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Natural refrigerants – balancing ecology and economy perspective

Measures to save energy throughout the life of refrigerating systems are increasingly acquiring significance. In this regard, natural refrigerants offer a double incentive, as they cut back on costs and help protect the environment, postulates Monika Witt.

| | Sep 16, 2010 | 11:21 am
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Measures to save energy throughout the life of refrigerating systems are increasingly acquiring significance. In this regard, natural refrigerants offer a double incentive, as they cut back on costs and help protect the environment, postulates Monika Witt.

The decision as to which refrigerant should be used in a refrigerating or air conditioning system is based on the major criteria of safety, costs and protection of the environment. But against the scenario of constantly increasing energy prices, the energy consumption of a system also plays an increasingly important role. Ideally, the chosen refrigerant should have excellent thermodynamic properties, high chemical stability and good physical characteristics. Furthermore, it should have no or only a negligible impact on the environment, while also being inexpensive and available worldwide.

However, there is no one refrigerant that fulfils all these requirements. And so, in practice, zeroing down on the most suitable refrigerant depends on a series of different factors. Here, the operating area and the operator’s requirements need to be factored in, together with the installation site and environmental aspects. But above all, it is the actual rating of the overall refrigerating system, while taking into account part-load conditions, which has a crucial influence on energy consumption. This is because it is the overall concept of a refrigerating system, which has a greater influence on efficiency than the choice of refrigerant. However, a number of current projects show that systems operating with natural refrigerants are particularly efficient and environment-friendly.


Ammonia is the refrigerant with demonstrably the best thermodynamic properties. It is the only natural refrigerant which the industry never wanted to dispense with, on account of its high efficiency. Ammonia is also unbeatable in ecological terms: it has no ozone-depletion potential and no global warming potential (ODP and GWP = 0), with a favourable TEWI balance, thanks to the high COP of ammonia systems.

In industrial systems with capacities exceeding 500kW, ammonia is simply unsurpassed in terms of energy and cost efficiency. Also, it is finding increasing use on a smaller scale, for example, in systems with a capacity of less than 500kW, where the quantity of ammonia can be reduced when choosing a suitable secondary refrigerant.

At present, intensive research is in progress in Europe, in particular, in the range of small-capacity systems, with the objective, among others, of developing small, semi-hermetic and hermetic compressors, with output below 100kW. Reduced quantity heat exchangers are also being developed along the same lines. Furthermore, various research projects are also looking at simplified oil management with soluble oils to facilitate DX systems, as well.

Moreover, today, ammonia is also being used increasingly in areas that used to be dominated by synthetic refrigerants. For example, all large exhibition buildings in Germany have been equipped with ammonia liquid chillers for air conditioning. Banks, insurance companies and office buildings, too, increasingly use ammonia liquid chillers for energy-saving air conditioning. Even modern airports make increasing use of ammonia systems, in the light of risk-analysis results, indicating that ammonia does not pose greater hazard potential for the general public or airport employees than systems using synthetic refrigerants.

Ammonia systems, therefore, have been installed not only in Düsseldorf’s refurbished airport, but also in London Heathrow’s new Terminal 5 and in Zurich Airport. The freight hub in New Zealand’s Christchurch Airport also saves energy by using ammonia for cooling systems.


The last 10 years have witnessed increase in the interest shown in CO2 refrigerating systems. This is due, for example, to the fact that the global player Nestlé has constantly forged ahead with the development of NH3/CO2 cascade refrigeration plants, demonstrating their energy efficiency, with installations in Europe, United States and Japan. Other companies have followed suit. In addition, this trend has been encouraged by state incentives in some countries.

For instance, the Netherlands grants considerable tax relief for CO2 systems, while taxation on synthetic refrigerants has been increased in Scandinavia. CO2 is also particularly suitable for heat recovery or heat pump systems. Applications of this kind are already widespread in Asia, and other countries can be expected to follow.

How much energy can actually be saved by using CO2 as refrigerant, depends, above all, on the ambient temperature. The efficiency of a CO2 system is clearly superior to a plant operating with synthetic refrigerants when used in the subcritical range. But success is also being achieved in optimising system efficiency even in the supercritical range. This has been confirmed – among others – by the Coca Cola Company, which uses both CO2 and R134a for its 550-litre refrigerators, with the result that the systems operating with CO2 consume 20% to 30% less energy.

In the trans or supercritical mode (temperatures > 31.2°C), CO2 systems are, in principle, less efficient than those using synthetic refrigerants. Even so, when viewed over the whole year, CO2 refrigerating systems are frequently more energy-efficient than those with synthetic refrigerants, as most systems operate in the subcritical range most of the time, particularly in latitudes with moderate weather.


Hydrocarbons, such as butane, propane and propene are ideal refrigerants. Butane, for example, is very successful in more than 300 million domestic refrigerators currently being used. Furthermore, butane can also be increasingly found in smaller commercial refrigerating systems. The beverages company, Pepsi, for example, compared the efficiency of small drinks chillers with up to 150g coolant and found that units operating with butane consumed up to 27% less energy than those using R134a. Since then, the beverages manufacturer has given preference to butane in these chillers, and it is not the only one. Ben & Jerry used butane for its ice-cream freezers for the first time in the United States, with most satisfactory results.

Propane has very similar thermodynamic properties to R22. Some Asian countries have, therefore, replaced R22 with propane in their central air conditioning systems. They report cutbacks in energy consumption between 10% and 30%, with the systems needing only minimum modifications. Unilever is another company that has recognised the advantages of propane as a refrigerant. During the 2000 Olympic Games in Brisbane and Sydney, the company performed a field study with 360-litre ice-cream freezers, comparing operation with propane to operation with R404A. On an average, the propane freezers permitted energy savings of about nine percent.

