As we know, refrigerants are a key component of air conditioning systems. Given the variable degree of environmental impact, it is important to monitor their use.
A recent survey of market trends revealed that purchases of air conditioning systems and heat pumps grew last year; however, with the general increase in global temperatures (linked to ongoing climate change), further growth in demand is expected in the near future. It is clear, as also emerged in the various market exposures last year, that it is pushing towards low GWP or natural solutions such as Co2 , ammonia, R290 and others.
Last year, European sales of air-conditioning units reached 11.9 million. Considering the general rise in global temperatures (linked to the current phenomenon of global warming), a further rise in demand is expected in the near future.
The alarming climate issue is one of the main reasons why such great attention is being devoted to the emissions caused by refrigerants. In this regard, European Community legislation is one of the most advanced in the world, thanks to its regulations promoting the use of refrigerants with a low global warming potential (GWP).
With the current critical phase, the planet is facing in terms of climate balance, the aim is to continue to reduce the quantity of HFCs emitted gradually, so as to reach an overall reduction of 79% compared to 2015 emission levels by the year 2030.
The data shows that air-conditioning systems sold in Europe still mostly use the refrigerant R410A (currently one of the refrigerants with the highest GWP). There has also been, however, a considerable rise in the use of R32 (GWP of 675), present in around 37% of the split units sold in the Old Continent (the most optimistic estimates predict that this will reach 80% by 2030).
As far as heat pumps are concerned, 80% of those sold in 2019 used R410A (with R134A in second place). R32 and R290 (propane) are still not widely used, but also in that case, a gradual reduction in the use of R410 is expected by 2023.
Refrigerants in the rest of the world
The other two countries analysed in the survey were the United States and China. These two giants of global industry regularly record some of the highest annual pollutant emission figures in the world.
Although there is currently no clear legislation which imposes the substitution of HFC’s in the USA, some individual states are pioneering the first tentative steps in this direction. One good example is California, which has imposed the virtual elimination of HFC’s (if only by large industrial systems) by the year 2024.
The most widely used refrigerant in the United States at the moment remains R410A, due to the lack of efficient alternative solutions. A change is starting to happen however, with a gradual move towards the use of R134A and refrigerant mixes with a low GWP.
As far as the Chinese market is concerned however, there has been a gradual abandonment of R22 with a preference emerging for the R410 refrigerant. Many manufacturers are moving towards the use of R32 and R290 for units designed for domestic use (with emission values similar to the European average).
The main obstacle to the switch to refrigerants with a lower GWP (like R32) is their moderate flammability risk, which means that their use is not recommended in large quantities inside industrial systems. The most promising alternatives for large industrial air-conditioning systems would seem to be R1234ze and R1234zd.
Translated by Joanne Beckwith