What's next for refrigerants in the Middle East?


Published: 21 June 2017

The Middle East is a high growth region for the HVACR industry, but the phaseout of R22 and the drive towards lower GWP refrigerants raise important questions about how the sector will change in the next few years. Stuart Corr, Techno Commercial Director of refrigerant manufacturer and supplier Mexichem, discusses alternative refrigerants for the region.
To better understand the situation, we need to take a step back to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which set out to eliminate certain ozone depleting substances (ODSs), notably chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and the transitional HCFCs. These ODSs were widely replaced by the ozone-benign hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). However, regulation is a dynamic process and with increased focus on man-made global warming, the Kigali Amendment to the Protocol in October 2016 sought to incorporate HFCs for the first time with a proposed phase down in their global production and consumption.
Under Article 5 of the original Protocol, most Middle Eastern countries were given different timescales for this phase down that requires them to stop using virgin HCFCs by 2030. In the Kigali Amendment, Group Two of the Article 5 countries, which includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, India, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan, need to freeze HFC levels in 2028 and then start cutting down from 2032.
HCFC R22 is a key refrigerant, used widely across the Middle East in both domestic and commercial and industrial air conditioning and other cooling applications and is well suited for use in the hot climate prevalent in much of the region.  Industry is now faced with the challenge of finding safe, efficient and environmentally-acceptable alternatives to R22 that are able to cope with the region’s demanding climate.  
In looking to select an alternative it is important to weigh up all the relevant factors including price, availability, compatibility with existing equipment and a full assessment of the environmental impact. Given that energy consumption in use is the largest contributor to global warming from air conditioners, energy efficiency of the whole system, not just the refrigerant GWP, is a critical parameter in assessing environmental benefit.
From a practical perspective, a proven track record in use should also be considered, across both retrofit and new equipment applications. Here is a closer look at some of the key alternatives:
A product that has been particularly popular with European supermarkets is the HFC R407A. It is an energy efficient, reduced GWP alternative for both R22 and R404A in new and existing systems. Importantly, it is widely approved and proven in use.
R407C is another established option, providing a HFC replacement for R-22 in existing equipment designs. Relatively little work is required in adapting existing systems to move away from R-22 use without replacing equipment.
Another possible choice is R410A, a highly efficient HFC with a GWP of 2088. This product is widely available and supported by major compressor and component suppliers. It is a straightforward and cost-effective retrofit for R404A with superior energy efficiency and equivalent capacity.
For companies looking for a lower GWP alternative to R410A, R32 could be a good option. R32 has a GWP of only 550 and has comparable energy efficiency to R410A. The disadvantage of R32 is that it is mildly flammable (ASHRAE 2L), which may limit its use in some applications. R32 also has a high compressor discharge temperature, which requires appropriate equipment to protect compressor lifespan and reliability. 
Introduced in the mid-1990s as a replacement for ozone depleting refrigerants and HCFCs, R404A is widely used in Europe for both chilled and frozen food refrigeration. However, R404A is not the most energy efficient options (see R407A) and has a high GWP compared to other products. It does have the advantage of lower compressor discharge temperatures in low-temperature applications which may prove useful in some applications.
New blends
Refrigerant blends containing hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs) also have the potential to extend the variety of alternatives on the market. Whilst many of these blends have some attractive performance characteristics, those having the lowest GWPs also tend to be flammable which may limit their applicability.  Further work in this sector is needed before they become a truly viable option.
While the main priority of the Middle East is to limit ozone depletion by replacing HCFCs such as R22, the Kigali Amendment creates additional impetus for the region to adopt the HFCs with the lowest GWP. The question now is whether Middle Eastern countries will take the same route as Europe and the US, transitioning rapidly to proven and economic refrigerants, or whether they will skip this step and transition directly to the lowest GWP refrigerant available. There is no simple answer and in reality, the choice will most likely be governed by economics, availability and safety in use and will likely differ across end-use sectors.