The Past is Connected to the Present – History and Evolution of Natural Refrigerants

By Published On: October 29, 2021

According to a famous American Astronomer, Dr. Carl Sagan, “You have to know the past to understand the present.” If history has taught us one thing, it is that the past is connected to things that are happening right now.

Whether in business or in life, history tells us that in order for us to understand what is happening around us today, be it ideas, changes or events, we must learn to look back and understand its origin.  In the refrigeration industry, the present push towards the use of natural refrigerants to curb the effects of climate change is not just a spur of the moment idea or decision, but it also has its own long and deep history to tell.

The use of refrigerants can be traced back to the mid-19th century, however, its regulation and the push for innovation for the use of natural refrigerants were brought to the forefront in 1987 with the finalization of the Montreal Protocol. The Montreal Protocol is a global agreement to phase out the use and production of ozone-depleting substances (ODS), like CFCs, and use HFCs as an alternative. However, HFCs are still harmful to the earth’s ozone layer and greatly contribute to the earth’s increasing temperature due to its high global warming potential (GWP). That’s why the Kigali Amendment, an addition to the Montreal Protocol, was put in place on January 1, 2019. The Kigali Amendment aims to phase down HFCs by about 40% by 2024. HFCs are commonly used in refrigerators, foams, aerosols, air conditioners, and other products with GWPs ranging from 12 to 14,000.

In conjunction with these agreements, another protocol was put in place to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and greenhouse gases (GHG). The Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997, aimed to cut CO2 emission and GHG by forcing industrialized nations to lessen their emissions. However, the Kyoto Protocol was not successful. It did not last long and ended in 2012 due to the inefficiencies and flaws in the nature of the agreement. Fast forward to 2015, the Paris Climate Agreement–the latest running agreement was formed and replaced the flawed Kyoto Protocol. Adopted by 196 parties, the Paris Climate Agreement focuses on mitigating the effects of climate change by enforcing policies to keep the global average temperature from rising by 2°C in this century. This ambitious effort brings together nations around the world to strategize long-term policies and engagements to fight climate change.

Driven by the evolution of these events, the importance of the use of natural refrigerants was born. The heightened focus on the use of alternative refrigerants, such as CO2, propane, and ammonia is a byproduct of the regulations that came before to combat climate change. Recently in the US, natural refrigerants have become much more widely used in the commercial and industrial refrigeration industry. Refrigeration systems for food retail applications, such as CO2 transcritical booster systems, micro-distributed refrigeration systems, and self-contained display cases, are ideal candidates for using natural refrigerants that have low GWP and ODP. Natural refrigerants are non-toxic, non-flammable, and have high energy efficiency, making them one of the most suitable refrigerant solutions to use today.

The history of natural refrigerants is a narrative we can always look back on to guide us with our decisions and solve the most complex issues we currently face. When we try to fit things into perspective and make sense of the world, history truly teaches us about the origins and results relative to the industry as we continue to navigate our way towards the present and the future of refrigeration.