The GE Monogram Refrigerator could be using a more environmentally friendly refrigerant by 2010.
GE The GE Monogram Refrigerator could be using a more environmentally friendly refrigerant by 2010.

GE has asked the  Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to approve a more environmentally friendly refrigerant that’s widely used in refrigerators throughout the world--a move that the appliance maker and environmentalists say could be an important step toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. If it gains EPA approval, GE plans to use isobutane in a new Monogram brand refrigerator set for introduction in early 2010. Unlike hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC)- and hydrofluorocarbon (HFC)-based refrigerants found in refrigerators sold here, isobutane, a hydrocarbon, does not contribute nearly as much to global warming, according to Kert Davies, research director for Greenpeace. HFC 134A, the HFC most commonly used in refrigerators, has a global warming potential (GWP) 1,430 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period, whereas isobutane’s GWP is less than three times greater, Davies says.

The refrigerant was developed by an East German manufacturer in partnership with Greenpeace in the early 1990s, and is the de facto refrigerant for products sold in Europe, according to Davies. He estimates there are 300 million refrigerators that employ isobutane worldwide. Even American manufacturer Whirlpool sells refrigerators outside the U.S. with isobutane, he said.

“The environmental gains that have already been realized in the transition from ozone-depleting substances such as CFC-12 under the Montreal Protocol have been dramatic,” said Drusilla Hufford, director of EPA's Stratospheric Protection Division, in a statement. “Should EPA reach a favorable determination on this SNAP [Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP)(a) program] submittal, this could be part of the next important step in the market's transition to more environmentally friendly refrigerants.”

If the EPA approves it, Davies said isobutane should spread quickly to other refrigerators sold in the U.S. Commercial companies hoping to use a similar technology have been told the process could take six months to two years, Davies said.

Isobutane has other more far-reaching uses. Because residential heating, cooling, and ventilation systems use even more refrigerant than refrigerators, Davies says he hopes HVAC manufacturers will switch to the greener technology. “What we hope to inspire is regulatory incentives for innovative research in this area,” he said.