Effect Measure

A new refrigerant with a good backstory

The fact that EPA has just approved a safer and more environmentally sound refrigerant is amazing news in itself. But the story behind this new product is even more amazing. The material, called HCR-188c, is a hydrocarbon blend of common materials (among them ethane, propane, isobutene, normal butane) that have no ozone depleting potential and very little in the way of greenhouse gas type of heat trapping. Even better, appliances require only a quarter the amount as current refrigerants (hydrochlorofluorocarbons, HCFCs, and hydrofluorocarbons, HFCs), costs 20 cents per charge compared to 62 cents, and draw one third less power. Who is the inventor? His name is Hawaiian former auto mechanic Richard Maruya who developed it in a small home lab on his patio. He has been doggedly trying to bring this product to market for years:

“It was a long, hard push to get it where it is,” said Maruya, who began thinking about a more energy-efficient and environmentally safe refrigerant 15 years ago, after an injury sidelined him from running his service station and machine shop.

“I never imagined all the roadblocks and bumps in the road I would have, not only from the EPA but from people on the outside who told me I was crazy.”

Although widely accepted in Europe, Asia and elsewhere, hydrocarbon-based refrigerants were banned in the United States because of concerns about flammability.

Maruya, 60, said a lot of people have been recharging their auto and appliance cooling systems with bootleg hydrocarbon mixtures, “but I wanted to make sure mine was legal. I had to convince the EPA that this was the one.”

After more than four years of back-and-forth with the federal agency, the final hurdle Maruya had to clear before approval was persuading the EPA of the miniscule flammability risk from the small amount of HCR-188c needed — about an ounce for a household refrigerator.

“Even if there was a massive leak in the kitchen, even if you had an open flame on a propane stove, it would not ignite,” he said.

“We proved it all with solid facts. They couldn’t say anything.” (Christie Wilson, Honolulu Advertiser, via Environmental Health News)

One gets the distinct whiff here of lack of enthusiasm by EPA. This will supplant some big money refrigerants made by even bigger money chemical companies. It’s better, it’s cheaper, it’s more efficient, it’s more environment friendly. This guy’s persistence and ingenuity and hard work overcame the odds. My hat’s off to him.

One wonders how many other better-cheaper-safer-friendlier ideas were stillborn because they were squelched by the Big Boys or left to die by unimaginative and uninterested officials. Another reason to be glad science is being allowed back in government.

Comments

  1. #1 daedalus2u
    December 29, 2008

    Revere, that so reminds me of my own experience in my nitric oxide research.

  2. #2 pft
    December 29, 2008

    EPA only reviews safety. Performance is another matter. If a system/appliance is not designed for HC refrigerants, it may not perform as well, so he has to sell the system/appliance manufacturers as well, and using it on a system/appliance not designed for HC may void the warranty. As for economics, with oil below 40 dollars, maybe it makes sense, at 150 dollars a barrel, maybe not. Also, there is the peak oil thing, although I believe it to be a myth, as with it’s partner in crime, AGW.

    I could not find anything on EPA when searching HCR-188c. I did see GE submitted a patent for a HC refrigerant last year.

    And having 2 million to invest sounds like auto-mechanics get paid well in Hawaii.

  3. #3 Lea
    December 29, 2008

    O.K. pft: I do enjoy nearly everything you comment on but this one has me mystified. Also, there is the peak oil thing, although I believe it to be a myth, as with it’s partner in crime, AGW.

    Could you please explain? And thank you for doing so.

  4. #4 albatross
    December 29, 2008

    Revere,

    You don’t even need the big boys squelching innovation that isn’t theirs. All you need is a set of hoops for innovative ideas to jump through that pretty-much requires the resources (lobbyists, regulatory agency connections, money, PR resources, legal staff) of one of the big boys, and magically, it will become very hard for anyone not already big to innovate. This is, IMO, one of the stronger reasons to be skeptical of a lot of regulation, and to be very interested in making sure that regulation that is put in place doesn’t end up locking outsiders out of the industry.

  5. #5 Art
    December 30, 2008

    The problem isn’t so much the “Big Boys” as the systems already in place.

    Refrigeration systems are set up and optimized for a particular refrigerant, manuals are written about how to use them, technicians are trained with existing refrigerants, gauges are calibrated and marked for proper setup on existing systems, and the entire supply system from manufacturer to users are established.

    The technicians are used to using the existing refrigerants, know what to expect, and have memorized the critical measurements. Designers are similarly familiar with the existing stuff and the parameters of system design using it are established and well known.

    Bucking against this, and for this new refrigerant, you need to get the vital data to technicians and system designers. You have to prove that this new refrigerant provides advantages that exceed the costs of learning about it, learning to use it effectively and adapting existing procedures to it. You have to also make sure people stock it and that people know it will be available in the long term.

