Winding road ahead for mobile air conditioning

While the HVAC&R sector tends to focus on the built environment, mobile air conditioning represents a significant portion of Australia’s refrigerant bank – and poses serious challenges as we look to phase down HFCs.

The most recent Cold Hard Facts report indicates that mobile air conditioning comprises more than 20 per cent of Australia’s total refrigerant bank. Around 93 per cent of this is made up of small systems: passenger vehicles, light commercial vehicles, trucks and commuter buses.

Driving up emissions

According to the report, the majority of vehicles imported by the 20 market leading brands sold in Australia contain R134A. Because vehicles are considered “pre-charged” equipment, the refrigerant is not included in our import quota. But the systems require maintenance, meaning that bulk imports of R134A are needed to service these vehicles in the future.

In other parts of the world, most models now use R1234yf, a mildly flammable (A2L) HFO refrigerant with a global warming potential of less than 1 – compared to 1,430 for R134A. In Australia, however, the transition has been slow. According to Cold Hard Facts, “evidence indicates the largest selling brands, such as Toyota, Mazda and Hyundai, have not yet commenced importing systems charged with HFOs into Australia”.

Refrigerants Australia Executive Director Greg Picker says this is having a big impact.

“We’re well behind on the transition,” he says. “That’s 30 per cent of our bulk imports there, that go to service mobile air conditioning. The sooner we can change what’s coming in in new vehicles, the sooner we start to transition our fleet.

“In Europe, the ban on new models with R134A went in in 2015. That’s six years ago. They’ve moved to R1234yf and CO2, with R1234yf having by far the lion’s share. Yes, you have to do a few things differently, and you have to manage the risk for an A2L refrigerant, but it’s manageable. Europe has clearly demonstrated that.”

Picker says that Australia’s fleet is expected to transition in the next 12–18 months.

“So we’ll go from virtually no cars today, to – the expectation is – over 50 per cent in that timeframe,” says Picker. “But that still leaves 50 per cent that’s not guaranteed, and it’s taking us a long time.”

Why has this happened? Lax fuel-efficiency and fuel-quality standards are part of the problem. Australia is treated as a developing country by car manufacturers, receiving the same sorts of vehicles that are sold throughout the southern hemisphere. The absence of regulations to require a change to alternative refrigerants has also left us in the slow lane.

Picker says that that the situation warrants government intervention.

“This is an area where I think we’ve absolutely needed a government signal,” he says. “It’s one equipment type – car air conditioners. There are only two or three manufacturers in the world. And it’s already happened in many places.”

Picker says that although price might be a factor to begin with, that would change as more vehicles transitioned.

“Recharge is quite a bit more expensive for R1234yf, but that’s because nobody imports the gas in bulk now. Why would you if there’s not the equipment?”

Destination unknown

Although the immediate solution seems to be a straight switch from R134A to R1234yf, the final destination is less obvious.

Concerns persist about HFO refrigerants producing degradation products such as trifluoroacetic acid (TFA), which lingers in the environment. A recent report from Germany highlighted that R1234yf could be a significant source of TFA in the future. And five governments in Europe have proposed that tighter restrictions be placed on these chemicals.

So far, CO2 systems in vehicles have not been widely adopted. Mercedes-Benz initially championed its use, but according to EV news site The Driven, the company appears to have moved away from this option in the European market.

Other refrigerants may be on the way, but are still some way off. Daikin is reportedly working on a new refrigerant blend called D1V140 that is 77 per cent R1234yf, with the rest being a mystery Daikin-developed product called HFO1332(E). The blend has been submitted for registration to ASHRAE’s committee for the designation and safety classification of refrigerants. Although it would improve EV range, it would not address the issues around TFA.

The ideal solution for mobile air conditioning is still not clear, but it will be key to ensuring a sustainable HVAC&R sector overall.

One Reply to “Winding road ahead for mobile air conditioning

  1. If this article sounds like Greg Picker pushing the sales of (extremely expensive) R1234yf, it is because that’s exactly what he is doing – that’s his job as the head of the lobby organisations for major synthetic refrigerant companies! In this myopic “analysis” a readily-available solution (as usually) is conveniently ignored: hydrocarbon refrigerants! Supremely efficient, cheap, readily available, environmentally non-damaging … Yes, flammable too, but so is R1234yf, is it not? Oh, of course, MILDLY flammable (and potentially toxic, and with unknown long-term environmental and health consequences), and used in the up to three times larger quantity than hydrocarbons. Of course, Greg and his mates have done supremely good job over the years to scare off any car company that would even think of using hydrocarbons that even today they are not being considered for automotive AC systems, in spite of other industries realising the potential of hydrocarbon refrigerants (stationary ACs come to mind, as do domestic refrigerators, commercial freezers, etc). The usual complaint is that car environment is not suitable for a flammable gas, which leaves R1234yf badly exposed. And, seriously – in 2021 car engineers are unable to engineer a solution to contain 150 g of a flammable substance inside a car? Beggars belief …

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