HFO-1234yf is a refrigerant that is becoming an industry standard in Europe. Thanks to incentives offered by the Environmental Protection Agency, the refrigerant is likely to be rolled out widely in the United States as well. Honeywell and partner Dupont have a monopoly on the stuff. It also can kill you in more ways than one. Says Reuters:
“When engineers at Mercedes-Benz tasked with field-testing a revolutionary new refrigerant watched it ignite in a ball of fire before their eyes, it took a while for the significance of their discovery to sink in.
Simulating a leak in the air-conditioning line of a Mercedes B-Class tourer, they had released a fine mixture of refrigerant and A/C compressor oil, which sprayed across the car’s turbo-charged 1.6 litre engine.
The substance caught fire as soon as it hit the hot surface, releasing a toxic, corrosive gas as it burned. The car’s windshield turned milky white as lethal hydrogen fluoride began eating its way into the glass.
“We were frozen in shock, I am not going to deny it. We needed a day to comprehend what we had just seen,” said Stefan Geyer, a senior Daimler engineer who ran the tests.”
After Daimler’s findings, major carmakers quietly did a new round of safety tests. The tests showed combustion occurring in more than two-thirds of the cases after a simulated head-on collision, Reuters says.
Before that, Andreas Kornath, a chemistry professor at the University of Munich, warned that HFO-1234yf can release hydrogen fluoride HF.L during its combustion. Says Reuters:
“Readily absorbed by the skin, hydrogen fluoride begins attacking the body once it enters the bloodstream by spreading death on a cellular level, a process known as necrosis. High enough doses are known to cause the lungs to fill up with fluid, causing a drowning sensation, and to trigger cardiac arrest.”
European carmakers are opposed to using the new refrigerant. Volkswagen Chairman Ferdinand Piech advocates the use of CO2 as a refrigerant that is “guaranteed not to burn”.
Honeywell and Dupont concede that HFO1234yf is “mildly flammable”, but claim the reports of a killer substance are overblown. “The chance of being killed by an inflating airbag is 100 times higher,” said Chris Seeton, an engineer from Honeywell leading the development of HFO-1234yf. He also says Daimler doctored the test. “Their test was engineered for that outcome.”
GM announced it will use HFO-1234yf in 2013 Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac models. Ford says it will use HFO-1234yf in its European models if required, but would like to stick with the current refrigerant, HFC-134a.