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Special Report

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Author(s): Malika Kumar
Jun 30, 1996 | From the print edition
A new climate-friendly and non-CFC technology proposed for refrigerators may broaden the prospect of North-South cooperation regarding chlorofluorocarbon phase-out

A non-CFC refrigerator: the co WITH the deadline to phase out ozone
depleting substances (ODS) of the industrialised nations of the world already
getting over, the countdown for developing nations has begun. As if to signal
the urgency, an international conference on eco -refrigeration - fridges
using chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) substitutes - was held in New Delhi this
February.

The "Ecofrig Project" is set to commercialise ozone-friendly, climate-friendly and energy- efficient refrigeration technologies based on hydrocarbons - a natural fluid. In 1991,
Switzerland had launched a global environmental fund intended inter-alia to
support North-South technology cooperation for sustainable development.
This was followed by the Swiss
Development Cooperation initiating
the Ecofrig Project in 1992, through
information dissemination on
CFC phase-out options in the
refrigeration sector and highlighting the importance and
urgency of converting to natural fluid-based refrigeration
technologies.

The Ecofrig project, therefore, takes the Montreal
Protocol process a step further
towards the broader objectives
of sustainable development.
Since the industry in Germany
is in the forefront for developing ozone-and climate- friendly
technologies in domestic
refrigeration, the BMZ (German
ministry of economic cooperation) has also undertaken the
task of promoting these technologies through inter-government bilateral agreements. The
GTZ (German agency for technical cooperation) has been
commissioned by the BMZ to
implement, among other measures, such a project in cooperation with the government of India.

Warm prospects
Ecofrig is a new type of North-South
cooperation project wherein research
institutes and private sector companies
from the South directly cooperate with
research institutes and private sector
companies of the North. The project
will facilitate the industry partners to
prepare investment projects for seeking
grants from the Multilateral Fund of the
the Montreal Protocol to finance the
conversion Of CFC-based refrigerator
manufacturing to a non-CFC, ozone-
friendly, and as well as climate -friendly
alternative.

Considering the dramatic growth
of India's refrigeration appliances market, it is of paramount importance for
energy optimisation when converting to
non-CFC technologies. The refrigerants
used so far in vapour compression
cycles were mainly CFC- 12, CFC-502, and
HCFC (hydrochlorofluorocarbon)-22.
The first two would be replaced in
developing countries untill AD 2010,
while the latter will be phased out in
developing countries by AD 2040.

For substituting these ODS in the
domestic refrigerator, there are two
main options available: an earlier one,
HFC 134a; and a newer one, the hydrocarbon isobutane. At present, the opinion is divided. While the us and Japan
seem to opt for HTC 134a, the European
industry is switching to isobutane.
Japan has very recently, however, started showing interest in the hydrocarbon
technology.

The hydrocarbon technology offers
global,, national and enterprise advantages. The primary advantage of the
hydrocarbon technology is that it has no
ozone depleting effect, which is the prerequisite of all CFCs.

There would be no global warming
effect attributable to the hydrocarbon
@technology which was the start
ling point of the whole hydro
carbon movement. This is
because HFC 134a will ultimately be phased out at a later
period due to its GWP (global
warming potential). Also, 134a
still contains fluorine, which is
the most reactive of all elements and forms the strongest
acid known. The physical properties of isobutane hydrocarbon refrigerators make for
quiet, 'whispering' refrigerators
- an additional marketing
aspect favoured in Europe.

Isobutane manufacture
does not require a complex
and costly technology transfer
to a developing country. The
manufacturing process is easy.
It is also a component of hydrocarbon propellant for aerosols
as a replacement to CFCs, and
so, in view of the certainty of
market demand, its price is not
expected to be very high.

The most convincing argument,
however, is the reliability of this system,
which will have fewer compressor failures. But hydrocarbon compressors are
said to run 'forever' and is relatively
simple to adopt in comparison to
'chemicals'. Here is the chance for any
company to set engineering consultang
for other countries as soon as they
have been through the processes themselves. The only disadvantage of hydrocarbons is their flammability, which
requires careful designing and thorough
employee and service sector training,
which the European refrigerator
industry has proved to be viable.

Definitely, the world has learned to
live with similar systems where gas has
been found to escape freely. For
instance, it could be the apparently
harmless and ordinary cigarette lighter!
No one really worries about the flammability of a cigarette lighter which is
carried in pockets or handbags where
these objects bounce around more
than a kitchen fridge does. But, according to experts, this very disadvantage of
flammability can be used positively.

