Recycling could significantly cut down emissions from HFC production

A team of researchers estimated that with 30% of recycled refrigerants in the annual output, CO2 emissions from the production of R134a could be reduced by about a quarter. 

According to a technical report on refrigerant market trends, China and the United States are the major producers of R134a HFC. Chinese companies produced 153,000 tons of R134a in 2019 and about 165,000 tons in 2020 while the United States produces roughly 100,000 tons of R134a annually. [1, 2] 


Refrigerants contribute to the greenhouse effect when they are discharged into the atmosphere. R134a is a common fluorinated greenhouse gas (F-gas), widely used in automobile air-conditioning and refrigeration systems. The global warming potential (GWP) of 1 kg of R134a directly discharged into the atmosphere without any treatment is equivalent to the greenhouse effect of releasing 1360 kg of CO2 at the same time. According to the UNEP RTOC report, there has been an increasing emphasis on conservation of refrigerants and the reduction of emissions that has led the industry to develop a specific terminology. The process of refrigerant recycling actually includes several steps: recover, recycle, reclaim, destroy. [3] 


Reduction in emissions through refrigerant recycling [4, 5] 


Researchers at the Institute of Refrigeration and Cryogenics in Shanghai, China, calculated the energy consumption and carbon emissions in the production process of R134a using data from a Chinese refrigerant manufacturer. [4] They found that for every ton of R134a refrigerant produced, the direct and indirect energy consumption of the production process causes 15.9 tons of CO2 emissions. 


According to the researchers, using a Beomseok refrigerant recovery machine (model BSE-1500A), the emission factor of electric energy would be 1.35 kg CO2 eq/kWh, and the regeneration of one ton of refrigerant would cause 0.188 CO2 emissions per ton equivalent. Based on these calculations, they estimated that if all the refrigerants produced in one year were recycled, CO2 emissions from refrigerant production could be reduced by 98.9%. 


However, not all refrigerants produced in the year can be recycled and reused. In 2019, China produced 153,000 tons of R134a. When considering a production quota entirely composed of newly produced refrigerants, the carbon emissions are estimated to be 2.432 million tons. If the annual output of R134a is composed of 107,000 tons of newly produced refrigerants and 46,000 tons of recycled refrigerants, the estimated carbon emissions are 1.849 million tons. Simply put, with 30% recycled refrigerants in the annual output, carbon emissions from R134a production could be cut down by about a quarter. 


Another team of researchers performed a life cycle assessment showing an 86% reduction in GWP when recovering R32 from the commercial R407F mixture, compared with the production of fresh R32. [5] 




[1] Booten, C. W., Nicholson, S. R., Mann, M. K., & Abdelaziz, O. (2020). Refrigerants: market trends and supply chain assessment (No. NREL/TP-5500-70207). National Renewable Energy Lab.(NREL), Golden, CO (United States). 

[2] ChinaIOL. 2021. Beijing Zhixindao Sci-Tech Corp., Ltd. Beijing, China.

[3] UNEP, « Refrigeration, Air Conditioning and Heat Pumps Technical Options Committee (RTOC) 2018 Assessment Report », 2018.

[4] Wang, H., Wang, Y., Mi, H., Zang, J., & Wang, S. (2022). Analysis of Carbon Emission Energy Inventory from Refrigerant Production and Recycling Carbon Compensation. Applied Sciences, 12(1), 1. 

[5] Jovell D, Pou JO, Llovell F, Gonzalez-Olmos R. Life Cycle Assessment of the Separation and Recycling of Fluorinated Gases Using Ionic Liquids in a Circular Economy Framework. ACS Sustain Chem Eng. 2022 Jan 10;10(1):71-80.