A cool history of coolants

How we keep ourselves and our stuff (like food) cool is a lesson in ingenuity, innovation and a little like Whack-A-Mole. Every time scientists developed the next best thing, it caused problems somewhere else. 

When the scientists started looking at ways to get air colder than a fan, they focused on vapor compression systems. Essentially, this is the air conditioner you have now in your car and in your house. It uses circulating liquid refrigerant to remove heat from a space. 

The first refrigerants were things like ammonia and carbon dioxide, which were effective but, you know, toxic. 

In 1928, Freon was developed. Freon was the trade name for a type of coolant called a chlorofluorocarbon. .

Colorado officials, scientists already warm to the idea of banning coolants found in air conditioners

National Renewable Energy Laboratory HVAC expert Jon Winkler, left, and Senior Engineer Chuck Booten, right, work on testing various air conditioning units at the NREL HVAC Systems Laboratory (photo courtesy of NREL)

Engineers, by their nature, are generally not optimistic or enthusiastic about, well, much of anything. 

When Chuck Booten, a senior engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, was asked his thoughts about President Biden’s desire to ban hydrofluorocarbon by 2050, he said: “We are moving in the right direction.”

For any non-engineer, this statement is the equivalent of spiking the football in the endzone. 

The truth is most people are celebrating this move by the Biden Administration to ban hydrofluorocarbons, which we will call HFCs, by 2050, and some aren’t as resigned about it as Booten. The move will cut HFCs by 85 percent in 15 years, and that’s significant, as HFCs, the most common refrigerant in home and vehicle air conditioning as well as commercial refrigeration, are a big cause of climate change. HFCs, in fact, are 12,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide in their contribution to climate change. (See sidebar to learn more than you ever wanted to know about coolants.)

“For consumers, they will still be able to use their air conditioners and get parts for them. Eventually, when their air conditioner completely dies, they will have to get a new one that doesn’t use HFC.” — Chuck Booten, Senior Engineer, National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Biden hopes to accomplish the ban by getting Congress to ratify the Kigali Amendment (see box).