To be or not to be

But then, there are several issues in this
technology which are of concern.
Firstly, the process of converting our
existing refrigeration equipment to
non-CFC is proving to be both slower
and costlier than anticipated. In fact,
much of the international funding for
CFC conversion is going back to donor
countries in the form of technology fees
or higher cost of refrigerants and lubricants that the non-CFC equipment will
require. The actual financial assistance
received through the Montreal Protocol
tends to be exaggerated. Presently, no
precise index on the ~osts for conversion to HFC 134a on the one hand, or to
hydrocarbons on the other hand, can be
given. The main costs for the conversion
to hydrocarbons are safety costs, which
in turn, is highly dependent on the local
situation.

There may be significant savings in
component production due to the low
amount of changes necessary when
using isobutane, while for the use of HFC
134a, significant changes are necessary
in the production process to avoid
humidity and the presence of certain
contaminating substances. A look at the
largest implementing agency of the
Montreal Protocol Multilateral Fund-the World Bank (WB) -reveals that it
has a portfolio nearing us $200 million.
Investment proiects currently under
implementation through the WB are
designed to phase out 40,000 tonnes of ODS in 25
countries in 200 enterprise-level activities.

The second cause for
concern stems from the
fact that a large number of
producers of refrigeration
equipment, particularly
those in the us and Japan,
are committed to using
synthetic chemicals and -
not hydrocarbons as
refrigerants. Products
using such refrigerants have gained wide acceptance in India
and other developing countries and so,
in such an environment, it would be
difficult for the switch-over to take place
from the marketing and servicing point
of view.

Thirdly, again as a result of intensive
marketing effort principally by overseas
producers and their representatives, the
frost-free refrigerator is gaining wide
acceptance in India and other developing countries. Till such time as products
using hydrocarbon refrigerants are
available at the same cost with similar
facilities and of similar size as units
using synthetic chemicals, any manufacturer seeking to use hydrocarbons
would be disadvantaged.

Fourthly, air-conditioning and
refrigeration of transportation equipment is now gaining popularity. It is
important that refrigerants to be used in
these applications should be determined
as quickly as possible. In 1993-94,
Indian refrigerator manufacturers
Godrej and Voltas, in cooperation with
the German hydrocarbon pioneer,
Foron, redesigned their refrigerators on
an experimental basis, and gained initial
knowledge of hydrocarbon refrigeration. In the present phase, these two
industry partners are cooperating with
the German refrigerator manufacturer
Liebherr to specify the design for their
compressors and refrigerators using
isobutane as refrigerant, especially, for
the frost-free technology.

At the same time, a number of tests
(compressor life tests, calorimeter tests)
are being carried out by European and
Indian research institutions, including
both Voltas and Gddrej. In several countries all over the world, the hydrocarbon refrigerator is today the state-of-the-art gadget, whose total production is around four to five million units, with Danfoss of Germany as the leading manufacturer, with approxi-
mately 2.5 million hydrocarbon compressors in
1995.

What's cooling here?

A look at the Indian
industry shows that the
switch-over to either
hydrocarbons or HFC 134a
will take place by AD 2005.
So far, Kelvinator (a part
of Whirpool home appliances) is the only refrigerator manufacturer that has publicly announced its
decision to switch to HFC 134a. Others
are still reluctant to enter the manufacturing process as they doubt the safety
aspect of these fridges.

However, the problem lies not in
the technology, but rather in the servicing aspect of the hydrocarbon fridges. It
is all very well for a country like
Germany to proclaim a zero-accident
rate, as it has a superbly organised refrigeration sector. And moreover, Germany
does not have a policy of repair -there
is only a policy of replacement.

This, anyway, takes an entirely new
turn in the case of India, where the
refrigeration sector is largely unorganised. Thus, servicing flammable
hydrocarbon fridges could pose a hell
lot of difficulties: it could very well
result in the case of these fridges getting
blown up, causing damage to life and
property. Currently, the Indian industry
is in the process of submitting its proposals to the WB in order to obtain the
requisite financial assistance which has
been promised by the latter.

Looking at the entire scenario, one
feels, now that the ODS are being phased
out, a number of new alternatives
will emerge -a latest one being the
very convenient thermoelectric (TE)
chip-based fridge. In the case of the TE
technology, heat is pumped out through
electronic means without using any
compressor, condensers, coils or freon
gas. The chip would be guaranteed for
five years under normal use, but as there
is no wear and tear, life expectancy of
theTE chip-based refrigerator is almost
infinite.

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