Greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide may not get much global attention, but policy makers and business leaders view curbing these emissions as a way nations can shrink their carbon footprints.
Refrigerators have a role in this story.
For decades, Americans have known only two types of household refrigerators: the pre-1996 fridge that uses an ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbon, or CFC, refrigerant — commonly known by its trademark name, Freon; and the subsequent models that use the global-warming refrigerant called hydrofluorocarbon, or HFC.
When CFCs float into the air, their chlorine molecules eat the ozone. HFCs may not harm the ozone, but they can hang in the atmosphere for decades, absorbing radiation that would otherwise be released into space.
A better refrigerant, environmentalists have argued since the early 1990s, is hydrocarbon.
Made of only carbons and hydrogens, these “natural’’ refrigerants do not degrade the ozone and are easily broken down by the sun. Compared with the atmosphere-degrading refrigerants used in American households, hydrocarbons contribute little to global warming.
As early as next year, Americans may have a new hydrocarbon refrigerator option that could reduce their global warming impact and their energy bills. US manufacturers plan to enter the HFC-free domestic refrigeration market, which the Germans helped establish in 1993.
Back then, the United States was phasing out CFCs, and the chemical industry was introducing HFCs as a possible replacement. Greenpeace, the nonprofit advocacy group, was not happy with the “environmental alternative’’ to CFCs, said Amy Larkin, director of Greenpeace Solutions.
“But hydrocarbons weren’t on anyone’s radar,’’ Larkin said, “and when we brought this to the government agencies, telling them these were a better, safe, efficient alternative, we were ridiculed.’’
Regardless, Greenpeace appealed to a small German manufacturer and helped engineer the world’s first hydrocarbon domestic refrigerator. Within three weeks, the German company presold 70,000 HFC-free “Greenfreeze’’ refrigerators.
Since March 15, 1993, when the first Greenfreeze refrigerator debuted in Germany, more than 400 million hydrocarbon household units have been sold worldwide by manufacturers including Whirlpool, Haier, and Sanyo.
HFC-free refrigerators have been sold in Mexico, South America, Cuba, and parts of Africa, along with Japan, China, and throughout Europe.
“Europe has produced incredibly safe, popular refrigerators, but there’s still some suspicion in the US,’’ said Durwood Zaelke, director of the secretariat of the International Network for Environmental Compliance and Enforcement.
Hydrocarbons are flammable, and there have been isolated incidents of exploding hydrocarbon refrigerators. But manufacturers meet their country’s standards and often have an independent safety organization evaluate appliances.
Based on the track record of the hydrocarbon refrigerators, Zaelke said, it’s unclear whether the concern about exploding refrigerators is “a true safety concern or just a clever argument for those who make chemicals.’’
General Electric plans to introduce the first hydrocarbon household fridge in the United States in June, at a hefty price.
The 30-inch, HFC-free refrigerator would be part of GE’s luxury Monogram brand, selling for about $6,000 to $6,500.
Before these refrigerators can roll out to retailers, however, GE says it will wait for final approval from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Significant New Alternatives Program.