Your home's air conditioner works by pulling in air, extracting heat, and blowing it out again. The substance that cools the air is called refrigerant. This is a chemical compound that moves between liquid and gas states. It absorbs heat in its gaseous form, transitions to a liquid as it does so, and then returns to a gas as heat dissipates.
The history of these refrigerants goes back as far as 1928. Today, the technology is in rapid flux, with different refrigerants having different benefits and drawbacks. There are a wide variety of refrigerants in use, some being phased out and others coming into broader use:
Each of these options is distinct and used for different purposes. Some are the refrigerants of the future, while others are fading into the past. We'll summarize all of that below.
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More commonly sold under the brand name Freon-12 and known by the scientific name Dichlorodifluoromethane, R-12 was commonplace. It was one of a series of refrigerants developed between 1930 and 1935. Unobtrusive and considered very safe for use in the home, it was colorless, odorless, tasteless, nontoxic, and nonflammable. It saw widespread use in fridges and as an aerosol in spray cans.
Unfortunately, R-12 was eventually found harmful to the Earth's ozone layer. Today, it's largely a refrigerant of the past. Its manufacture was banned in developed countries under the Montreal Protocol, a ban that went worldwide in 2010. This has meant extensive retrofitting for equipment that used to rely on R-12.
Another once-common refrigerant that's now being phased out is R-22, more commonly known as Freon. It's been used for years as an alternative refrigerant since R-12 was discontinued and is still in production today. The reason for this is that R-22 has a far lower ozone-depletion potential than R-12 did.
Still, even that smaller ozone-depletion potential is an unacceptable risk in modern terms. Also, R-22 has an even higher global warming potential or GWP than R-12. That's why, under the Montreal Protocol, phasing out R-22 began in 2010. The refrigerant is set to be fully banned worldwide by 2030.
As R-22 gets phased out, the up-and-coming replacement is the HFC refrigerant called R-410a. This is typically sold under brand names like EcoFluor R410, Genetron R410A, and Suva 410A. Invented in 1991, it blends two different HFCs and is free of ozone-depletion potential. This blend also reduces power consumption, making R-401A systems more energy-efficient and eco-friendly than R-22 systems. It's common today in home and commercial units made after 2010.
R-134A is another HFC refrigerant, popular in automotive applications since the early Nineties. This, however, is now being phased out in favor of a new HFO refrigerant called R-1234yf. New model cars in the United States and the European Union have banned it.
The HFO refrigerant R-1234yf is on track to become one of the most popular refrigerants in the world. It is the replacement for R-134A and, like its predecessor, is primarily used in automobiles. A related HFO is R-1234ze, sold under brand names like Solstice Ze. It's an energy-efficient and ultra-low GWP alternative to R-134A that's seeing widespread home use.
Refrigerant blends are made up of two or more single-component refrigerants. They take three forms:
There are over a hundred thousand different refrigerant blends possible. R-410A is just one of those blends, an example of the zeotropic type.
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