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A refrigerant is a substance used in a heat cycle usually including, for enhanced efficiency, a reversible phase change from a gas to a liquid. Traditionally, fluorocarbons, especially chlorofluorocarbons were used as refrigerants, but they are being phased out because of their ozone depletion effects. Other common refrigerants used in various applications are ammonia, sulfur dioxide, and non-halogenated hydrocarbons such as methane.
The ideal refrigerant has good thermodynamic properties, is unreactive chemically, and safe. The desired thermodynamic properties are a boiling point somewhat below the target temperature, a high heat of vaporization, a moderate density in liquid form, a relatively high density in gaseous form, and a high critical temperature. Since boiling point and gas density are affected by pressure, refrigerants may be made more suitable for a particular application by choice of operating pressure. These properties are ideally met by the chlorofluorocarbons.
Corrosion properties are a matter of materials compatibility with the mechanical components: compressor, piping, evaporator, and condenser. Safety considerations include toxicity and flammability.
Natural refrigerants such as ammonia, carbon dioxide and non-halogenated hydrocarbons preserve the ozone layer and have no (ammonia) or only a low (carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons) global warming potential. They are used in air-conditioning systems for buildings, in sport and leisure facilities, in the chemical/pharmaceutical industry, in the automotive industry and above all in the food industry (production, storage, retailing). New applications are opening up for natural refrigerants for example in vehicle air-conditioning.
Emissions from automotive air-conditioning are a growing concern because of their impact on climate change. From 2011 on, the European Union will phase out refrigerants with a global warming potential (GWP) of more than 150 in automotive air conditioning (GWP = 100 year warming potential of one kilogram of a gas relative to one kilogram of CO2). This will ban potent greenhouse gases such as the refrigerant HFC-134a—which has a GWP of 1410—to promote safe and energy-efficient refrigerants. One of the most promising alternatives is the natural refrigerant CO2 (R-744). Carbon dioxide is non-flammable, non-ozone depleting, has a global warming potential of 1, but is toxic and potentially lethal in concentrations above 5% by volume. R-744 can be used as a working fluid in climate control systems for cars, residential air conditioning, hot water pumps, commercial refrigeration, and vending machines. R12 is compatible with mineral oil, while R134a is compatible with synthetic oil. GM has announced that it will start using Hydrofluoro olefin, HFO-1234yf, in all of its brands by 2013. This new refrigerant has a GWP rating of 4 and is not a blend.Dimethyl ether (DME) is also gaining popularity as a refrigerant.
Some refrigerants, such as tetrafluoroethane, are seeing rising use as recreational drugs, leading to an extremely dangerous phenomenon known as inhalant abuse.
As of July 1, 1992 it is illegal to release refrigerant into the atmosphere (intentional or accidental) because they can cause severe damage to the ozone layer. When CFCs are removed they should be recycled to clean out any contaminants and return it to a usable condition. Refrigerants should never be mixed together. Some CFCs must be managed as hazardous waste even if recycled, and special precautions are required for their transport, depending on the legislation of the country's government.