Cold case files: recent developments on the mobile air conditioning front

By Elke Milner, Aug 26, 2014, 01:00 4 minute reading

The controversy surrounding the implementation of refrigerant R1234yf in new vehicles in compliance with the European Union MAC Directive is on-going. As the deadline for required conversion to low-GWP refrigerants in all new fleets is quickly approaching, looks at how things stand.

By 1 January 2017 all new models of automobiles are to be equipped with low-GWP refrigerant, and the current main contenders in this category are CO2 and R1234yf. 
  • Manufacturers: Daimler is still standing strong in its promise to move to natural refrigerant CO2 air conditioning systems. Volkswagen has decided on a transition period before implementing CO2 systems, during which vehicles will be equipped with R1234yf.
  • Refrigerant suppliers: Honeywell and DuPont face antitrust charges in the EU for monopolising the market of refrigerants eligible under the MAC Directive. Honeywell promised in a letter to the European Automobile Manufacturers Association that it will lower the cost of its chemical refrigerant by 30 per cent. 
  • Institutions: The European Commission is holding its ground that refrigerant R1234yf presents no serious risks. However, the German UBA (Federal Environment Agency) has denounced the results of the European JRC (Joint Research Centre) analysis on the safety of R1234yf as superficial. Also in Germany, the DUH is suing the European Commission for release of controversial documents relating to R1234yf safety investigations.

Honeywell on the price offensive
As the evidence questioning the safety of refrigerant R1234yf mounts, most recently with the release of scientific studies conducted at the highly esteemed Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU) Munich revealing that the chemical is highly flammable and that during combustion the refrigerant releases extremely harmful chemicals, support for the use of natural refrigerant CO2 grows stronger. 
As a result, one of the manufacturers of R1234yf, Honeywell, has publicly gone on the price offensive; in a letter to the European Automobile Manufacturers Association, the company attracts manufacturers to its product with a promise to lower its price by 30%. The company did not mention what the lowered price of the refrigerant would be, or from what price it would be reduced.
EC steadfast, but based on what?
What is more, the European Commission isn’t budging on its decision that R1234yf is safe and should be implemented under the MAC Directive, despite facing criticism from member states, namely Germany, environmental organisations, automotive giants, and the disgruntled public. Earlier this summer, the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety (BMUB) issued a statement supporting those car manufacturers refusing to implement R1234yf technology in favour of CO2 MAC systems and urging the Commission to reassess its stance, given the evidence countering claims that R1234yf presents no ‘serious risks’. 
Now, the German Federal Environment Agency (UBA) has released its official opinion criticising the safety analysis conducted by the Joint Research Centre (JRC) for the European Commission as superficial, stating that this analysis provides no significant new contributions with regard to scientific or technical knowledge of refrigerant R1234yf. Initially, safety tests were conducted by the German Federal Motor Transport Authority (KBA), which at first determined that the controversial refrigerant presented no serious risks, but after a more thorough inspection, the KBA found the refrigerant to combust in a simulated crash and thus urged the EC to further investigate the circumstances. The JRC, as the EU’s own research institute, concluded the refrigerant is safe, although it only examined the documents of the KBA and conducted no tests of its own. 
In addition, the UBA accuses EU researchers of having drawn erroneous conclusions, as there is no mention of the fact that the refrigerant was found to form corrosive hydrofluoric (HF) acid in experiments conducted by the KBA.
Lastly, the JRC report does not include more recent findings from LMU Munich revealing the intense flammability of the chemical concoction and that during combustion, the refrigerant releases highly toxic carbonyl fluoride (COF2) in addition to hydrogen fluoride. 
Volkswagen: end-goal remains CO2
Volkswagen has, since 2011, stood firmly alongside Daimler on the issue of controversial refrigerant R1234yf. Both auto manufacturers decided to skip any transition period that would involve implementing R1234yf prior to implementing CO2, and to instead only develop CO2 refrigeration systems. That is, until recently. Volkswagen, under pressure from the European Commission as well as from budget cuts, has now resolved to maintain their goal of developing and applying CO2 refrigeration systems in all new fleets, but only after a transition period during which the manufacturer will equip its vehicles with R1234yf.


By Elke Milner

Aug 26, 2014, 01:00

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