    And you have to do all that from the position of an underdog working out of a garage with little money, no name recognition and with few established connections to the industry.

    Lots of marginally better products fail because it never got to the critical level of use to make sure suppliers kept it on the shelf. Unsure they could get more they stuck with what they had. Consistency is valued more by business than innovation. Unless the innovation also provides substantial advantages that can be sold, will increase profits and which will justify the costs of adoption.

    Anyone can claim to have a better product. Many can show some advantages on paper. Very few make it in the real world. What we have now works pretty well, comes at a reasonable cost and everyone is familiar and relatively satisfied with it. Going against that is a steep hill to climb. Even without the “big boys” working against you.

    Given that the existing refrigerant manufacturers have Billions invested in their products I doubt they will just sit back and not actively protect their investment. Look for tighter rules against flammable refrigerants. Perhaps claims of incompatibility with the materials in existing systems and/or existing lubricants.

    A lot depends on how he markets it. If he sells the formula to a major company under favorable terms the product gets funding and can ride on existing industry training an information programs. then again with the profits from the present refrigerants going well they might sit on this new formula for years. If this guy isn’t careful he may make a deal and think because he has a patent he can use that as leverage to make money from his invention while under patent protection.

    If the company just waits it goes off patent and the company can produce it without paying him unless he was very careful structuring the deal. This might happen anyway.

    Being a multinational most large chemical concerns can simply transfer the formula to an oversea ‘independent’ sister cooperation and do as they wish. They can always tweak the formula and claim they came up with it or that it is a ‘new product’. This sort of thing has eliminated a lot of ability of independent inventors to profit from their invention. They hold all the cards. You have a choice to sell cheap or they just take it.

    Inventors don’t live by their existing inventions. They get respect and increased profits based on their reputation and the odds they will have another great idea and sell it to a competitor. One trick ponies get screwed.

    Good luck.

  6. #6 daedalus2u
    December 30, 2008

    I looked him up in the patent data base and found this:

    http://patft.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO2&Sect2=HITOFF&p=1&u=%2Fnetahtml%2FPTO%2Fsearch-bool.html&r=5&f=G&l=50&co1=AND&d=PTXT&s1=Maruya.INNM.&OS=IN/Maruya&RS=IN/Maruya

    As I read his patent, he doesn’t have a patent claim that I consider defensible.

    Any hydrocarbon mixture that has an ignition point of 799 degrees C or below is not covered by his patent.

    Combustion is something I know a fair amount about, and his explanation of how his mixture has such a high ignition temperature is non-physical. I suspect that it is simply wrong and his mixture does not have such a high ignition temperature. In looking at a couple of reference books that have tables of ignition temperatures of materials (including all the light hydrocarbons), there is only 1 out of perhaps 50+ compounds with an ignition temperature above 800 C, that is cyanogen (C2N2) with an ignition temperature of 850. The next highest is ammonia at 692 and then methane with an ignition temperature of 632 C.

    Ignition and combustion are free radical reactions. Usually ignition depends on the component with the lowest thermal decomposition temperature. In hydrocarbon systems that is the longest straight chain hydrocarbon. Adding double bonds increases it, so does adding aromatics. There are compounds that can quench ignition, the most widely known is tetraethyl lead. That was used as an additive to gasoline because it suppressed thermal ignition. There are few if any materials that work that well. If you had a hydrocarbon mixture with an 800 C ignition temperature it would make a great fuel with an octane rating off the charts (much higher than any known fuel).

    There are a number of statements in his patent that indicate to me that he doesn’t understand what he is talking about.

    His refrigerant mixture may work as well as he claims it does. Unless it has an 800 C ignition temperature he has no patent protection and anyone can produce or use it.

    The major impediment is likely to be liability associated with the flammability issue. If a house burns down, the homeowner or homeowner’s insurance company may claim the fire occurred due to the flammable refrigerant. You would have to sell a lot of refrigerators where you save $0.50 to pay a $500k settlement.

  7. #7 Lea
    December 30, 2008

    daedalus2u: Should it read; His refrigerant mixture may NOT work as well as he claims it does. Unless …

    ???????

  8. #8 daedalus2u
    December 31, 2008

    I was being inarticulate. If his refrigerant has all the properties he claims, low cost, improved efficiency, low greenhouse gas potential, zero ozone depletion potential, he still has zero patent protection unless it has an 800 C ignition temperature (which I am quite sure it does not have).

    The refrigeration properties of different fluids are pretty easy to calculate. NIST sells software that calculates it for hydrocarbon mixtures. With that it is straightforward to calculate the efficiency of a refrigeration cycle. Of course if it doesn’t have those properties it is of no value as a refrigerant.

    His patent is for a non-existent material, a hydrocarbon mixture with an ignition temperature of 800 C.

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