ICI claims breakthrough with ozone-benign refrigerant

ICI is claiming a world lead in the development of an ozone-benign substitute for the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in low-temperature refrigeration and air conditioning applications. Successful commercialisation of the new chemical would also make it easier to accelerate the phase-out of HCFCs, which deplete stratospheric ozone but have been widely touted as important transitional substitutes for the CFCs.

ICI has announced that it will open a £4 million pilot plant in Widnes, Cheshire, in July to produce test quantities of HFC-32. HFCs contain no chlorine and hence will not damage the ozone layer. ICI is already producing another of these compounds, HFC-134a, at a plant in Runcorn, and is building two more full-scale production units in St Gabriel, Louisiana, and Mihara, Japan, for commissioning late in 1993.

Both chemicals are refrigerants. HFC-32 is unsuitable for use on its own because of its flammability, but ICI says it has made a breakthrough in developing blends with HFC-134a which are suitable for low-temperature applications in the food and drink, retail and transport sectors.

Until now, the main alternatives to CFCs in these areas have been perceived to be traditional coolants such as ammonia, or the HCFCs. The latter have lower ozone depletion potentials than the CFCs, but in some cases these seriously understate the contribution HCFCs could make to ozone depletion in the next few critical years (ENDS Report 198, pp 3-4), when the damage to the ozone layer will be at its peak.

As a result, the need for controls on the HCFCs is now a key issue in negotiations which will result in amendments to the Montreal Protocol, the global agreement which regulates ozone-depleting chemicals, in November. In April, the EC proposed that the chemicals should be subject to a consumption cap and a phase-out date, and confined to "essential" uses (ENDS Report 207, pp 36-7 ).

ICI's announcement just happened to come a few days before the international discussions on the Montreal Protocol resume in Geneva. The company says HFC-32 could be ready for full-scale production in the mid-1990s, subject to the results of application testing and further toxicity tests. ICI produces only one HCFC and will be happy to see competitors who have invested more heavily in the chemicals subjected to tight controls by amendments to the Protocol.

The need for a breakthrough in the substitution of HCFCs has been underscored by a study for the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) by Coopers & Lybrand. A summary of the findings was released in June.

The consultants concluded that UK demand for the HCFCs could grow at more than 10% per year unless potential users in the low-temperature refrigeration, air conditioning and insulation foam sectors are deterred. Curbs on their consumption appear particularly desirable in the industrial refrigeration sector, where "there is some evidence of a lack of awareness or willingness to contemplate adjustment despite the existence of alternatives," the report says.

Meanwhile, two studies have been commissioned by the Government to help it prepare its position for the November meeting on the Montreal Protocol.

One study, to be carried out for the DTI by Touche Ross, will examine the current and future pattern of use of ozone-depleting chemicals in solvent cleaning, identify areas where alternatives are not available, and assess how much of the future demand can be met by recycling. The second is being sponsored by the Department of the Environment and conducted by March Consulting. It has the same brief in respect of the refrigeration and air conditioning industries.

The Government also disclosed in June that it is discussing how to encourage the recycling of halons with users and the fire industry. Until now it has taken a hands-off approach to the issue, despite recommendations by a consultancy that steps to promote the establishment of a halon "bank" are needed to assure a continued supply of the chemicals for "essential" uses once production ends (ENDS Report 204, p 6 ). ICI announced on 19 June that it will close its last halon facility by the end of 1993, and could do so earlier if a halon bank is set up. The same issue will force itself on the agenda for other ozone-depleting chemicals as controls on their use are tightened.

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