What are the Different Types of Refrigerant Gas?

Brenda Scott

Refrigerant gas is a chemical product used in refrigerators, freezers, air conditioners and heating, ventilating and air conditioning units (HVAC). These gases, which have very low evaporation points, are condensed under pressure to chill the air. Through a process of repeatedly evaporating and condensing the gasses, heat is pulled out of the air and the temperature inside the room or unit is reduced. Different types of refrigerant gases include chlorofluorocarbon (CFC), hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC), hydrofluorocarbon (HFC), perfluorocarbon (PFC), and blends made from ammonia and carbon dioxide.

Air conditioners use refrigerant gas.
Air conditioners use refrigerant gas.

The first refrigerators built from the 1800’s until the 1920’s primarily used toxic gases such as ammonia (NH3), methyl chloride (CH3Cl), and sulfur dioxide (SO2). Unfortunately, the units occasionally leaked and caused several deaths, which prompted the refrigeration industry to put forth a concerted effort to find a safer refrigerant gas. The result was the discovery of chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) gas, which was a mixture of chlorine, fluorine and carbons. Freon® became the trademark name for a CFC gas that was primarily used as a refrigerant. This gas was colorless, odorless, nonflammable and non-toxic, and soon became the predominant gas used as a refrigerant.

Licensed, certified technicians only work with refrigerant gas.
Licensed, certified technicians only work with refrigerant gas.

In the 1970’s, scientists discovered that when CFCs leaked into the atmosphere, a chemical change occurred as a result of exposure to the ultraviolet rays of the Sun, resulting in a greenhouse effect and depletion of the ozone. Since that time, Freon® has been banned in many countries throughout North America and the European Union. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Clean Air Act established strict guidelines for the installation, repair, recovery and recycling of refrigerant gas. The European Union (EU) has also enacted strict controls through the EU F-gas regulations.

Refrigerant gas has industrial and commercial applications.
Refrigerant gas has industrial and commercial applications.

Some applications have replaced CFCs with HCFCs, which are a mixture of hydrogen, chlorine, fluorine and carbon. These have a shorter life when exposed to the atmosphere, resulting in less potential damage to the ozone. Another popular refrigerant gas is HFC, which contains no chlorine and is thought to have absolutely no negative effect on the ozone. PFCs are man-made chemicals composed of only fluorine and carbon ions, and are also considered ozone-safe. These replacement gases still cause environmental concerns if they leak into the atmosphere because they are considered greenhouse gases and may contribute to climate change.

Refrigerant gas allows for safe home storage of perishable foods.
Refrigerant gas allows for safe home storage of perishable foods.

Many industrial applications have moved back to naturally occurring refrigerant gas such as blends of ammonia and carbon dioxide, and research continues to search for more environmentally friendly ways to meet refrigeration needs. Refrigeration units must also be built to specific standards and commercial applications are subject to strict monitoring. Many countries, such as Canada, the UK, members of the EU, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the United States require technicians who work on any units containing refrigerant gas to be licensed and certified.

Refrigeration has had a significant positive impact on life and society in the areas of nutrition, medicine, and physical comfort. The toxic gases of the early days have been replaced by refrigerant gas which works effectively and poses no health danger. Environmental concerns do exist regarding the use of these compounds, yet many believe that strict standards for equipment and maintenance have mitigated any negative environmental impact.

Chlorofluorocarbons are harmful to the ozone layer of the Earth's atmosphere, which helps protect the planet from harmful rays of naturally occurring radiation.
Chlorofluorocarbons are harmful to the ozone layer of the Earth's atmosphere, which helps protect the planet from harmful rays of naturally occurring radiation.

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Discussion Comments


I was looking into a refrigerator from Godrej which claims to be 100 percent green, which does not use either CFC, HCFC or HFC. Can someone tell me what other gas might be used in this refrigerator? I don't think ammonia would be used as its toxic (as mentioned in the beginning of this description).


More to the point, what is the effect of these gases on humans?


what research has been done to survey the impact on the ozone with the launch of rockets (space shuttles)punching holes in our atmosphere, aircraft, military rockets and now nuclear radiation leaks etc. If these things which I believe have a greater impact are not addressed than CFC's are a crack in a small pot.


if your refrigerator leaks, can it produce harmful gases?


@highlighter- The science behind halogens, like those released by r12, and ozone depletion are pretty sound. Ozone levels will not return to normal for about another 75-100 years because the life cycle of disassociated CFCs take about a century to dissipate. It also takes halogens about a decade to reach the upper atmosphere in the first place. The result is a lag between mitigation efforts and the reduction of ozone depletion.

Ozone depletion leads to increased microwave radiation, which causes higher instances of cataracts, melanomas, and carcinomas. Ozone depletion in the upper atmosphere also leads to greater ozone creation in the lower atmosphere where it is toxic to humans.

Higher UVB radiation also has a negative effect on plankton; the basis of the ocean food chain. Increases in UVB also affect certain types of cyanobacteria, which is vital to certain base crops like rice. Lower yields of these crops could put an even greater strain on the global food supply, resulting in increased instances of war and starvation.


What is the big deal with r12 refrigerant and CFCs anyway? What exactly do CFCs do to the environment? I also do not understand how the ozone hole is closing because I read that it was at its largest a few years ago. I would assume that the hole would close up when CFCs were phased out, making me suspect that the hole in the ozone layer is not caused by CFCs. Can anyone explain how this is so, or is what I read wrong?


The transition away from CFC refrigerants is an example of a concerted global effort to mitigate an environmental problem. CFCs from refrigerants and styrofoam were responsible for creating a very large hole in the ozone layer. Over the last few decades since the Montreal Protocol was signed, the depletion of ozone decreased. CFCs have been eliminated almost worldwide, and the health and environmental consequences of ozone depletion have begun to subside.

The point of all this is that it is not too late to begin to mitigate large environmental problems like climate change. If the world can unite over an issue like ozone depletion, then surely the globe can unite over resource consumption and the damage that comes with it.

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