It’s Cool To Be Sustainable: How Next-Gen Refrigerants Will Power The Economy And Protect The Environment
A new, job-creating class of eco-friendly refrigerants will prevent food, medicine and buildings from overheating — not to mention the Earth itself.
The global economy is often compared to an engine: With adequate fuel, it revs and roars; without it, it spits and sputters.
What constitutes the perfect fuel source is the subject of much debate. Energy is essential, of course. Banking and capital also are critical. And then there are workers, on whose shoulders economic output quite literally rests. If you were to inspect the pipeline that fuels the modern economy, you might be surprised by what you find. Along with oil, gas, money and people, you’d almost certainly find refrigerant.
That’s right. Refrigerant.
Because June 26 is World Refrigeration Day, now is the perfect time to imagine a world without it. Society as we know it would melt away, according to The Refrigeration School, an HVACR vocational school that describes a hypothetical “refrigeration apocalypse” wherein refrigeration and air-conditioning suddenly disappear:
Within just two hours, perishable food in every home, grocery store and warehouse would spoil.
Within 24 hours, massive data centers owned by the likes of Amazon, Facebook and Google would get too warm for the servers inside them, causing massive internet outages.
Because hospitals and drug makers rely on air-conditioning to reduce infections and on refrigeration to manufacture and store life-saving medications — including COVID-19 vaccines, for example — sickness and mortality rates would begin rising within a month.
Because oil refineries rely on refrigeration to maximize their output, gas prices would quickly climb.
Suddenly, it would be impossible to make computers and smartphones, which run on microchips made in air-conditioned “clean rooms.”
In short order, cities in hot climates would no longer be safe or pleasant to live in, leading to mass northerly migrations.
Without refrigeration, we’d be living in the Dark Ages. What makes refrigerant so valuable, however, isn’t just what it prevents: the spoiled food supply chain or the industrial and office worker from being sweaty and tired; it literally creates commerce, community and absolute increase in the quality of life.
There’s just one problem. While refrigerants are terrific for the economy, finding the right solution is a significant scientific challenge. Before the invention of modern refrigeration technology, solutions used for refrigeration included industrial gases like ammonia, sulfur dioxide, and methyl chloride, which can be corrosive, poisonous and even explosive. The industry later developed chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which are safer for humans but harmful to the Earth, whose protective ozone layer CFCs degrade. In the 1990s, CFCs therefore gave way to hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which aren’t as destructive to the ozone layer, but which nevertheless contribute to global warming due to greenhouse gas emissions that take years and sometimes even decades to dissipate.
From industrial gases to CFCs and HFCs, refrigeration for the last century has continuously evolved, and the introduction of fluorinated refrigerants has provided a safer alternative to allow commercial refrigeration (e.g.supermarkets and the food supply chain) and air conditioning segments to flourish. But a new generation of refrigerants has the potential to fight climate change and high carbon emissions. They’re called hydrofluoroolefins, or HFOs. And they’re going to change everything.
Safe, Sustainable Cooling
HFOs were created by retired chemist Rajiv Singh, former chief scientist at Honeywell Advanced Materials — which so far has invested more than $1 billion into HFO R&D and manufacturing. Unlike today’s industrial gases, including CO2 and ammonia, HFOs are not toxic and unlike HFCs, they have a unique chemical bond that allows them to break down in the atmosphere in days instead of years, which means they don’t linger in the atmosphere once they’re released, and therefore don’t contribute meaningfully to global warming.
In fact, since launching its Solstice line of HFO refrigerants in 2012 and through its global adoptions in applications like automotive and commercial air conditioning and supermarket refrigeration, Honeywell’s HFOs have prevented more than 200 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s equivalent to the emissions from more than 42 million cars, the emissions produced by powering 19 million homes or the sequestration of carbon by 77.5 billion trees.
The auto industry was among the first to recognize the benefits of HFOs. Since 2011, nearly 75 million new automobiles made and sold in Europe have HFO air-conditioning systems in them. And in the United States, more than 75% of new vehicles now have the same. In total, 125 million new vehicles globally are cooled by HFO air-conditioning.
It’s not just cars and trucks, however. It’s also supermarkets: More than 30,000 grocery stores currently are using Honeywell’s Solstice N40 solution for commercial refrigeration, which has helped them reduce their energy consumption by 10% and their global warming potential by a factor of three.
HFOs also are present in commercial air-conditioners, and will eventually be used in homes thanks to Solstice N41, a new, revolutionary non-flammable HFO variant that Honeywell is pioneering for residential air-conditioners and heat pumps.
With more companies in more industries adopting them every day, it’s easy to see how impactful HFOs can be. Over the next two decades, they’ll be a major tool with which to mitigate climate change — not only for Honeywell’s customers, but also for Honeywell itself, which will use HFOs in its own facilities and operations to help it achieve its goal of carbon neutrality by 2035.
What’s good for the environment also will be good for the economy. Because while they won’t create greenhouse gases, one thing HFOs will generate is jobs. The industry has created thousands of permanent jobs to support innovation in refrigeration and reaching customers and consumers through R&D, sales/marketing and manufacturing.
On the Gulf Coast, for example, Honeywell has created over 1,200 permanent jobs in new plants that it established to produce its Solstice line of HFO refrigerants — not to mention thousands of temporary jobs for the construction workers who built those plants. And this year alone, Honeywell Advanced Materials will grow its technology team by 10% in order to pursue continued development of HFOs in new applications like electric power heat pumps for heating applications, cooling of electronic vehicle batteries and the fast growth of data center cooling.
Because that R&D will yield new and improved uses for HFO refrigerants, what starts with scientists, engineers and technologists ultimately will flow downstream to field technicians. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the HVACR workforce will grow by over 5% in the next decade, from approximately 248,000 HVACR contractors in 2019 to 262,000 in 2029.
In many states, demand for HVACR technicians will exceed supply. For young people entering the profession, that means more job security, higher wages and better benefits.
Refrigeration to the Rescue
In the wake of a global pandemic that robbed so many people of simple pleasures like restaurants, sports, vacations and hugs, one can’t help but have a newfound appreciation for the unsung miracles that make the modern world go round — including refrigeration.
And on World Refrigeration Day, especially, it’s worth considering what new, innovative refrigerants will mean: not only abundant food, high-powered internet and climate controlled homes, office buildings and production plants, but also a strong economy and a healthy planet.