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AW Monthly – Issue 3 / February 2013

AW Monthly February 2013

Urgent solution needed to prevent refrigerant debate overheating

It’s a debate that has seen three German OEMs publicly disagree with other manufacturers, two major suppliers, the European Commission, and automotive engineering society SAE: should an air conditioning coolant sold on its environmental friendliness be used even though, according to Daimler, it is unsafe and could ignite in a crash?

The debate is not new. In recent years, German OEMs have been switching between HFC-1234yf and HFC-134a (R134a). But earlier this month, Audi and BMW joined Daimler in voicing their concerns about the coolant, and exited the SAE’s International Cooperative Research Project (CRP) into automotive air conditioning refrigerant HFC-1234yf (R-1234yf). The CRP has repeatedly reported findings that indicate HFC-1234yf is safe for use in automotive applications.

Honeywell and DuPont joined forces in 2010 to develop and manufacture HFC-1234yf, which they say has a considerably lower global warming potential (GWP) than the standard refrigerant HFC-134a: 4 versus 1430. On 1 January 2013, EU regulations came into force that require the phasing-in of low greenhouse gas-emitting coolants, and the EU’s Mobile Air Conditioning Directive prohibits the use of HFC-134a, with a gradual phase-out before it is banned entirely in the EU from 2017.

Daimler has claimed that HFC-1234yf can ignite in certain crash situations; German magazine Auto Bild has conducted its own tests and says the coolant is not only flammable but also toxic – both are concerns for vehicle occupants and first responders alike. Other OEMs are understood to have crash-tested their cars to see how the coolant performs.

But this isn’t just a case of either/or, because in addition to HFC-1234yf and HFC-134a, there’s a third way: CO2 is being proposed as an alternative coolant. In November, Volkswagen Chairman Ferdinand Piech reportedly said that CO2 is the only appropriate coolant for use in automotive air conditioning systems, and that until CO2 is in use, VW would continue to use HFC-134a (R-134a). There are other issues with CO2, however, including engineering costs and conformity in certain US states. This adds an interesting dimension to the story, with global OEMs needing to consider different coolants for global products sold in different markets, not only within the US, but worldwide.

However, the potential use of CO2 appears to be taking a back seat here. More pressing is the question of how to deal with any OEM that rejects HFC-1234yf. Shortly after the three OEMs left the SAE study group, the European Commission wrote to Germany’s VDA to say that it saw no grounds to extend the deadline for German OEMs to use the coolant.

Accusation and denial aside, the current situation is a curious one: Brussels demands that OEMs use an environmentally-friendly coolant. Three powerful car companies with their own environmentally-friendly reputations to uphold refuse to use it on safety grounds – yet the engineering society representing many other OEMs says the product is safe.

The deadline to switch to HFC-1234yf has passed, but the debate rages on, with no obvious solution or compromise in sight. And any new car not using the coolant fails to conform to EU regulations.

We hope you enjoy this issue of AW Monthly, and as always, we welcome your thoughts and suggestions; email us at editorial@automotiveworld.com

Martin Kahl
Editor, Automotive World

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