R1234yf – Reaching A Crossroads, Or Simply “A Bump In The Road”?
By Jeff Murphy, President/CEO, RTI Technologies, Inc.

For several years now, automakers across the globe have been moving forward with their plans to introduce a new refrigerant for automotive air conditioning use.  The refrigerant of choice, HFO-1234yf (also more commonly known as HFO or R1234yf), is more environmentally friendly and meets the stringent requirements of EU Directive 2006/40/EC, which calls for the adoption of a refrigerant with a GWP (Global Warming Potential) of 150 or less.  With a GWP of 4, and thermodynamic properties that closely match those of R134a, R1234yf would seem to be the ideal solution.

Unfortunately, “ideal” did come with a few drawbacks.  Over the past year, as automakers have tried to introduce this refrigerant into new vehicle platforms, both the limited availability and price of R1234yf have been major stumbling blocks and concerns.  In addition to these issues, the one downside that has been recognized all along is its mild flammability.  While there certainly are a number of other flammable fluids under the hood of a car, a refrigerant does pose certain challenges due to the potential exposure to vehicle occupants in the event of a leak in the evaporator, and to leakage in general due to the forward position of the condenser in the event of a frontal crash.

With concern for the mild flammability as a backdrop, it’s easy to understand why the development and introduction has taken so long, particularly when compounded by the global financial situation of the past few years.  The good news is that R1234yf has been extensively tested over a six-year period using industry-accepted scientific methods by various industry organizations, independent laboratories, and a consortium of 15 global vehicle manufacturers organized by SAE in a Cooperative Research Program (CRP).  At the conclusion of this process, all of the participants expressed their satisfaction with the performance, risk assessment, and safety of R1234yf.  In conjunction with the various vehicular considerations, tool and equipment manufacturers have also been heavily involved in the research and development of specialized products to handle the unique service needs, including everything from leak detectors, refrigerant identifiers, and of course recovery/recycle/recharge machines.  With industry consensus in hand, over the past few months vehicles began rolling off production lines with R1234yf in their A/C systems, and equipment has begun flowing to dealerships to handle the warranty and inevitable collision work that follows. 

This is where our story gets interesting.  Recently, Daimler announced that it had reversed its position and would not install R1234yf in vehicles that it produces, citing safety reasons inconsistent with the conclusions reached during the industry-wide development and testing, of which they were an active participant.  This announcement was made after Daimler had already begun producing and delivering vehicles to both Europe and North America which contained R1234yf in the A/C systems.  Needless to say, the industry reaction has varied from strong repudiation of the announcement at one end of the spectrum to unnecessary confusion at the other.  The big question, obviously, is what course of action the EU will pursue with respect to EU Directive 2006/40/EU – will it let the manufacturer in question “off the hook”, or will it hold them to the current regulations and impose penalties for shipping vehicles with non-compliant refrigerants beginning January 1, 2013?  Will it revisit the regulations, or perhaps (again) delay implementation pending “further study”?

From a tool and equipment perspective, the impact of this unexpected change in direction and the ultimate decisions made concerning EU Directive 2206/40/EU are crystal clear.  Charlie Gorman, ETI Executive Manager, stated, “We are very concerned about the long-term impact on the tool and equipment industry if these kind of independent decisions occur.  If industry testing, validation, and consensus can be ignored, it will make it very difficult for our member companies to dedicate the necessary engineering and financial resources for projects such as this in the future.  Industry–wide cooperation, where appropriate, has always been a cornerstone of the automotive industry, and we continue to fully support this approach.”

So is there a major change coming, or have we simply hit a small “bump in the road”?  Is there a real issue here, or is there something else behind the announcement?  Numerous meetings are scheduled on both sides of the Atlantic over the next several weeks to hash this out.  Stay tuned…



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