With government ambitions for 600,000 heat pump installations by 2028 and 1.9 million a year by 2035, the industry needs to explore technologies using alternative refrigerants with low Global Warming Potential (GWP) to fulfil such targets more safely. Noteworthy manufacturers have taken a proactive stance in this evolving landscape, by incorporating such advanced technologies into their portfolios. 

For a considerable time, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) have been widely employed as refrigerants for heat pumps due to their non-toxic nature, zero Ozone Depletion Potential (ODP), optimal boiling points, low toxicity, and limited flammability. However, HFCs have high GWP, substantially contributing to climate change, which amplifies concerns related to global warming. 

As a response, alternative refrigerants, such as hydrocarbons (HCs), hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs), and natural refrigerants, have emerged as more environmentally responsible substitutes. These alternatives possess a significantly lower GWP, crucial in steering the industry towards a more sustainable, carbon-conscious future. 

Transition to alternatives

A dynamic blend of environmental awareness, regulatory enforcement, and technological innovation underpins this transition from HFCs to alternative refrigerants. While HFCs have demonstrated utility as refrigerants due to their favourable thermodynamic properties, the unintended consequence of their high GWP has spurred a search for more benign alternatives.

Hydrocarbons, known for their heat transfer properties and low environmental impact, represent a promising alternative. Propane (R290) and isobutane (R600a) are part of that group, offering negligible GWP and zero ODP values. However, their flammability has necessitated the careful consideration of safety measures across product design, transport, installation, service, and end-of-life decommissioning. 

Another route lies with natural refrigerants, such as carbon dioxide (R744) and ammonia (R717). With a GWP of 1 and abundant resources, CO2 is now widely used for heat pumps and cooling systems. However, due to the higher system pressures of working with CO2, engineers and end-users must work carefully to set guidelines to ensure safety. CO2 equipment can also be heavy – around 40% more than a hydrocarbon system with a matching kW output. 

These refrigerants are not new but are resurging in popularity due to their minimal environmental impact. 

F-Gas regulations

The F-Gas regulations, instituted by the European Union on 1 January 2015, stands as a pivotal milestone in mitigating the environmental impact of fluorinated greenhouse gases, bringing about significant change.

Firstly, F-Gas refrigerants are measured in tonnes of CO2 equivalent instead of weight (kg). CO2 equivalent measures how much a gas contributes to global warming relative to carbon dioxide. This method now considers the GWP value of each refrigerant. For example, R290 has a GWP value of 3.

Secondly, the F-Gas regulation enforces a phase-down of HFCs, progressively restricting their production and usage, and expediting the adoption of alternative refrigerants. The allocation of HFC quotas to manufacturers and importers outlines a phase-down trajectory of 79% from 2015 to 2030, with current proposals looking at a 95% reduction by 2030. 

These measures result in a pressing demand for innovative equipment that employs low GWP refrigerants, compelling industry leaders, such as Panasonic Heating & Cooling, to pioneer sustainable and forward-looking technologies.

F-Gas regulations also mandate the recovery and reclamation of refrigerants. By embracing the principles of the circular economy and facilitating the correct recovery practices, we can substantially reduce the release of HFCs into the atmosphere, thereby mitigating their contribution to the greenhouse effect. This approach also facilitates the reclamation of ‘old’ refrigerants, transforming them into new virgin refrigerants for the base charge of novel systems. 

As each milestone of the F-Gas phase-down is reached, our industry faces new challenges. The UK market faces uncertain times, with further trials arising from the current EU proposal. 

Engineer readiness

With the advent of new regulations and the rapid integration of alternative refrigerants, the role of engineers has assumed heightened significance, and education, training, and upskilling are vital. 

Although these alternative refrigerants possess lower GWP values, many exhibit flammability, high running pressures, and toxicity, and therefore necessitate cautious handling, installation, and maintenance to ensure the safety of both engineers and end-users. As high GWP refrigerants are phased out, transitioning to new, environmentally friendly alternatives demands specialised expertise and continuous training for engineers.

Engineers must keep up to date with shifting technologies, safety protocols, and emerging best practices. As such, ongoing professional development initiatives and training sessions are vital to enhance qualifications and competencies. 

Recognising this imperative, Panasonic places great importance on supporting engineers in their pursuit of knowledge, offering comprehensive training programmes to empower them with the skills required to handle contemporary refrigerants.

A transformative trajectory

The integration of alternative refrigerants is well underway across systems for many manufacturers, including Panasonic which manufactures both R32 and R290 heat pumps.

Amid this rapid evolution, engineers assume a pivotal role as key participants in this transformative journey. Their expertise in efficient system design, secure handling of new refrigerants, and adept installation ensures the realisation of an eco-friendly and enduringly sustainable industry future. With the unwavering support of leading manufacturers, engineers are poised to stay well-informed and well-equipped to embrace the challenges and prospects presented by the evolving landscape.

Monumental shift

In conclusion, the current evolution of the heat pump industry is characterised by a monumental shift towards alternative refrigerants driven by environmental concerns and regulatory imperatives, as well as the drive for net-zero globally.

The journey from conventional HFCs to environmentally friendly alternatives like hydrocarbons and natural refrigerants signifies a remarkable transformation aimed at reducing the industry’s carbon footprint and mitigating climate change.

The F-Gas regulation is a cornerstone of this transition, propelling the industry towards lower GWP refrigerants through phase-downs and recovery initiatives. These regulations not only minimise environmental impact but also foster innovation and the development of sustainable technologies.

In this evolving landscape, the role of engineers emerges as pivotal. Their expertise and commitment to ongoing education are instrumental in ensuring alternative refrigerants’ safe and effective adoption. As the industry continues to embrace change, engineers equipped with updated qualifications and skills are poised to lead the way towards a greener and more sustainable future.

Ultimately, the confluence of regulatory action, technological innovation, and engineering expertise holds the potential to revolutionise the industry. Through collaborative efforts and a collective commitment to responsible practices, we can pave the way for a future where refrigeration and heat pump systems contribute to a healthier planet and a brighter tomorrow.