Modest R-1234yf supplies means introduction delay

  • 30-Jul-2010 10:55 EDT

Improved leak-sealing technologies, such as these Visteon soft metal washers with secondary elastomer seals, earn A/C-related CO2 emission direct credits from the U.S. EPA.

A rapid industry changeover to R-1234yf, a low-global-warming A/C refrigerant, isn’t in the cards.

That became apparent at the July 13-15 SAE Automotive Refrigerant and System Efficiency Symposium in Scottsdale, AZ, where concerns raised at the SAE Congress last April were even more sharply defined. The European Union regulation requiring a phaseout of R-134a—starting with "new type" vehicles as of Jan. 1, 2011—isn’t being changed. But nothing more than token quantities of R-1234yf from pilot production facilities will be available until the end of next year.

So European vehicle introductions reportedly are being juggled. Even late in 2011, "commercial quantities" promised at the symposium by Honeywell's Dr. Chris Seeton, lead engineer on R-1234yf development, may be from a small facility. A large plant from a Honeywell-DuPont joint venture reportedly will come on stream in late 2012.

In the U.S., a low-global-warming refrigerant offers the largest possible A/C-related carbon-dioxide emissions credit from the U.S. EPA—toward a 250 g/mi CO2 vehicle fleet average requirement by 2016. Only General Motors has announced an approximate R-1234yf introduction date—sometime in the 2013 model year—with no indication now as to what the installation rate will be.

As a result, the SAE symposium gave close attention to an EPA alternative, based on CO2 credits for all systems with greater A/C-derived fuel efficiency and R-134a systems with reduced leakage. The available credits for reduced R-134a leakage are not as large as for a changeover to R-1234yf. But R-134a is not going away anytime soon, and there is no regulatory mandate for a low-global-warming alternative. Even in Europe, "existing" platforms may continue to install R-134a systems up to 2017. In the U.S., pre-2012 "early" CO2 credits, which can be carried over, are available for upgraded R-134a systems beginning with MY2009.

Why aren't the chemical companies moving faster? One issue is the continued inability of Honeywell, holder of patents related to use of R-1234yf, to reach access agreements with other than DuPont, its joint venture partner. A large potential producer, Arkema, said it was unable to negotiate an acceptable agreement. It is being sued by Honeywell in Germany for attempting to sell R-1234yf and is preemptively suing Honeywell in the U.S. to overturn the patents. The dispute could take up to three years to resolve. Unless there is a resolution with some way for it to sell R-1234yf, Arkema cannot build the plant it has promised.

In the interim, Arkema has asked SAE to note its traditional position that a patented product be embodied in standards only when a "FRAND" (fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory) access agreement is given to qualified applicants.

The other issue is price for production quantities, exacerbated by the present absence of competition and apparently higher cost of R-1234yf production. Initial prices of $100/kg ($45/lb) were reported. Although prices could be expected to come down significantly as large-scale production starts, an auto industry in financial trouble is not looking for additional cost. At the same time, chemical companies are reportedly losing money on R-134a at today’s competition-depressed prices of about $10/kg ($4.5/lb) and are not interested in a similar scenario for R-1234yf.

In the U.S., the question for an automaker is why install R-1234yf unless needed for EPA CO2 emission credits, so there is a lessened sense of urgency. No automaker likes to rely on industrywide existence of a single supplier, and at present there is only the Honeywell-DuPont joint venture. General Motors has named Honeywell as its supplier but has given no indication how much it will be paying.

Further, aftermarket attendees at the symposium made it clear that because R-1234yf prices are higher than those of R-134a, the service industry is unlikely to use the former. Inasmuch as R-134a is on the EPA's list of acceptable refrigerants, R-1234yf systems could be recharged with R-134a, and there would be no effect on performance or efficiency. That's another barrier to U.S. acceptance, and proposing taxes to equalize pricing would face political obstacles. The subject not only preys on the minds of the chemical companies but also perturbs equipment manufacturers who have been engineering machines and testers to service R-1234yf systems. EPA is aware of the aftermarket concerns, and a spokesperson said it "may" consider regulation against R-134a retrofit of R-1234yf systems.

EPA CO2 emissions credits for A/C with either refrigerant were explained at the symposium by the agency's Brian Nelson, engineer at the Assessment and Standards Division, Office of Technology and Air Quality. They take into consideration:

• Direct emissions (refrigerant loss from leakage, servicing, and end of life). R-134a has a global warming number of 1430 vs. just 4 for R-1234yf.

• Indirect emissions (energy to produce, operate, and recycle the system at end of life). It's a much larger issue in states such as California, where vehicle miles traveled and climate dictate higher A/C usage. California has its own set of CO2 standards.

• "Off-cycle credits," defined only as innovations not named in the two specific categories listed above. A manufacturer would have to demonstrate the value of the innovation to EPA, and any credit would be subject to negotiation.

The EPA direct emission CO2 credits are based on a formula that uses a list of improved sealing technologies described in SAE J2727. The tighter the sealing technology chosen by the automaker, the greater the CO2 emission credits. For R-134a, it’s a maximum of 6.3 g/mi for cars (9.5 g/mi with electric compressor) and 7.8 g/mi for trucks (11.7 g/mi with electric compressor). A tight-sealing R-1234yf system would get a maximum 13.8 g/mi credit.

Indirect credits for both refrigerants (5.7 g/mi maximum, including any off-cycle credits awarded) are available for A/C-derived fuel-efficiency improvements—reduced reheat, incorporation of an internal heat exchanger, and more efficient blower fan, evaporator, and condenser. For MY2014-2016, an A/C idle test is added, and if results show higher CO2 emissions than a specified maximum, indirect credits are reduced, Nelson said. The indirect credits can be converted to a "fuel economy" credit using an EPA formula based on 8788 g of CO2 from a gallon of gasoline. But this credit applies to the CO2 g/mi fleet regulatory requirements for 2012-2016, not to corporate average fuel economy.

At the end of a model year, the direct, indirect, and (if any) off-cycle credits are plugged into EPA formulas, where they are subtracted from the tailpipe CO2 results to determine a manufacturer's fleet average.

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