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A shift in car air conditioning technology – Carbon Dioxide Refrigerant

As we head into 2016, predictions for the year ahead in the car air conditioning and vehicle manufacturing industry abound. One new innovation that is quickly gaining industry buzz is the carbon dioxide refrigerant, known as R744, utilised in the air conditioning system in Mercedes Benz’s newest model, the 2017 E-class.

Mercedes Benz 2017 E-Class – a new paradigm

This new model, set to debut this year, features a slew of sexy new tech innovations that are sure to appear in flashy marketing materials and polished television adverts galore: self driving capabilities, electronic safety aids and wireless technologies. That said, it is doubtful that any of these marketing campaigns will focus on the sea change happening in the car air conditioning unit: the move to a carbon dioxide refrigerant.

While this may seem like small and insignificant detail to many car buyers, the benefits to the consumer are myriad. Carbon dioxide refrigerants are an environmentally friendly alternative to the traditional coolants utilised in car air conditioning; they allow for greater fuel economy, faster cooling and quicker defrosting. These factors are not only good for the client’s personal convenience (not to mention pocketbook), they are better for the planet – something that benefits all of us. EU law bans the use of the old refrigerant R134a found in most cars, instead promoting a refrigerant R1234yf instead, but Mercedes under testing it refused to use it as it's flammable, so prone to exploding under car impact. Hence their move instead to a carbon dioxide based coolant.

Carbon dioxide and ‘global warming potential’

While scientists and governments around the world have called for lower vehicle CO2 emissions, CO2 is actually the least harmful choice for air conditioning units, not only for cars, but also in houses in buildings. Carbon dioxide has less “global warming potential,” described on Wikipedia as “a relative measure of how much heat a greenhouse gas traps in the atmosphere. It compares the amount of heat trapped by a certain mass of the gas in question to the amount of heat trapped by a similar mass of carbon dioxide.” In simple terms, the most common refrigerant used today, R134a, has a global warming potential 1430 times higher than simple CO2!

New laws in January 2017

By next year, all new cars in the European Union will have to stop using R134a as a refrigerant in their air conditioning units, and the US is following suit in 2021. While many other gases are possible replacements, so far it is only the European Mercedes models that have decided to move all the way to CO2, a gas that is notoriously difficult to steam in an AC system.

Will other European and American car manufacturers follow suit and upgrade their AC systems to a carbon dioxide coolant, or will they replace R134a with the potentially explosive R1234yf as many now use? We will continue to follow this story as the year progresses.



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