German Media Warns Of C02-Substitute "Killer Coolant"

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

Germany’s Autobild continues to bang the drum about HFO-1234yf, an air-conditioning coolant sold by US supplier Honeywell as an “environmentally-friendly” alternative to other refrigerants. Problem is, C02 seems to be not only more environmentally safe, but safer for humans (notably rescue workers) as well…

Though the basic problem is that nobody outside of the manufacturer of the substance has much of an idea of what its real risks are, there are a couple of lines of criticism that researchers want to test.

  • Flammability. Honeywell knew HFO-1234yf is flammable, and initially marketed it mixed with a fire extinguishing substance. That igniion-retarding iodine compound was later implicated in ozone depletion, and Honeywell now simply downplays concerns about flammability.
  • Toxicity: HFO-1234yf breaks down into trifluoroacetic acid, a phytotoxic substance Autobild calls an “insidious poison.” In an experiment undertaken for Autobild, a chemist exposed a pig’s head to ten grams of the substance and “within a half hour, its skin had turned grey and its eyes had become dull and milky.”
  • Alternatives: German automakers abandoned HFO-1234yf in 2007 for these very reasons, but went back on their decision in 2009. Industry-watchers blame lobbying and the automakers’ desire to increase the volume of their orders from Honeywell (which also supplies other systems) for the about-face, although the official reason was that the main alternative (C02) was more expensive. Autobild argues that this is a specious argument, as C02 is a far cheaper refrigerant, and that it amortizes its extra up-front cost after “a few refills.”

Rescue workers are now leading the charge to undertake independent testing of the coolant, which was first produced in 1946. Alex Lechleuthner, Head of the Cologne Fire Brigade’s Department of Emergency Medicine says there are “very high operational and personnel expenses” associated with such tests, but that they independent testing is crucial as “previously known information from the manufacturer could be judged very differently depending on the viewing angle.”

And there’s more than just the possible risk of eye-dulling toxicity for rescue workers: according to one EPA document’s abstract:

Automobile air conditioning HFO-1234yf emissions are predicted to produce concentrations of TFA (trifluoroacetic acid) in Eastern U.S. rainfall at least double the values currently observed from all sources, natural and man-made. Our model predicts peak concentrations in rainfall of 1264 ng L(-1), a level that is 80x lower than the lowest level considered safe for the most sensitive aquatic organisms.

But what kind of world would we live in if C02 emissions were less harmful than their alternatives? Especially if one of those alternatives were proprietarily manufactured by a supplier that could charge $150 per kilo for the stuff? Well, when faced with the Autobild attack, that very supplier Honeywell responded [ presentation PDF here], arguing that

The new gas has already been approved for use in the US, Japan and Europe and was recently given the all clear by the German firefighter association Deutscher Feuerwehr Verband (DFV) which said it was convinced it had the same safety standards as R134a. The DFV described the toxicity of R1234yf as low and comparable to R134a and was safe for passengers and emergency services.

The chemical manufacturers point out that HFO1234yf has undergone significant testing for safety and efficacy by independent testing groups, including the SAE International Cooperative Research Program, which comprises leading automakers. The SAE testing found HFO1234yf to offer “superior environmental performance” to CO2 while having “the lowest risk for use in mobile air conditioning systems in meeting environmental and consumer needs.”

Separately the EPA reports [ PDF] that the SAE test found that

the risk for excessive HF exposure is less than one ten-thousandth the risk of a highway vehicle fire and one fortieth or less of the risk of a fatality from deployment of an airbag during a vehicle… The highest risk identified for HFO-1234yf is potential consumer exposure to HF from decomposition and ignition, which is of the same order of magnitude of risks of HF from the current most common automotive refrigerant, hydrofluorocarbon collision

Dig around long enough and you’ll find a middle ground in HFO-1234yf analysis, like this one from the Auto Parts Accessories Journal, which identifies the long-term risks of TFA buildup and Honeywell/DuPont’s monopoly on supply (and the resulting high price of the substance) as the two major drawbacks of the coolant. That piece concludes

As people who love good engineering, we admit to being just a bit regretful that the CO2 systems were not at least given a chance to prove themselves. It’s difficult to believe that in terms of total environmental impact, from manufacture, distribution, maintenance and actual use, that CO2 would not have a greatly reduced environmental impact over any complex chemical refrigerant. We’ve just emerged from an era where the poor decisions of major automakers have caused their businesses to collapse. Often those decisions were made on the basis of what was most convenient, rather than what mechanics would recognize instantly as good technologies. Let’s be hopeful that HFO-1234yf turns out to be a good technology, and not just a convenient one.

