In September 2007, when the 19th Meeting of Parties to the Montreal Protocol was held in Montreal, it was requested that developing countries, including China, complete the elimination of HCFCs by 2030. For China, the deadline was 10 years ahead of the original scheduled phaseout date of 2040.
China, like other countries that have committed to the Montreal Protocol and the Kyoto Protocol, finds itself faced with dual constraints. The Montreal Protocol calls for the phaseout of CFC, HCFCs, and other substances within specified time periods. The Kyoto Protocol calls for the control of greenhouse gas emissions, but without implementing compulsory methods for the production and use of greenhouse gases.
With these two restrictions in place, how will China choose on HCFC-alternative refrigerants?
HCFC R-22 is used globally on a large scale for air-conditioning and other refrigeration systems, and its phaseout is getting much of the attention by the industry. HVAC industries in Japan and the U.S. lean toward HFC alternatives and most industry players in these countries have identified R-410A, a blend of HFC-32 and HFC-125, as their replacement for R-22. Like all HFCs, the blend is chlorine-free and does not have ozone depletion potential, but it does have global warming potential (GWP), which makes it a “greenhouse gas.” In terms of refrigeration system engineering, R-410A is far from being a drop-in replacement, but the system changes needed to change a product design from R-22 to R-410A can be accomplished with existing technology and without significant cost increases to the end product.
Many Chinese manufacturers use R-410A in air-conditioners for export and a small number of air-conditioners are sold in China using R-410A, but this HFC solution is not fully accepted in China. One principal from the technology department of a Chinese air-conditioner OEM said that, because it does have GWP, “[it is] not in line with the requirements of the Kyoto Protocol, so it seems only a transitional refrigerant.”
Much attention has been paid to the possible use of “natural” refrigerants, including NH3 (ammonia), CO2, and other hydrocarbons such as R-290 (propane) and R-1270 (propylene). OEMs from the HFC camp say propane and propylene have flammability/combustibility hazards that make them unsuitable alternatives. In addition, these OEMs point to the high cost of reengineering products to use any of the natural alternatives.
Some German OEMs have a completely different view. Daniel Colbourne, a technical expert from the German Technical Cooperation (GTZ), said in recent meetings in China that some HFC refrigerants may be faced with a “second elimination.” Even without regard to the GWP requirements of the Kyoto Protocol, Section 11(b) in the Montreal Protocol also asked adherents to “comprehensively consider the potential of global warming, energy consumption and other relevant factors, [and] requests that the alternative refrigerant has minimum impact on the environment, including the impact on climate.”
Colbourne recognized that there are problems to be solved regarding the use of natural refrigerants. “Generally speaking, the problems related to the use of natural refrigerant [such as safety and cost surging], are usually more than those related to the use of HCFCs. However, these problems can be solved. We believe that as long as we control the filling amount and related technology, more than 90% of the air-conditioning units can use natural refrigerant. The initial investment on natural refrigerant could be higher, but in the medium term the cost is basically the same.” Colbourne points out that some European retailers, such as Tesco, Somerfield, Aldi, and Lidl, have pledged not to use HFCs in their refrigeration systems.
What China Wants in a Refrigerant
Considering the comparatively little experience with the application of natural refrigerants in residential air-conditioning and what it sees as the possible eventual elimination of some current refrigerant alternatives, China does not feel it has found its ideal alternative. Wen Ruitang, director of the foreign trade department in the Chinese State Environmental Protection Administration, noted that China’s one-refrigerant era is at a close. “Different products will use different refrigerants, rather than R-22 that is used in all types of air-conditioners. China must find alternative ways to fight for the initiative. The most important thing is that Chinese enterprises should produce alternative refrigerants with independent intellectual property.”
Wen Ruitang also pointed out that, “On the one hand, we hope the developed countries’ multilateral fund can provide financial support to Chinese enterprises’ replacement of refrigerant; on the other hand, we also hope to win low-priced patented technology transfer.”