As U.S. EPA announces new commitments to cut potent greenhouse gases, the Department of Energy is highlighting all the ways emitters can meet those goals.

The rules proposed yesterday at the White House target hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a class of chemicals used in air conditioning, foams and refrigeration (E&ENews PM, Oct. 15). These chemicals can be tens of thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide in trapping heat, so even small amounts leaking into the atmosphere could have an outsized impact on the climate.

On the other hand, tiny reductions in HFC emissions could put a big dent in the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. “[The new commitments] will reduce consumption of HFCs by the equivalent of 1 billion tons of CO2 between now and 2025,” said White House energy and climate adviser Dan Utech. “That’s the equivalent of taking 210 million cars off the road.”

Some of the proposed regulations include procedures for cutting HFC leaks in the supply chain, from manufacturing and handling all the way to recovery and recycling.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said that HFCs are an important target because their use is going up as the hotter, more crowded parts of the world start earning enough to buy air conditioners and run refrigerators. Getting U.S. manufacturers to come up with ways to keep people cool while using less HFCs and energy could spur other nations to act.

“The message is not to force reductions, but to encourage reductions,” she said.

On a windy plaza under the Forrestal Building in Washington, D.C., several companies presented their strategies for cutting HFC use. Tactics include using alternative refrigerants that trap less heat and improving efficiency in coolers.

Thermo Fisher Scientific presented a laboratory refrigerator that chills samples to minus 86 degrees Celsius. “This holds someone’s life’s work,” explained Chris Champlin, vice president and general manager for controlled temperature technologies at Thermo Fisher, gesturing to an imposing off-white steel box.

“The value is typically between $2 [million] and $5 million in what goes inside of one of these. People get very concerned about messing around with your life’s work when you’re having to quickly meet regulatory requirements,” he added.

Building a lower-emissions refrigerator
Though efficiency often comes as a secondary priority in laboratories that have to store tissue samples and cell cultures, Champlin noted that his company has driven the refrigerator’s energy consumption down from 28 kilowatt-hours a day—more than a typical house—to 9 kWh per day, without sacrificing performance or reliability.

Other researchers are experimenting with using carbon dioxide as the refrigerant, turning the perennial climate change villain into the hero.

Omar Abdelaziz, group leader in building equipment research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, noted that using carbon dioxide instead of conventional refrigerants could also reduce energy use by 39 percent in cooling systems.

However, using carbon dioxide can be more costly, and companies weren’t able to solve some of the engineering challenges until recently. “It requires high pressure,” Abdelaziz said. “There are issues with efficiency you don’t control with the [thermal] charge.”

Another target is fire-extinguishing foams. Data centers and other electronics facilities use foams to snuff out flames without damaging electronics, but these substances often use HFCs. SEVO Systems presented its HFC-free fire suppression fluid in a glass tank, which Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz tested by dropping his phone into the clear liquid.

Moniz said that curbing HFC use worldwide could prevent up to .5 C in temperature increases. “Let’s face it: We have a tough road ahead to get down to 2 degrees. This is a half of a degree, so it’s a big deal,” he said.

EPA has now posted its HFC proposal and will take comments for 60 days. The rule will be finalized in 2016.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500