Natural Refrigerants: The Path Forward for Commercial and Industrial Refrigeration

By Published On: December 31, 2021

Ever since the Montreal Protocol has been put in place, the search for natural refrigerants in commercial and industrial refrigeration has continued to be the top priority in the industry. These regulations to phase down Ozone Depleting Substances (ODS) to protect the earth’s ozone layer and to address climate change and its negative effects have long-term significance, not just in the environment, but also to food retailers across the globe.

Looming government regulations have food retailers looking for refrigerant alternatives with low Global Warming Potential (GWP) and Ozone Depletion Potential (ODP) to be used on their refrigeration systems. Below are some of the commonly used natural refrigerants in commercial and industrial refrigeration that meet those needs and qualifications in food retail:

Common Types of Natural Refrigerants

Carbon Dioxide (R744) – Due to its ODP of 0 and GWP of 1, Carbon Dioxide (CO2) has long been known as an environmentally benign refrigerant. Presently, it is widely used in commercial refrigeration systems in supermarkets, both large and small, and large industrial freezing and cold storage systems.

Propane (R290) – Used as a staple refrigerant in Europe, R290 is suitable for small self-contained commercial refrigeration systems and display cases and has 0 ODP and a GWP of 3. The use of R290 offers significant energy savings and flexibility. While there have been some concerns regarding its flammability, there are methods and regulations in place to use R-290 safely and effectively for food retail establishments.

Ammonia (R717) – Suitable and widely used for industrial refrigeration, Ammonia (NH3) is the most environmentally friendly refrigerant with an ODP of 0 and a GWP of 0. Its sustainability records, as well as its excellent thermodynamic properties, make it one of the top choices for natural refrigerants in the refrigeration industry. However, NH3 is toxic and flammable and needs various regulatory requirements that are time-consuming and expensive. A recent trend towards low-charge ammonia systems that keep the refrigerant charge low enough to negate the risk, reduces the regulatory requirements and expense.

Benefits of Using Natural Refrigerants

The benefits of using natural refrigerants go beyond the minimal impact they have on the environment, it also has favorable long-term impacts for food-retailers. To start, using natural refrigerants future-proofs businesses as these natural refrigerants have a lower GWP and ODP than synthetic refrigerants. This means they are exempted from future refrigerant regulations, and therefore, there is no need for retailers to acquire and periodically change new equipment over time which would save retailers a lot of money. Also, using natural refrigerants cut costs significantly since it is cheaper to produce and easier to maintain in the long run. Most importantly since these natural refrigerants are climate-neutral, they are efficient for use in refrigeration systems, sustainable and safe for the environment – the ultimate goals of refrigerant regulations.

The refrigerant market is constantly evolving, and it is clear that we collectively have a significant opportunity to be positioned as the driving force for sustainability. It is important to note; however, that as we continue to identify and apply for the best natural alternative refrigerants, we must not only think of their impact on our bottom lines but also their effects on the environment as well, so we could continue to enjoy the opportunities and meet the challenges that lie ahead.