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Patent protection for climate-friendly alternatives to HFCs and HCFCs

Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are familiar chemical names, due to their negative impact on the environment. Today, we’re all aware that we need to take steps to protect our planet by reducing global warming and protecting our ozone shield. But what climate-friendly refrigerants are suitable and what incentives exist to drive change?

An alternative to damaging early refrigerants

Resulting from a realisation in the 1920s that very early refrigerants were hazardous, a new class of chemical emerged as a suitable alternative. CFCs are non-toxic, non-flammable gases with relatively high mass. These were considered great refrigerants due to their gas-to-liquid compressibility and capability to dissipate heat when evaporated as part of the refrigeration cycle. Due to their inert qualities, the use of CFCs was extended to solvents, blowing agents, fire extinguishing agents, aerosol propellants and more.

In the 1970s, after decades of extensive use, it was discovered that CFCs aren’t harmless after all. In fact, they’re carried into the stratosphere, where they’re destroyed by ultraviolet rays from the sun. The resulting free and drifting chlorine atoms then become catalysts that convert ozone (O3) into oxygen (O2). Stratospheric ozone is the shield that protects the earth from the Sun’s ultraviolet radiation. Accordingly, CFC production was banded by the demands of the Montreal Protocol (1987) with the ban becoming globally complete in 2010.

Greenhouse gases

Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) were developed as CFC replacements, followed shortly afterwards by hydrofluorocarbons (HFC). These alternatives offered generally the same advantages as CFCs but were far less damaging to the Earth’s ozone shield. However, they were developed before the environmental impact of fluorine was fully understood and, more importantly, before we all became aware of the environmental impact of greenhouse gases.

HFCs like R-134a and R-23 have been used extensively since the 1990s. These are very potent greenhouse gases, being hundreds and even thousands of times more damaging than carbon dioxide. This, together with their long lifespan (they can last for tens and even hundreds of years in the stratosphere), is a big problem for planet earth. Accordingly, the Kyoto Protocol (1997) was the initiative to phase-out these alternatives. The more recent 2016 amendment has stepped-up this phase-out, which has prompted significant developments.

Global warming potential

Today, the climatic impact of a substance is commonly expressed as the global warming potential (GWP). The lower the GWP, the more climate-friendly the substance. The GWP values of the various HFCs or HCFCs are generally in the high hundreds, or thousands. In contrast, GWPs of more climate-friendly alternatives are much lower, of the order of tens.

The most promising candidate replacements are hydrofluoro-olefins (HFOs), which have much lower GWPs. One example is HFC R134a (GWP 1,430) and the HFO alternative R1234yf (GWP 4), relative to the chosen reference gas, carbon dioxide (GWP 1).

A major opportunity

Consequently, supermarket, hotel, commercial building owners and those businesses involved with temperature-sensitive goods (particularly food) are being required to transition to refrigerants with a lower GWP. However, replacing existing refrigerated display equipment within a supermarket store, or swapping a hotel air conditioning system for one designed to work optimally for a new refrigerant type, is very cost-prohibitive. One solution to this problem is to modify existing equipment to be compatible with HFOs and HFO blends.

The race may now be on to find the new ‘shining light’ refrigerant or refrigerant blend that’s cost-effective to produce, energy efficient (requires less energy to achieve a desired refrigeration/air condition unit operating temperature), compatible with existing refrigeration apparatus and importantly, has a very low GWP.

This provides lots of commercial opportunities for companies to modify and adapt existing refrigeration units, apply new and innovative add-on units, develop new classes of refrigerants and refrigerant blends and apply different equipment operating parameters to accommodate the new low GWP refrigerants.

Patents to save the planet

If you’re looking to capitalise on such opportunities, protecting a new development with a patent can be the key to success. A patent provides exclusivity to commercialise the inventive concept that it’s designed to cover, and can be used to protect a much wider range of developments than you might think.

For example, if an existing refrigeration system is modified for compatibility with new refrigerants and refrigerant blends, the modifications may well be patentable. A patent application could also be directed to a new device or component forming a specific part of the refrigeration system, or indeed the entire system. Additionally, the method of operating the system could be protected. Naturally, any new refrigerant compounds and blends may be protectable also.

For expert advice on refrigeration-related patent protection, feel free to get in touch with me at mmn@udl.co.uk.

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