A-Gas is now 25 years old, having started out in 1994 in the UK before rolling out its lifecycle management offering for refrigerants, industrial gases, fire suppressants and blowing agents into the European, Australian and South African markets.
“We have been expanding into other countries for several years, most recently, into the US, where we now look after the Halon bank of the USA,” says Labacher. “A‑Gas now offers complete lifecycle management of all halon stocks across the US.”
He says that halon is widely used in the aviation industry as a fire suppressant in aircraft, but its manufacture was banned in 1989 due to its high ozone depleting potential. “Halon banking is now done to cover future requirements with aircraft operators, who use our bespoke service to meet their future needs and ensure business continuity. Across the US, we collect halon from aeroplanes being decommissioned and supply it back into the aviation industry as recertified bulk product,” Labacher explains.
Having joined A-Gas from Afrox in 2009, Mike Labacher has seen significant changes in the specialist gas market over the years. “Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) began to be phased out in the 1990s following the signing of the Montreal Protocol, a global agreement to protect the ozone layer by phasing out the manufacture and use of ozone-depleting substances (ODS).
CFCs were replaced in refrigeration systems by R22 or HFCs (difluoromonochloromethane; CHClF2) but these are also now being phased out because they still have one chlorine molecule. Ultra-violet rays in the upper atmosphere provide enough energy to break up these molecules, releasing the chlorine molecules, which immediately triggers the breakdown of ozone (O3) into
oxygen gas (O2).
“Today in South Africa, the HCFC R22 is still the most common refrigerant in use. We are in year four of the phase down period, which commits us to a 5% per year reduction of any new imports. This will take place until 2030 and from then on, only 2.5% – based on imports in the 2009/2010 base year – will be allowed for use in critical applications,” Labacher tells MechChem Africa.
“We are currently importing 25% less than we were in the base year, which means R22 is getting scarce,” he adds
The replacement for HCFCs? “Originally, HFCs such as R134A, R404A and R410A were used, which are chlorine and ozone depletion free. Unfortunately, these are now also out of favour because of their relatively high global warming potential: R134a is a greenhouse gas with global warming potential (GWP) of 1 300, which means that 1 ton of it is equivalent to 1 300 tons of CO2,” he responds, adding that Europe has realised this and is now phasing out HFCs with GWPs higher than 2 500, most notably, 404 and 507.
“South Africa is a signatory to the 2016 Kigali agreement, which came into full force on January 1, 2019. This commits us to phase out greenhouse gases including HFCs from 2020. We are trying to convince our government and industry to bypass refrigerants such as R404 and R507 and go directly to the next family of refrigerants, HFOs or hydrofluoro olefins (GWP under 6) and HFO blends, (which typically have a GWP of below 1200),” he says.
Talking about natural refrigerants, Labacher says that these have been around for many years but they have drawbacks. “Hydrocarbons such as propane and iso-butane (R290 and R600a) are highly flammable while ammonia is toxic and CO2 requires high pressures systems. Most of these were banned or out of favour at one time or another, but they are now believed to be better for the environment than those currently in widespread use,” he notes, adding, “they are being used again, but problems remain, particularly from a safe handling perspective in the aftermarket.”
New variants of the hydrocarbon refrigerants are now coming into mainstream use in the European automotive sector. “The target in Europe is a GWP of under 150 and the automotive sector has begun to use a mildly flammable HFO 1234YF refrigerant for its air conditioning systems to replace R134a. This HFO has a global warming potential of less than 1 and, while mildly flammable, it’s not explosive, even when deliberately ignited with a flame.
“It is currently quite expensive, though. R1234YF costs around R2 500 to R3 000 per kg, compared to R134a costs of only R100 to R150 per kg,” he notes.
All imported cars are now being fitted with HFO-based systems and A-Gas is already supplying these modern refrigerants to the local OEMs manufacturing for export markets. “We also supply them into the high-end aftermarket to dealers servicing imported vehicles,” he says.
When asked about the adoption of air conditioning and chiller systems that incorporate modern refrigerants and technologies, Labacher says contractors and end users still need to be educated to take the long-term view. “To contractors, costs of refrigerants and systems govern their choices. They tend to choose the cheapest gas possible so as to deliver the most competitive quote to customers.
“Because HFOs are much higher efficiency refrigerants, systems that use them are much cheaper to run, which is a huge benefit to end users and owners. Systems are often not sold on energy or lifecycle costs, though, particularly in tight economic times. We are struggling with this, trying to train the whole industry to take a longer term view, for the benefit of their own pockets and the environment,” Labacher says.
Case studies from the two principle manufactures of HFOs, Honeywell and Chemours, suggest that the payback period on these more expensive refrigerants is very short, less than two to three years. “And if installed correctly and well maintained to keep them leak free, these HFOs can keep a system running efficiently for 10 to 15 years – and even longer in South Africa,” he says.
“End users need to be better informed about the real value of both efficient modern systems and good maintenance. In Europe, supermarkets and commercial building owners are starting to leave the ownership and maintenance responsibility in the hands of refrigeration contractors. They then buy chilling as a service, based on COP data,” Labacher tells MechChem Africa.
“This model ensures the contractor is incentivised to adopt the most efficient and reliable solution possible to enable both parties to obtain the most value from the asset. We have some way to go before that can happen here, but it may be a good way to pick up our standards again,” he concludes.