Taking refrigeration back to the future

23 May 2023

Natural refrigerants to protect ozone layer

With polar ice caps and glaciers melting, rising sea levels and entire coastlines under threat because of global warming, natural refrigerants offer minimal environmental impact in industrial applications. And, with Europe signposting an almost complete move away from traditionally used gases, ammonia, hydrocarbon and carbon dioxide refrigerants offer the most energy efficient and cost-saving alternatives to their synthetic counterparts.

Tackling climate change is a massive challenge. Synthetic refrigerants such as fluorocarbon gases (F-gases) — including chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) — all damage the ozone layer and have a high global warming potential (GWP). To reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, synthetic refrigerants need to be replaced, especially by companies in the food, beverage and pharmaceutical sectors that have high energy demands. 

GEA is at the forefront of technological solutions that use alternative natural refrigerants to meet environmental targets and phase out F-gases. Of note, the European Parliament has now voted to put further F-gas regulation amendments in place that will see an outright ban on fluorinated gases in refrigeration, air conditioning and heat pump equipment in the next 5 years.

Led by the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Safety (ENVI), these ambitious targets to eliminate F-gases signify Europe’s drive to be climate neutral by 2050. Industries need to adopt natural refrigerants to comply with these regulations, especially with next-generation refrigerants such as HFOs that break down into per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) also scheduled to be banned.1

One of the most imminent embargoes applies to stationary refrigerators and freezers for commercial use (self-contained equipment) — which is due to come into force as soon as 1 January 2024 — with other classes of equipment following in subsequent Januarys until 2028. GEA is helping companies to switch to natural refrigerants to cut their GHG emissions (Kyoto Protocol) and protect the ozone layer (Montreal Protocol) by discontinuing the use of F-gases and meeting the 1 January 2028 deadline. An EU spokesperson has commented: “Stationary refrigeration no longer requires the use of fluorinated greenhouse gases as there is an abundance of natural refrigerant alternatives available.”2

Low-charge refrigerants offer low-cost chilling capacity

For the above-mentioned applications, ammonia is the go-to natural refrigerant; in fact, it’s already replacing those that are being phased out. Most cooling systems that use synthetic refrigerants can be converted to natural refrigerants that are environmentally friendly and have no impact on global warming or ozone depletion.

“Beyond any doubt, it is better to invest in natural refrigerant-based systems that will last for decades — and comply with EU regulations — rather than rely on the short-lived synthetic alternatives.” David Blankley, Director Management for Advanced Refrigeration, GEA Heating & Refrigeration Technologies.

David Blankley, Director Management for Advanced Refrigeration, GEA Heating & Refrigeration Technologies.

Proven refrigeration and heating technology can be tailored to provide innovative solutions using ammonia that are sufficiently robust to fit any application, whether it’s for cooling in a brewery or for the dairy pasteurization process. Ammonia is the most cost-effective and efficient option for all types of industrial equipment and is already used as a refrigerant in many fields of industrial refrigeration.

Why make ammonia your first-choice natural refrigerant?

Ammonia could be described as a back to the future gas. It’s nothing new and has been around for a very long time; yet it’s a very modern solution. Low charge ammonia is the modern term for low-pressure technology with a much-reduced total cost of ownership, which has evolved to meet the demands of the 21st century. 

Ammonia is completely carbon neutral and, as such, is the perfect — and sustainable — alternative to other refrigerants. It is also up to 40 percent more efficient in thermodynamic terms, making it particularly suitable for heat pump applications (another sustainable technology that GEA is investigating). Moreover, ammonia contributes to lower carbon dioxide emissions in a wide range of processes while offering high-performance, energy efficient cooling and heating solutions.

Ammonia (R717, NH3)00
Carbon dioxide (R744, CO2)01
Hydrocarbons, e.g. propane (R290) or isobutane (R600a)03
For comparsion: R134a01430

Traditional ammonia installations are considered to be an obvious choice in regions such as Europe, the Far East and the United States as more food manufacturers, distribution centers and retailers with refrigeration systems join the trend. Recent figures for low charge ammonia installations in 2021 showed year-on-year growth rates of 11 percent, 13 percent and 24 percent in Europe, the US and Japan, respectively (source ATMO Report).

Safety is a key factor for GEA

GEA has been working with ammonia-based systems for more than one hundred years. And whereas some users might have concerns about using these alternative refrigerants, they can rest assured that experienced companies such as GEA can expertly install all the necessary safety and ventilation equipment to comply with local regulations. Furthermore, our fully qualified and trained service teams will ensure that your equipment is maintained to the highest possible standards.

Positive growth in ammonia explained

Patrick Ackens, Senior Vice-President, Sales, at GEA, explains why ammonia is the best solution for industrial refrigeration and why businesses should be using it as an effective, natural replacement for synthetic refrigerants. “Ammonia is found in nature and it’s one of the cheapest refrigerants available. Not synthetic or a process by-product, it’s also ozone and climate friendly with zero GWP. As a future-proof natural refrigerant, ammonia has also a long lifespan; as such, it’s a great investment compared with other refrigerants that may last just 10 years or so. If you invest in ammonia, your outlay is safe for the next 30–40 years or even more.”

Ammonia: the best bet to meet environmental obligations

From land to sea and from factories to district heating systems, ammonia-based, heating and cooling systems can be used almost anywhere. For example, GEA has delivered multiple projects featuring natural refrigerants to freeze, preserve and store seafood onboard fishing vessels! In sectors including food, marine and pharmaceuticals, GEA delivers energy efficient systems that offer up to double-digit percent better performance than other synthetic refrigerants, which also results in a significantly lower energy bill — one of the highest cost drivers for an operating system. 

Furthermore, ammonia’s versatility at a wide range of temperatures is now unlocking new opportunities beyond its traditional markets. It performs better than other refrigerants as it provides the same cooling with less power consumption and decreased system costs.

Considering the EU’s ambitious new targets, organizations have nothing to lose and everything to gain from adopting advanced natural refrigeration technologies. Ammonia is not only cheap and safe, it is also the best choice to further reduce running costs and emissions. Ultimately, GEA can help any business to reach its sustainability targets as part of its mission: Engineering for a better world.


What is ammonia?

Isolated in the 18th century, but known since ancient Greek times, ammonia (NH3) has long been associated with its distinctively pungent odor. This naturally occurring gas is colorless, toxic and generally produced by the anaerobic decay of plant and animal matter. It has, however, also been detected in outer space. It’s chemical composition as an inorganic compound of nitrogen and hydrogen was determined in 1785 and, in 1807, ammonia was first produced from its elements by Humphry Davy. Ammonia was first used as a refrigerant in the 1850s in France and was used in the US in the 1860s for artificial ice production. The first patents for ammonia refrigeration machines were filed in the 1870s.

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