While hybrid and electric vehicles get the most attention in the green transportation arena, there are other ways to reduce the carbon footprint of a vehicle, including the refrigerant used in the air conditioning system. Beginning in 2013, General Motors will begin using a more eco-friendly refrigerant in its complete automotive lineup.

Honeywell will be producing this new refrigerant for use in GM vehicles. The new refrigerant is an HFO (hydrofluoro olefin) instead of an HFC (hydrofluorocarbon) and has a global warming potential (GWP) score of four. (Today’s most commonly used refrigerant, HFC-134a, has a GWP of over 1,400.) In addition to the lower score, HFO only remains in the atmosphere for 11 days. According to Honeywell, the HFO product’s environmental impact is 99.7 percent better than the HFC refrigerant.

Although American customers will benefit from the HFO refrigerant, European Union regulations were the impetus for this change. The EU has led the way with regulating auto-related air pollutants, and the organization’s requirement that refrigerants with a GWP of more than 150 be phased out by 2017 has been the catalyst for change in the automotive refrigerant arena.

California has a similar mandate and this has likely led GM to push ahead with the use of this new refrigerant in its domestic models. Other automakers may soon follow suit as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Environmental Investigation Agency, and IGSD have filed a petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ban HFC-134a as an acceptable automotive air conditioning refrigerant.

Last year, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) released a comprehensive report attesting to the safety of HFO use in mobile air conditioning systems like those in the automotive sector. The SAE report as well as the adoption of this technology by automakers will likely give a boost to the petition to ban HFC-134a in the automotive sector.

While the HFO product appears to be a win-win situation for automakers and the environment, there are also concerns with the product. The Automotive Recyclers Association (ARA) is concerned about HFO at the end of the automobile’s life. While the use of HFO has benefits over HFC while the vehicle is being used as intended, the ARA wants the EPA to further research the “storage, disposal, occupational hazard, internal cost associated with specialized equipment, impact on air quality, and storm water run-off requirements” of the product.

It will be a few years before we begin to see HFO use in vehicles here in the U.S., and the EPA, environmental watchdog organizations, and the auto industry will undoubtedly continue their research into the benefits and consequences of HFO use across its life cycle.

GM switching to an eco-friendlier refrigerant
GM will begin using HFO, a new more eco-friendly refrigerant in its lineup beginning in 2013.