By Gabe Nelson, Crain News Service
DETROIT (Dec. 30, 2013) — A customer checking out the new Jeep Cherokee might be more intrigued by the novel nine-speed transmission than by what's inside the air conditioner compressor.
But the refrigerant flowing through the veins of the Cherokee's air conditioner, a formulation called 1234yf, might be just as crucial as the gearbox to Chrysler Group L.L.C.'s strategy for satisfying strict new environmental rules in the U.S. and Europe.
Auto companies are moving quickly to adopt 1234yf, despite its higher costs and a safety scare that raised concerns about possible toxic leaks. Regulators like it because it leads to lower greenhouse gas emissions than the chemical used in most vehicles today, which is called R134A.
Another big incentive: Vehicles that use the new refrigerant, like the Cherokee, qualify for tradable credits from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), helping them comply with new fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards that will double to the equivalent of 54.5 mpg by 2025.
"We're a strong supporter of 1234yf as the new environmentally friendly refrigerant for the industry," said Michael Rinaldi, a senior manager for HVAC systems at Chrysler.
Until recently, that switch seemed threatened by Daimler A.G.'s objections.
The auto maker stunned the industry in September 2012 with tests showing 1234yf catching fire and spewing toxic gas into the cabin of a Mercedes-Benz B-class hatchback. But the storm cloud now seems to have passed.
A study released in April by SAE International—with participation from the Detroit 3 and several Asian auto makers—concluded that 1234yf is 'safe and effective,' and went so far as to suggest that Daimler may have designed its tests to show a problem.
A second analysis, released in August by the German environmental regulator KBA, concluded the new refrigerant is somewhat riskier than R134A, but not dangerous.
Daimler's claims "caused everyone in the industry to pause and take stock, in case something had been missed," said Ken Gayer, vice president and general manager of Honeywell Fluorine Products, which holds the patents on the new refrigerant along with DuPont. 'We feel that the concerns over the use of 1234yf have been significantly assuaged through all of these findings.'
At this point, half a million vehicles on the road worldwide use 1234yf, including the Cadillac XTS and Honda Fit EV in U.S. showrooms. That number will increase rapidly in 2017, when a European mandate takes effect, so Honeywell is ramping up production. Honeywell said this month that together with its suppliers, it will invest $300 million to produce 1234yf at its chemical manufacturing facility in Geismar, La., starting in 2016.
Global warming potential
Fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions are closely linked, but the switch to 1234yf has little to do with fuel economy.
Rather, it is an effort to phase out the refrigerant R134a, which is a greenhouse gas like carbon dioxide, and can leak into the air if a vehicle is crashed or improperly repaired. R134a has a "global warming potential" of 1,430, meaning it is 1,430 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.
In the European Union, a refrigerant with a global warming potential of less than 150 is required in all new models certified after Jan. 1, 2013, under Europe's "type approval" process. Starting on Jan. 1, 2017, the mandate will cover all new passenger cars.
Dupont and Honeywell say their refrigerant has a global warming potential of 1, and an industrywide switch would be equivalent to eliminating 30 million cars' worth of greenhouse gas emissions.
2014 Jeep Cherokee
But there is a downside. While the old refrigerant costs about $5 per pound in bulk, the new one costs about 10 times as much—and it requires new equipment at car dealerships and independent tire and auto repair shops that service the air conditioners.
To entice auto makers to switch—though it's not issuing a mandate—the EPA offered credits under the fuel economy standards. That was particularly tempting to auto makers such as Chrysler, whose lineup is stocked with thirsty muscle cars and SUVs.
In addition to the Cherokee, Chrysler has started using the refrigerant in the Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger and Dodge Challenger. The Dodge Dart and Ram 1500 will follow in 2014, Mr. Rinaldi said.
Daimler, along with BMW and Volkswagen A.G., would prefer to use CO2-based air conditioning systems. A CO2 refrigerant would, by definition, have a global warming potential of 1, like 1234yf, but would be safer because it is a naturally occurring substance, these auto makers say.
"We see it as the only solution currently available that meets the strictest standards in terms of safety and climate protection," Daimler spokesman Matthias Brock wrote in an email.
But such a system likely would require higher pressure to be effective. That means the compressor would draw more power from the engine, hurting fuel economy, said Peter Coll, managing director of Neutronics, a maker of HVAC testing equipment.
Mr. Coll, who is also vice chairman of an SAE climate control committee, said he believes Daimler's objections won't stop the industrywide switch to 1234yf.
"It looks like that door is closing rapidly," he said. "There could always be another surprise, but we believe it's all coming to an end."
Auto makers are switching to a new refrigerant called 1234yf to earn EPA incentives. These U.S. models are among those confirmed to be using it:
• Cadillac XTS (2013, 2014)
• Chevrolet Spark EV (2014)
• Chrysler 300 (2014)
• Dodge Challenger (2014)
• Dodge Charger (2014)
• Honda Fit EV (2013, 2014)
• Jeep Cherokee (2014)
• Range Rover (2014)
• Range Rover Sport (2014)
Source: Auto makers
This report appeared in Automotive News, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business.