Friday, October 28, 2016

What is an HFO?

Hydrofluoroolefins, HFOs, are a relatively new class of low global warming potential refrigerants. They are actually composed of the same chemicals found in an HFC: hydrogen, fluorine, and carbon. If you define an HFC as a chemical containing those three elements, then HFOs are actually HFCs. The difference is in how they are constructed.
HFC 134a
 Both HFCs and HFOs start out as a hydrocarbon, containing a chain of carbon atoms surrounded by hydrogen atoms. To make a traditional HFC you replace some of the hydrogen atoms with fluorine atoms. Standard hydrocarbon molecules and traditional HFC molecules are composed exclusively of single atomic bonds. You can think of an atomic bond as a type of Velcro strip holding the atoms together. Carbon has four atomic Velcro strips while hydrogen and fluorine just have one. Single bonds just attach one strip between atoms. Using only single bonds a carbon atom will connect to four other atoms because it has four bonds. Molecules constructed this way are called saturated. They have the maximum number of atoms joined together.

HFO 1234yf
What makes HFOs different is that they use a double bond between two carbon atoms. These two caron atoms are connected together with two Velcro strips instead of just one. Since carbon atoms only have four connections, using two to connect to each other means that each carbon can only connect to two other atoms besides each other. This reduces the total number of atoms that can be connected together. This type of molecular construction is called unsaturated.

Why does this make a difference? Unsaturated molecules are far less chemically stable and tend to break down easier. Since HFOs are less chemically stable, they do not survive long in the atmosphere – and so they do far less harm than the more stable saturated HFCs. The difference is dramatic. HFC 134a has a GWP of 1430 while HFO-1234yf has a GWP of 4.

However, HFOs have a design challenge to overcome: they are mildly flammable. The very instability that reduces their GWP increases their flammability. At present, building codes in the US generally do not recognize a difference between highly flammable refrigerants and mildly flammable ones. Most building codes do not allow the use of significant amounts of flammable refrigerant inside the building. ASHRAE is working on revising their Safety Standard for Refrigeration Systems,  Standard 15. It is projected to be ready by January 2018. For more information on the work being done on flammable refrigerants check out this article in Contracting Business

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