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Race is on to find new A/C fluid

In the 1990s, auto air-conditioner fluid had to be reformulated because it was boring a hole in the ozone.

Now, the ozone-friendly replacement fluid is getting kicked out of Europe for being a high-powered greenhouse gas.

Two industries in Western New York are working on a solution.

Delphi Corp.'s engineering center in Lockport and Honeywell's chemical research laboratory in South Buffalo are separately playing major roles in the development of new, greener alternatives to existing air conditioner fluid.

Honeywell's lab is working to develop a "drop-in" replacement fluid, while Delphi is building and testing prototype A/C systems that work with a range of possible replacement fluids. "We need to make sure our components are ready to work with each of the alternatives," said Tim Craig, engineering manager for research and development at Delphi's thermal products division.

The European Union has effectively banned the current fluid, called R134a, in cars designed after 2011. The new environmental standard is 150 "GWP," meaning 150 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. Today's A/C fluid, a chemical called R134a, has a GWP of 1,430.

The United States doesn't have greenhouse gas restrictions, but California and some other states are considering limits, possibly ushering in A/C redesigns for North America.

A/C fluids absorb heat as they expand to a gas state. The alternatives being considered range from carbon dioxide to highly engineered, proprietary chemicals like those designed by Honeywell.

At a global conference for auto A/C engineering this summer in Phoenix, Delphi and GM displayed four cars outfitted to run different refrigerants. Craig said Delphi was the only company that had prototypes.

The European Union estimates that replacing R134a will cut autos' global warming impact by 4.5 percent, a figure that is under dispute. If replacements are less efficient, they will increase auto tailpipe emissions and cancel some of the gains from a low-GWP fluid.

Honeywell, with its 150-job fluorine development center in Buffalo, has teamed with Dupont to come with a refrigerant that is compatible with existing systems, requiring minimum changes to auto components.

Ian Shankland, technology director of Honeywell's fluorine chemical business, said the efficiency of a car's A/C system has the greatest impact on its global warming potential, over the life of the car. The company has shelved development of a replacement called "Fluid H" in favor of a new formula that will be announced jointly with Dupont, he said. Predecessor candidates had questions about compatibility with existing systems and long-term exposure problems.

How much will all this add to the cost of buying and running a car?

"It's still early in the development phase," Shankland said. But the goal is to meet new environmental standards with high energy efficiency, he said, keeping fuel consumption down and operating costs low.


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