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A Relook at Refrigerants

With the implementation of international environmental protocols in the GCC countries becoming imminent, Dr M Ramaswamy examines the merits of various alternative refrigerants and offers suggestions to put the protocols into practice.

| | Mar 13, 2012 | 12:27 am
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With the implementation of international environmental protocols in the GCC countries becoming imminent, Dr M Ramaswamy examines the merits of various alternative refrigerants and offers suggestions to put the protocols into practice.

INTRODUCTION

Air conditioning and food preservation are the basic requirements in most Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries due to the high ambient temperature conditions prevailing for seven to eight months in a year. The refrigeration industry is one of the major sectors which consume refrigerants – chemicals used to produce the refrigeration effect.

Global concerns to save the environment from the depletion of stratospheric ozone have resulted in restrictions to regulate the production and trade of ozone- depleting substances (ODS) like Chlorofluorocarbons-(CFCs) and hydro chlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) through the Montreal Protocol – an international treaty. Global warming due to greenhouse gases (GHGs) is another environmental concern. The Kyoto Protocol has, therefore, been formed to regulate the emission of these gases. While the Montreal Protocol primarily deals with the ozone layer protection, the Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997 in Kyoto, concerns Green House Gas and Global Warming (GW). Broadly speaking, Ozone Depletion Potential (ODP) and Global Warming Potential (GWP) are the two issues to be considered while selecting a suitable alternative refrigerant in addition to other thermodynamic and thermo-physical properties. While ODP is based on the Montreal Protocol, GWP is covered by the Kyoto Protocol.

Since the GCC countries are one of the major users of refrigeration and air conditioning technology, they are required to have a strategy and a road map in place to deal with serious environmental issues resulting from their heavy reliance on the technology. In fact, this needs to be given high priority.

In recent years, many workshops and technical seminars dealing with ODS issues are being conducted across the GCC countries to create awareness among engineers, policy makers and technicians. This article offers suggestions which could lead to further discussion among HVAC professionals.

ALTERNATIVES TO CFCS AND HCFCS

According to Professor Mark McLinden, Research Chemical Engineer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the US, over 30 years of research and development would be required to arrive at and maintain the family of refrigerants which are presently being used in the refrigeration industry. Despite decades of research, not a single substance which can exactly replace CFCs and HCFCs has emerged so far. The present alternative refrigerants generally fall into three broad groups: HCFC and HCFC blends, HFC and HFC blends and natural refrigerants. Most of the HCFC blends have been developed to provide a low-cost retro fill, and are particularly useful in DX CFC systems. However, HCFCs are listed to be phased out, and hence the group has not gained much favour in recent years.

Natural refrigerants, like ammonia and hydrocarbons, have excellent thermodynamic properties, but flammability and compatibility with materials used for refrigeration system design limit their applications to only certain systems. However, this group is being supported by researchers, especially from the European Union, due to its lower GWP. Encouraging the use of natural refrigerants in various possible refrigeration and air conditioning applications can be considered one of the possible solutions and, therefore, merits discussion. The use of HFCs and their blends as an interim solution needs careful consideration, as well as the implementation of good practices while installing and servicing refrigeration systems. Promotion of good practices among the refrigeration fraternity can be regarded as an important step in the right direction, and needs to be taken further.

REFRIGERANT LEAKAGE AND GOOD PRACTICES

Regular and meticulous system maintenance in any of the HVAC systems is essential to reduce leakage. Refrigerant leakage can occur at any time throughout the lifetime of an HVAC plant. Therefore, diligent system maintenance, performance monitoring, reporting and documentation are the prime responsibilities of refrigeration and air conditioning service and maintenance engineers. In this regard, venting of refrigerants to the atmosphere should not be permitted. While dealing with leakage of refrigerants, their recovery and recycling merit attention, as well as following the right procedure and documentation.