We had better hope that’s the case, as the forthcoming 2013 GM products will be the first in the US market to use HFO-1234yf, starting next year.

Edward Niedermeyer
Edward Niedermeyer

More by Edward Niedermeyer

Join the conversation
4 of 18 comments
  • Zamoti Zamoti on Nov 09, 2011

    Speak of the devil, there it is! That article uses loaded phrases like "Existing mobile air conditioning systems are not designed to use a hydrocarbon refrigerant that is highly flammable and similar to what supplies the fire in your backyard barbeque," If it were that dangerous then why have people been using it for years in various countries around the world? And of course, there's no financial reason for MACS (the supposed author of that "article") to support the needs of Honeywell and/or DuPont in recommending that nobody use hydrocarbons for AC refrigerant. Being cheap, readily available and NOT covered by a patent couldn't possibly have any bearing on the bottom line of these organizations. There's no financial reason to demonize HC, right? While I don't see any obvious relationships between MACS, Ward Atkinson or any other parties mentioned in the Fireball paper, I wouldn't be terribly surprised if one exists. However, I don't like having this sort of evidence that contains no facts, no real evidence or proof of true danger. It's just a bunch of talking heads using fear-charged language to make strong recommendations. If we are concerned with dying in a ball of fire caused by our cars, then I suppose we should stop using gasoline.

    • See 1 previous
    • Caboose Caboose on Jun 14, 2013

      Or stop having A/C in our cars. I mean, that *would* solve this whole concern. Ban air con as "environmentally hostile" which, in turn, is a step towards getting us out of cars and onto utopia-cycles.

  • Zamoti Zamoti on Nov 10, 2011

    The sentence I quoted is pure rubbish, hence the reason I quoted it. A gas grill runs on propane which ignites at about 870F where most hydrocarbon-based refrigerants designed for automotive use are formulated to have higher auto ignition points. So-called "light hydrocarbons" are claimed to have auto ignition points of well over 1200F! My complaint with the Fireball article is that it's not using any good data, just scare tactics. Also, you state that r134a is "practically" non-flammable. Well, that may be true, but the PAG or ester oil that the system requires to function is not. For both R134a and hydrocarbon, a VERY high temperature condition (greater than 900F) must be present and also in both cases most systems will contain not more than maybe 18-20 OZ of the airborne gas (or aerosolized oil). In both cases that may at best sustain a 4 second flame in the engine compartment. The notion that the auto refrigerant could enter the passenger compartment is the same regardless of content--in neither situation good, but also unlikely. An accident serious enough to crush the supply lines at the firewall and permit the gas into the passenger compartment would be pretty awful and possibly kill the occupants before the refrigerant of choice had a chance. If there were a slow leak, most HC refrigerants contain mercaptin (the smelly stuff in propane), so at least you'd know there is a leak. If R134a were to leak, you would be unlikely to know unless you're familiar with the subtle "aroma" (smells minty to me). Regarding fuel safety, sure the gasoline isn't routed into the passenger compartment that's true. But if there is a leak and it pools underneath the vehicle and ignites, you've got quite a dangerous condition. At least the HC would blow away if there were no suitable ignition source. The gas may evaporate quickly on a hot day but otherwise it will be under the car for a while. My point is that rather than going for yet another expensive chemical of unknown toxicity, why not take the opportunity to make a real change? This game will have to be played yet again when a patent runs out and other people will have the same discussions. Why not find a way to make hydrocarbons safe by designing a system for them? The choice is to spend a lot of time/money to re-engineer systems for a new chemical and get it adopted or to modify those same systems to safely use a cheap and abundant resource--one that's not subject to irritating expiring patents.