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Common Refrigerants

Although there are many substances classified as refrigerants by ASHRAE Standard 34, only a handful are used for commercial air conditioning. Following is quick a rundown of the common refrigerant groups that are either in use or have been used in the past. Table 1 provides technical data on common refrigerants.

Water, R-718

Most refrigeration processes use either an absorption cycle or a vapor compression cycle. Commercial absorption cycles typically use water as the refrigerant with a salt solution such as Lithium Bromide as the absorbent.

Water is non toxic, non-flammable, abundant etc. It is a natural refrigerant. The challenge for absorption chillers is that even a double-effect absorption cycle only has a COP (Coefficient Of Performance) slightly greater than 1 (Centrifugal chillers have COPs greater than 5). From a life cycle analysis point of view, absorption chillers require a thorough investigation to determine whether they offer a financially viable solution. Software programs such as McQuay’s Energy Analyzer™ can be used for this analysis. From an environmental point of view, the use of water as a refrigerant generally, is very good. The low COP might indicate that larger amount of fossil fuels will be required to operate an absorption chiller over a centrifugal chiller. This is not guaranteed however, since absorption chillers use fossil fuels directly, while electric chillers operate on electricity, a secondary energy source. The choice of which to use will be affected by how the electricity is actually generated.

Ammonia, R-717

Ammonia (NH3) is a natural refrigerant and considered to be one of the most efficient. It is one of the only “original” refrigerants still in use today. It is used in vapor compression processes, typically with positive displacement compressors. ASHRAE Standard 34 classifies it as a B2 refrigerant (higher toxicity – lower flammability). ASHRAE Standard 15 requires special safety considerations for Ammonia refrigeration plants. Ammonia is mostly used in industrial applications, although there are many large commercial air conditioning installations that utilize it as well.

Carbon Dioxide, R-744

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a natural refrigerant. Its use was phased out at the turn of the century, but new research aimed at using it again is currently under way. It is used in vapor compression processes with positive displacement compressors. The required condensing pressure is over 900 psig at 90°F, which is a challenge. Also, the critical point is very low and efficiency is poor. Still, there may be applications, such as cascade refrigeration, where CO2 will be useful.

Application Guide AG 31-007