LOT of confusion in the years ahead as to which type of refrigerant to use in a particular model year vehicle. R134a or other refrigerants must NOT be intermixed with or substituted for R-12354yf in new vehicles if service is required as damage may result to the A/C system due to different operating pressures.
New vehicles with R-1234yf A/C systems also require a unique type of PAG compressor oil. Compressors for these systems have been redesigned to keep more of the oil in the compressor to improve cooling efficiency. Larger, more efficient condensers are also required because R-1234yf cools about 10 percent less efficiently than R134a.
September 4, 2012
MACS Announces R-1234yf Technician Training Program
The Mobile Air Conditioning Society (MACS) now has a new training program to certify automotive technicians to SAE J2845 under the SAE J2911 program for the upcoming introduction of R-1234yf refrigerants in new vehicles.
SAE International created the J2911 and J2845 standards in response to changes in the refrigerants that will be used in mobile A/C systems. The SAE J2845 standard covers servicing of R-1234yf and R-744 mobile air conditioning (MAC) systems. The training teaches technicians how to identify which refrigerant is in a vehicle, how to handle it safely, and what type of service information, tools and equipment are needed to service the vehicle.
Mercedes, BMW and VW say they will NOT use R-1234yf Refrigerant because of Safety Concerns
Citing concerns that the alternative refrigerant R-1234yf can burn in real life conditions inside a vehicle (per lab simulation test results), Mercedes, BMW and Volkswagen said they will NOT switch their vehicles to R-1234yf. At this time, it appears that CO2 may be the best alternative to R-134a, according to the German auto makers.
R-1234yf can by ignited by a spark within seconds of its release, and emits highly toxic fumes and acids as it burns according to tests conducted by Daimler. CO2 is nonflammable and is carbon neutral, so it appears for now that R-1234yf is on hold as far as two of the leading German auto makers are concerned.
On a related note, Cadillac has temporarily suspended installing R-1234yf in the ATS sports sedan and XTS luxury sedan. For now, these vehicles will be produced with R-134a pending further investigation into the potential flammability issues with R-1234yf.
Note: See June 26, 2013 update below for more information on this subject.
April 13, 2013
Latest Alternative Refrigerant May be a Blend Called AC-6
To counter the virtual monopoly that Honeywell and DuPont have on the production of R-1234yf refrigerant, Mexichem has developed a blended refrigerant that could sell for as little as $10 a pound, and would work in any R-134a A/C system. The AC-6 blend contains 85 percent R-1234ze, 9 percent R-134a and 6 percent CO2. The Global Warming Potential (GWP) of the new blend is 6.0, which is well under the GPW requirement of 150.
For AC-6 to be approved, the auto makers would have to do extensive testing, and the EPA would have to add it to its approved alternative refrigerant list.
The main drawback of a blended refrigerant is that some of the ingredients in the mix tend to leak out of an A/C system faster than others, effectively changing the blend over time and its thermal characteristics. Currently, there is no aftermarket A/C service equipment that can reconstitute a blended refrigerant. If an A/C system charged with AC-6 required service, the old refrigerant would have to be recovered from the system and replaced with new refrigerant rather than recycled.
June 26, 2013
SAE says R-1234yf is Safe for Use in Passenger Car A/C Systems
After extensive testing and review, SAE International has concluded that Honeywell's new R-1234yf low-global-warming-potential mobile air conditioning refrigerant is safe for use in automobiles. Yes, it can be flammable under certain conditions, but those conditions are highly unlikely to occur in a real world crash, concludes SAE.
The first U.S. vehicle to use R-1234yf refrigerant was the 2013 Cadillac XTS. Cadillac also tried R-1234yf in the Cadillac ATS, but stopped only one month into production because of A/C compressor noise and vibration issues. Early production ATS models were recalled and retrofitted back to R-134a (which apparently works fine in an A/C system designed for R-1234yf).
For model year 2014, R-1234yf is used in the Jeep Cherokee, Chrysler 300, Dodge Ram 1500, and Dodge Charger, Challenger and Dart. It will also be used in the 2015 Chrysler 200.
Most auto makers are expected to have numerous R-1234yf applications by model year 2017 and beyond. Auto makers receive fuel economy credits for vehicles that are converted to R-1234yf, which helps them achieve the new higher Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) requirements.
New SAE standards for R-1234yf recover,y recycling and recharging service equipment include J3030, and J2851 (for recovery only equipment).
R-1234yf Prices Remain High
Most of the world's auto makers have converted their new vehicle A/C systems to R-1234yf. To meet this demand, the suppliers of automotive refrigerants have ramped up production. Even so, the price of R-1234yf remains almost 3X higher than R-134a. Current prices for R-1234yf are about $600 to $700 for a 10 lb. cylinder, or about $60 to $70 per pound. By comparison, R-1234 sells for around $5 to $10 for a 12 oz can depending on where you buy it.
The reason for the high R-1234yf prices, according to the companies that make it, is limited production capacity and high demand. Yes, the law of Supply and Demand applies to automotive refrigerants the same as any other commodity.
However, with the world on lockdown over the COVID-19 pandemic, and new vehicle sales taking a huge hit, the significant drop in demand should push prices lower. How this will play out over time remains to be seen.
In any event, do NOT recharge a R-1234yf A/C system with less expensive R-134a. Use the correct type of refrigerant in your vehicle A/C system.