REFRIGERANT RECOVERY, RECLAMATION, RECYCLING AND SAFETY ISSUES

Refrigerant recovery is the term given to the removal of a refrigerant from a system for reuse or disposal. One way of dealing with this is to establish collection outlets similar to petrol pump outlets, at selected locations to collect and exchange the cylinders. However, the system and its management need proper planning and coordination among various stakeholders of the refrigeration industry. In this regard, the establishment of recovery and recycling centres at various locations in the GCC countries can be considered a topic for further discussion.

REFRIGERANT MANAGEMENT STRATEGY

It is important for HVAC engineers to ensure through accurate refrigerant reporting, that contractors and suppliers of refrigeration units identify and repair all leaks and use the knowledge and experience to correct potential for leakage on other systems. In this context, it would be good practice to issue proper certificates to refrigeration technicians after testing their skills through a common statutory body in the GCC countries. Additionally, it should be made mandatory to use only GCC-certified refrigeration technicians for all types of refrigerant management issues. In this regard, the onus lies on engineering societies of the GCC states to play a crucial role in implementing this proposal.

TRAIN THE TRAINERS

The majority of the refrigeration technicians who work in the unorganised sector are not aware of the damage they cause to the environment due to their ignorance. Therefore, it is the prime responsibility of refrigeration/HVAC engineers to educate the end-users and train the operators to recover, recycle, and retrofit, as well as work actively and positively to reduce refrigerant loss into the atmosphere. Refrigeration and HVAC engineers need to sort out a working plan to pool their expertise to train the trainers to spread the refrigerant recovery, reclamation and retrofit techniques among the HVAC fraternity in the GCC countries.

The support of various local, non-governmental organisations can be enlisted to promote awareness among the community about this, with the assistance of the UNEP. A blueprint to train the trainers on the issues concerning refrigerants can be considered one of the suggestions that can be implemented by creating and enforcing international protocols.

ALTERNATIVE TECHNOLOGIES

Given the seriousness of the problem and its implications, scientists and engineers are working to find alternative refrigeration technologies. Most of the new technologies come with their own merits and demerits. Solar cooling has tremendous potential and is emerging as a permanent solution to the problem of environment. Solar refrigeration is one of the technologies that should be given priority when choosing sustainable development options in the Gulf region, as abundant solar energy is available in the region.

CLEAN DEVELOPMENT MECHANISM (CDM)

CDM is a method which allows voluntary reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries, in order to offset the required reductions in industrial nations. It is an essential first step for companies planning carbon emission reduction projects, and a positive initiative for a country’s environmental protection efforts. Dr. Mohamed Abdel Raouf Abdel Hamid from the Gulf Research Center (GRC) has prepared a policy which covers the issue of climate change in relation to the GCC countries. It discusses the GCC status with regard to carbon emissions market projects and CDM in the Arabian Gulf region. The development of an appropriate CDM policy, taking into account the social and cultural values of the region is one of the suggestions which needs urgent attention.

SUSTAINABLE DESIGN CHECK

Engineers, particularly from the Middle Eastern countries, can play a crucial role in promoting sustainable buildings. It is the responsibility of engineers to address the sustainability development criteria for the projects they are involved in. The creation of a pool of building service engineers to promote sustainable design during design and maintenance of facilities in the region can be considered a viable suggestion.

CONCLUSION

The GCC countries being Article Five states, they are signatories of the Montreal Protocol, and need to phase out CFCS and HCFCs according to the period stipulated in the protocol. At present, though the Ministry of Environment in individual countries monitors the implementation of the Protocol, establishing a central nodal agency to implement it more effectively and efficiently is a possibility that needs serious and urgent attention. Assistance from the established organisations like New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), Japan, can be sought, if necessary, in this regard.

The GCC is actively considering implementing common social policies. Similarly, establishing a monitoring centre will prove to be mutually beneficial. Taking this a step further, the centre, once established, should form a draft strategy and a road map to implement international protocols, after careful analysis of all available data in the refrigeration industry.

The writer is a Technical Expert in Royal Court Affairs, Sultanate of Oman. He can be contacted at: mramaswamy@rca. gov.om


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