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MCI puts propane on ice

Maersk Container Industry is now looking to R1234yf as a future refrigerant for reefer containers.

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MCI has announced that it is developing R1234yf as an ultra low GWP (Global Warming Potential) refrigerant for reefer containers.

In moving to R1234yf MCI is effectively ending its support for propane as a next generation refrigerant for reefer containers in the near future. MCI began work with propane (R290) as its next generation natural refrigerant for reefer containers in 2012. Working with Holger König, of Ref-Tech Engineering, MCI determined the hydrocarbons propane and propylene scored highly for energy usage and efficiency while having a low GWP, and developed a prototype reefer.

Propane is, however, an A3 flammable substance, and the reefer container industry has always used non-flammable A1 refrigerants. MCI argued the flammability risk could be managed and mitigated, but it has been very much a lone voice in this respect, with none of the other main reefer machinery manufacturers supporting propane.

Speaking with WorldCargo News, Anders Holm, Global Head of Sales and Marketing at MCI, said that MCI has not changed its view on the wider merits of propane, and it is “still a very good refrigerant”. However the company recognises that there are concerns around flammability that the industry does not want to address in the short to medium term as it looks for ways to move to true “low-GWP” refrigerants. With a GWP of 4 (99.7% lower than R134a), R1234yf can be properly regarded as a low-GWP option.

MCI is now advocating for R1234yf, the refrigerant that is used in more than 50 million passenger cars globally today. R1234yf is an A2 refrigerant, putting it between the non-flammable A1 refrigerants used to day and the A3 category. MCI notes work is underway now that will allow R1234yf to be used by the end of 2019: “Since 2015, the ISO/TC 104/ SC02/ WG01 working group has been engaged in developing a standard, ISO 20854, that allows flammable refrigerants to be used in reefer containers. This standard is in its final review phase and expected to be published by the end of 2019. The standard is risk based and dedicated solely to refrigerated containers and draws on established safety standards such as ISO 5149 and IEC 60335-2-40”.

Once the flammability issue has been addressed, R1234yf has the big advantage of being compatible with existing reefer platforms, unlike CO2 and propane, which require different machinery. In fact R1234yf is already used in the blended R513A refrigerant MCI, Carrier and Daikin now offer as a drop in replacement for R134a. Interchangeability, continued MCI “will allow R134a, R513A or the A2L alternative to be used in a single machine; a triple refrigerant machine. This would give operators maximum flexibility during periods of volatile refrigerant prices, F-gas phase down schemes and the availability of refrigerant from Greenland to Ghana, Cambodia to Canada or Djibouti to Denmark in the years to come”.

With regard to cost, R1234yf is, according to MCI, about 10 times more expensive than R1234a currently. However, MCI expects the price to fall significantly from 2025 when patents held by two companies expire.

MCI’s move changes the landscape on refrigerants in the reefer container industry considerably. With propane now effectively off the table, it is only Carrier that is promoting a new, natural refrigerant platform as the “end state” for low-GWP compliance. Carrier is gaining some traction with its NaturaLINE reefer machine, but it is still the only supplier offering CO2.

Daikin, which manufactures CO2 machinery for other industries, is also working on using R1234yf in reefer containers, including in a blend with R32, while maintaining that CO2 is not the best option for the reefer industry.

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