A couple decades ago or so, the standard refrigerant for air conditioners, R-12, was replaced, with R-134a. R-134a is likely to be replaced soon by R-1234yf, though concerns over the safety of the refrigerant have been raised by Daimler.
Daimler finds R-1234yf refrigerant slightly susceptible to fire
The auto industry is poised to introduce a different refrigerant for air conditioning units that is more environmentally friendly than the current standard refrigerant. Most cars these days use R-134a refrigerant, as do a number of air conditioning units one might find employed in homes. R-134a became the standard after the previous standard refrigerant, R-12, was phased out in the 1990s.
The new refrigerant, according to AutoBlog, is called R-1234yf. It’s already being adopted by General Motors. However, testing by Daimler, the company that makes Mercedes-Benz and also those silly Smart cars, has revealed that the new refrigerant is slightly susceptible to bursting into flames.
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Daimler conducted high-speed frontal crash tests, wherein the air conditioner would fracture and spray the fluid into the engine compartment. The company found in the crash tests that the refrigerant could ignite if sprayed onto the exhaust system.
First test to show it
Though Daimler’s tests of R-1234yf were entirely Daimler’s idea, other tests have showed that it isn’t highly flammable. Standard testing for the flammability of refrigerants include subjecting the gas to basically a hot plate with a temperature hotter than most engines get; tests found R-1234yf wouldn’t ignite until subjected to a metal surface hotter than 900 degrees Celsius (1652 degrees Fahrenheit).
The Society of Automotive Engineers has found the substance is more flammable than R-134a, though air conditioning systems for cars using R-1234yf have been engineered to keep occupants from being safe. That said, it gives one pause before taking a bank rate auto loan to buy a car that might burst into flames if anything happens to the AC unit.
However, according to an article about Daimler’s dissent in Der Spiegel, basically Germany’s New York Times, painstakingly translated from German by using Google Translator, R-1234yf has another nasty habit discovered by Germany’s Federal Institute for Materials Testing. When it burns, it releases the gas hydrogen fluoride. If it encounters any moisture, it reacts and produces hydrofluoric acid, a toxic and corrosive substance.
Some environmental groups have also, according to Der Spiegel, raised concerns about the toxicity of R-1234yf.
Honeywell and DuPont poised to profit
The point behind switching cars from R-134a to R-1234yf refrigerant is that R-1234yf has a much lower global warming potential, or a much lower propensity to trap greenhouse gases and heat in the atmosphere, or the process by which man-made global warming is taking place. R-134a, according to Der Spiegel, has a GWP of 1430 after 100 years; carbon dioxide, by comparison, has a GWP of 1, meaning R-134a is much worse for the atmosphere than CO2 is.
For the time being, Daimler has refused to use R-1234yf in any Mercedes-Benz vehicles. So far, the only company that is switching a large number of vehicles is General Motors. The Cadillac XTS, hitting dealerships now, uses R-1234yf. So does the new Cadillac ATS, and this model year’s CTS sedan, according to the Society of Automotive Engineers.
At the moment, the small supply of R-1234yf is confined to a single factory in China, a joint venture between Honeywell and the DuPont chemical company. These two firms stand to make a fortune on further adoption of R-1234yf.