The air conditioner in your car will be changing in the next several years, no longer relying on the coolant that keeps you comfortable in summer.
Scientists believe that is good, because the coolant in most cars today threatens the environment when it gets into the air. In its place will be a new coolant, which is expected to reduce global warming.
In fact, at a global environmental conference last weekend in Kigali, Rwanda, more than 170 nations agreed to phase out refrigerants known as hydrofluorocarbons that contribute to climate change. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the deal “a monumental step forward.”
A new, environmentally friendlier coolant coming to millions of new cars in years ahead will have Buffalo roots.
A team of scientists at Honeywell’s Buffalo Research Lab is leading the effort toward the day when heat-trapping hydrofluorocarbons will be as obsolete as ozone-depleting Freon in vehicle air conditioning units.
The scientists at the Peabody Street research lab developed a new refrigerant 1,300 times less potent to the environment than the hydrofluorocarbons in use since the 1990s.
Solstice yf is the trade name for the refrigerant, and it’s already in more than 10 million vehicles – some 120 models made by nearly three dozen car makers.
Some of the models with the new air conditioning systems include Cadillac’s XTS, several Toyota and Hyundai models, and most of the Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge and RAM brand vehicles, Honeywell officials said.
“We made the first gram, the first kilogram and the first ton,” said Rajiv R. Singh, the senior research and development director at the Honeywell lab. “It all came out of here.”
The refrigerant will be a key to implementing last week’s global agreement, which calls for reducing hydrofluorocarbon use starting in 2019.
Hydrofluorocarbons are a fraction of what causes global warming.
But scientists believe phasing them out may reduce global warming by half a degree.
“Every little bit helps,” said Jason Briner, a University at Buffalo geology professor who’s an expert on climate change. “It could be one solution to the problem.”
'A big deal’
General Motors took advantage of incentives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to begin transitioning its air conditioning systems from hydrofluorocarbons several years ago.
The chemical refrigerant developed by Honeywell will be used in all new General Motors vehicles starting with the 2017 model year.
That will boost the total number of vehicles with the refrigerant to 18 million by the end of the year.
GM’s transition is happening four years ahead of what’s required by federal law.
“It’s a big deal,” said Fred Sciance, a manager of environment and climate policy at GM, of Honeywell’s effort.
GM worked with Honeywell’s Buffalo laboratory among others to develop the new refrigerant, Sciance said.
“They were the key players in processing and developing” the refrigerant, Sciance said of Honeywell.
Past and new threats
Refrigerants used in air conditioning systems, and other products like appliances and aerosol propellants, have been long pegged as contributors to atmospheric degradation like ozone depletion and global warming.
Chlorofluorocarbons like Freon were considered the worst.
Scientists said they ate away at the ozone layer of the Earth, creating a large hole in the atmosphere over Antarctica. They are more than 10,000 times as potent as carbon dioxide in changing the earth’s climate.
They were phased out under the Montreal Protocol treaty of 1987.
Innovation led to the development of hydrofluorocarbons.
The ozone layer began to recover but global warming continues its upward acceleration, according to scientists.
“The refrigerants have long been a problem,” Briner said. “What comes out of the refrigerants are the elements for adding to the greenhouse effects.”
The molecules get into the atmosphere, and like carbon dioxide, act as a blanket, trapping heat inside.
The difference is hydrofluorocarbons have more than 1,000 times the global warming ability that carbon dioxide does.
So the solution to one problem led to another environmental threat.
As scientists document an ever-warming climate – the National Climatic Data Center reported 2016 is running ahead of 2015’s record global warmth – addressing the issue has become even more important.
The issue is not a new one for Honeywell’s Singh.
About a decade ago, Singh’s team in Buffalo started its search to replace the most commonly used refrigerant hydrofluorocarbon.
“Every time you drive a car and put the air conditioning on, you contribute to global warming,” Singh said.
After years of research, development and testing, Solstice yf was born.
Honeywell’s patents for the product are among the nearly 200 attributed to Singh over his 27 years of work at the company.
Besides Singh, Honeywell’s other team members lauded for developing Solstice yf are Hang Pham, Robert Richard, Harry Tung and Ron Vogl from the Buffalo laboratory along with Nacer Achaichia and Amy Jones, who work for Honeywell elsewhere.
The company’s Buffalo research laboratory on Peabody Street employs 150 people.
Automobile air conditioning is just one facet of Honeywell’s newly developed Solstice products suite, which includes three molecules – HFO-1234yf, HFO-1234ze and HFO-1233zd.
Related products are used as aerosol propellants, in cleaning solvents, seat padding and as foam-like insulation in everything from buildings, refrigerated trucks and appliances like refrigerators and freezers.
“We didn’t invent a new chemical,” said David J. Williams, Honeywell’s director of technology for foam blowing agents in Buffalo. “We just repurposed a known chemical in a new application.”
In August, Solstice yf earned Singh and six other Honeywell scientists the prestigious “Heroes of Chemistry Award” from the American Chemical Society.
The Honeywell product is the fourth-generation of refrigerants used for air conditioning systems, and has 99.9 percent lower global warming potential than the generation of hydrofluorocarbons it’s replacing.
What will that mean?
When you’re driving a car or SUV with the new generation of air conditioning systems:
• The ozone layer is not being harmed;
• The chemicals in the air conditioning unit are stable, safe and energy efficient;
• It’s a step toward slowing down climate change.
That’s because the new molecules released by the air conditioning units are able to quickly break down in the atmosphere.
The atmospheric lifetime of Solstice yf is just 10.5 days.
Compare that to the 13.4 years for the most commonly used hydrofluorocarbon, or the five to 200 years that a carbon dioxide molecule can live in the atmosphere.
So the global warming potential is less than carbon dioxide.
A collaboration of industrial and environmental groups paved the way for the recent global agreement in Rwanda phasing out hydrofluorocarbons.
“For different reasons, we’re headed in the same direction,” said David Doniger, director of the Climate & Clean Air Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
It wasn’t always that way.
Doniger said there was a time in the 1970s when industry wouldn’t acknowledge climate change, much less call for action against it.
Even today, he said many companies – in the coal and fossil fuel industry – still don’t.
But for chemical companies that dealt in refrigerants and chlorofluorocarbons, something changed in the 1980s.
As emerging scientific evidence over the years revealed ozone depletion and then more gasses trapped in the atmosphere, the industry positioned itself to stay ahead of looming regulations.
And they had a business pathway: researching and developing more earth-friendly products.
“There’s a phrase in Washington: ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,’ ” Doniger said. “They wanted to be at the table.”