Hydrocarbons have excellent thermodynamic properties, which is why refrigerating and air conditioning systems operating with these substances are particularly energy-efficient. They are well miscible with conventional refrigerating oils, and have a relatively high critical temperature. While the flammability of hydrocarbons requires hermetically sealed systems with explosion protection for electrical components, all components are easily available and the current technology copes well with the demands of safe operation. Given the high energy saving potential of systems with hydrocarbons, a number of companies have announced their intentions of operating new refrigerating systems with hydrocarbons.

Up to now, Europe has imposed a 150-gramme filling restriction of hydrocarbons. However, this value was determined arbitrarily, so that it would be preferable to make the filling restriction dependent on the prevailing conditions in each case. Recommendations for such site-dependent limit values could be compiled and developed, for example, in the framework of a scientific research project. Larger filling quantities could probably be permitted if the propane filling is located up high on the roof of a building, or in large, well- ventilated rooms.

In the USA, there seems to be a willingness to rethink the situation. While the use of hydrocarbons hitherto was restricted to industrial applications, this restriction may possibly be lifted in future. For the first time, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with its highly critical stance on substances that pose a safety risk on account of the product liability laws, has approved of a field study that will test up to 2000 chest freezers operating with flammable refrigerants. This could lead to a real breakthrough.


The evaporation of water has always been used as a means of cooling. But this method that functions quite naturally in the human body through perspiration, presents a challenge when considered on an industrial scale. A huge flow of water vapour is needed to achieve an adequate cooling effect, which in turn, requires the use of turbo-compressors. Suitable machines here consist either of axial compressors with a relatively small base area and many stages, or radial compressors connected in series. However, these are sensitive to load fluctuations and need the operation to be as constant as possible. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the operation takes place in a deep vacuum, which requires a system that is absolutely tight. Even so, these stringent technical requirements are offset by huge energy-saving potential of about 25%, compared to the currently available R134a liquid chilling units. This is why research is in progress in France and in Dresden, Germany, on prototypes for both radial and axial compressors.


Air is interesting as a refrigerant for temperatures below -50°C. Systems with a closed air circuit are convincing, above all, on account of their particularly rapid cooling at low energy costs. But air has not become widely accepted as a refrigerant because of the comparatively high costs for the overall system. To achieve the necessary mass flow density, expensive turbo-compressor/expander systems are necessary, together with special shaft seals to minimise leakage. However, at the same time, air-cooled systems are also very compact. This is why, at present, they are primarily used for gas liquefaction on tankers, where the high costs are justified in view of the confined space available.


Natural refrigerants are inexpensive, available in abundance, and can cover nearly every refrigeration application presently in use. Furthermore, they have a very low global warming potential (GWP) compared to synthetic refrigerants. This alone is reason enough to recommend their use. However, it is just as important to make sure that they are highly energy-efficient. After all, more than 80% of the global warming potential posed by refrigerating and air conditioning systems results from system energy consumption and not from refrigerant leaks. At present, around 15% of global electricity consumption is used to generate refrigeration, resulting in huge savings potential. Measures to save energy throughout the entire service life of refrigerating systems are, therefore, acquiring increasing significance, and can help considerably in relieving the burden on the environment. This is where the use of natural refrigerants comes into play, as they offer a double incentive for companies – by reducing energy consumption, they not only cut back on costs, but also help protect the environment. Everything, therefore, points towards the use of natural refrigerants in both ecological and economical terms, in order to safeguard both capital expenditure and the environment in the long run.

Ammonia (NH3)

Ammonia has been successfully used as a refrigerant in industrial refrigeration plants for over 100 years. It is a colourless gas, liquefies under pressure, and has a pungent odour. In coolant technology, ammonia is known as R 717 (R = Refrigerant) and is synthetically produced for use in refrigeration. Ammonia has no ozone depletion potential (ODP = 0) and no direct global warming potential (GWP = 0). Thanks to its high energy efficiency, its contribution to the indirect global warming potential is also low. Ammonia is flammable. However, its ignition energy is 50 times higher than that of natural gas, and it will not burn without a supporting flame. Due to the high affinity of ammonia for atmospheric humidity, it is rated as “hardly flammable”. Ammonia is toxic, but has a characteristic sharp smell, which, when present in air, gives a warning below concentrations of 3 mg/m³. This means that ammonia is evident at levels far below those which endanger health (>1,750 mg/m³). Furthermore, ammonia is lighter than air, and therefore, rises quickly.

Carbon dioxide (CO2)

Carbon dioxide is known in refrigeration technology as R 744. It has a long history extending back to the mid 19th century. It is a colourless gas that liquefies under pressure, with a slightly acidic odour and taste. Carbon dioxide has no ozone depletion potential (ODP = 0) and negligible direct global warming potential (GWP = 1) when used as a refrigerant in closed cycles. It is non-flammable, chemically inert and heavier than air. It has a narcotic and asphyxiating effect only in high concentrations. Carbon dioxide occurs in nature in abundance.


Refrigeration plants using hydrocarbons, such as, propane (R 290, C3H8), propene (R 1270, C3H6) or isobutane (R 600a, C4H10) have been in operation all over the world for many years. Hydrocarbons are colourless and nearly odourless gases that liquefy under pressure, and have neither ozone depletion potential (ODP = 0) nor significant direct global warming potential (GWP = 3). Thanks to their outstanding thermodynamic characteristics, hydrocarbons make particularly good energy-efficient refrigerants. They are flammable. However, with currently available safety devices, refrigerant losses are near zero. Hydrocarbons are available at low cost all over the world. Thanks to their ideal refrigerant characteristics, they are commonly used in small plants with low refrigerant charges.

The writer is the chairperson of Eurammon, the European initiative for natural refrigerants. recruitment

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