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Refrigerants are used in various kinds of equipment, including air conditioners, refrigerators and freezers. Refrigerants are substances, often in liquid form, that are used in a refrigeration cycle to cool a certain space. These substances are responsible for capturing heat and then releasing it to another space by using the thermodynamic phenomenon of phase change, wherein fluid changes into gas and vice versa.

Most refrigerants are known for having a negative effect on the environment since they contribute to global warming and ozone layer depletion. Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and emissions from some refrigerants are contributors to global warming by absorbing infrared radiation and holding it in the atmosphere. This is called the greenhouse effect.

Refrigerants and their environmental impact

There are a number of different types of refrigerants. Chlorofluorcarbons, popularly known as CFC’s, are an excellent unreactive refrigerant that has a low boiling point. They also have low toxicity, are inexpensive, easy to store and have no fire risk. Unfortunately, these are ozone-depleting greenhouse gases which contain fluorine, so they are dangerous to the environment. By 1994, most countries had already stopped producing CFCs. Developing countries should have eliminated all CFC stock by 2020.

Hydrochlorofluorocarbons, also known as HCFCs, are currently being used as a replacement for CFCs. Even these will be phased out over time as a result of the fact that while they are more ozone-friendly than CFCs, they still deplete the ozone – just at a slower rate. HCFCs are many times more potent than carbon dioxide. In addition to this, HCFCs have contributed to chlorine build-up in the atmosphere.

Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are chosen by many refrigeration manufacturers because they are a good replacement substance for CFCs and don’t deplete the ozone as much as CFCs or HCFCs. Unfortunately, HFCs are a potent greenhouse gas source, and have a high global warming potential.

Global warming potential (GWP) refers to the measure of the amount of heat a gas will trap in the atmosphere over time, compared to carbon dioxide. Carbon Dioxide has a baseline GWP of 1. A gas that has a GWP that is higher than 1 therefore traps more heat than CO2.

As their name implies, natural refrigerants are not man-made. They can be used as cooling agents for refrigerators and air conditioners. Examples of natural refrigerants are hydrocarbons, ammonia, carbon dioxide and water.

Hydrocarbons contain carbon dioxide, but this has a GWP of 1 compared to and HCFCs and HFCs that have a GWP in the thousands. Therefore, hydrocarbon that is used as a refrigerant is the most environmentally-friendly option that is available today.

There are also some chemical compounds, which include refrigerants, which contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer. The ODP of chemicals is the measure of how much they cause the ozone layer to degrade as compared to trichlorofluoromethane (CFC-11), which has a baseline ODP of 1. Therefore a chemical with an ODP over 1.0 will degrade the ozone layer more than CFC-11.

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