Exclusive interview with father of HC fridges, Wolfgang Lohbeck from Greenpeace

By Sabine Lobnig, Feb 13, 2009, 14:23 10 minute reading

hydrocarbons 21.com talked to Wolfgang Lohbeck, Manager for Special Projects and Technical Solutions within Greenpeace Germany, about the "Greenfreeze" success story, the development of the U.S. market, and strong opposition from the chemical industry.

hydrocarbons21.com (HC21): We have the privilege to interview today Wolfgang Lohbeck. Many say that you are the man behind the major success of “Greenfreeze” fridges that use hydrocarbons instead of chemical refrigerants. What was your role in this process?

Wolfgang Lohbeck: One key field of my work has been CFCs and HCFCs since the beginning. From a personal point of view, Greenfreeze has been my most successful project in my entire working life - by far.

HC21: Where did the idea to use hydrocarbons in domestic fridges come from?

Lohbeck: We had long been fighting against CFCs since 1988 and there was no major progress to be seen. The German chemical company Hoechst – one of the major producers of CFCS in the world at that time – started a massive campaign distributing flyers on the street: “Greenpeace risks willfully the lives of children”. Hoechst accused us of narrow-mindedness and that we would protect the ozone layer at the cost of human life, as the complete cooling chain around the world – including in developing countries – would break down without fluorinated gases. This was the moment for me to realize that if we would not come up with a viable technical alternative to CFCs we would lose the fight against the chemical industry. We could not invalidate this malicious claim without the proof that there was an alternative.

HC21: When did you find HCs to be this solution?

Lohbeck: My colleague and I started travelling around, looking for technical solutions. One should mention here that at this time the chemical industry and all major producers were about to replace CFCs (including the “soft” CFCs, called H-CFCs), by other fluorinated substances, the HFCs, not damaging the ozone layer anymore but still with an enormous global warming impact. From the very beginning we looked for alternatives not only for CFCs, but for fluorinated substances altogether, including the upcoming HFCs, like the R 134a, the best known refrigerant of this group of disastrous “alternatives” proposed by the chemical industry. We looked at many alternatives, but nothing worked properly or wasted too much energy. We asked all major German manufacturers but they did not offer any cooperation. And then there was this chain of fortunate circumstances where we first found a German company willing to cooperate, but not one of the “established” ones: DKK Scharfenstein, situated in Saxonia in eastern Germany, was known by hardly anybody in the west. It was Europe’s, maybe even the world’s, only manufacturer designing and producing its own compressors. All other manufacturers were reliant on suppliers, so even if they would have been willing to cooperate with us, it would have been difficult to get an CFC and even HFC-free fridge done. But before that we had to come up with the technical solution. We were lucky again when we heard about an ingenious individual, Dr. Preisendanz, who used natural hydrocarbons (i.e. without fluorine, chlorine or other halogens) for his cooling chain in his medical laboratory. He had the proof that it worked well and with good efficiency, and propane and butane had long been known to be excellent refrigerants in use before CFCs took over in the 1940s. Suddenly there was this breathtakingly simple solution, no leapfrogging, no ingenious new miracle solution, just this “loop into the past”, as some called it.

HC21: How was the public reaction?

Lohbeck: DKK first produced 10 prototypes for us. We had no other choice than to make our plans public from the first moment on, as DKK Scharfenstein was on the verge of bankruptcy and they had to look for buyers. Within three weeks, we had 70,000 preorders and “Greenfreeze” was born. Major retailers came to us and the success story took its course, and, besides, DKK, which from then on was named FORON, was saved.

HC21: Had you foreseen such a success, with more than 300 million HC fridges running around the world today?

Lohbeck: No way! Especially not that it would transform a whole industry worldwide. Today, it is the world standard – well, except in the US.

HC21: Talking about the US, what is the situation now?

Lohbeck: I don’t know of any country in the world that bans hydrocarbons on purpose as the US is doing. China, South America, India, Europe – all are designing Greenfreeze refrigerators. The US is the only country that explicitly outlaws hydrocarbons.

HC21: How do you see the role of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in that respect?

Lohbeck: The US, and more specifically its environmental authority, the EPA, have closely worked together with the chemical company DuPont right from the start. This strong alliance - policy makers, the EPA and chemical industry - has been hostile and aggressive ever since. Calling it “German Technology” in a disparaging way, the EPA was under pressure from the chemical industry. What’s more, they showed panic reactions when hearing about flammable refrigerants. Greenfreeze has shown time and time again that there is nothing to fear about the use of HCs as refrigerant in home fridges – an amount comparable to that used in a cigarette lighter. I want to repeat: the EPA has been under the constant influence from DuPont which took control of all decisions. This has not changed until today. The EPA, and namely Stephen Andersen, Director for Strategic Climate Projects (without any regulatory competence), have pretended to support natural alternatives, but in fact they have tried everything they could to block them. They stoked fears regarding flammability, using terrifying scenes in videos, where fridges were exploding. The irony: Now, the EPA is promoting a new chemical refrigerant that is flammable like hydrocarbons at that time - but it comes from the US chemical industry.

HC21: Which brings us to the next question. Automotive manufacturers worldwide are currently discussing which refrigerant to use in Mobile Air Conditioning. The race seems to be down to the natural refrigerant CO2 and the chemical HFO-1234yf, the latter being flammable. Some staff from EPA is openly calling for a rapid "commercialization" of 1234yf. How do you think this fits with previous statements that flammable refrigerants would never be used in US cars?

Lohbeck: This only shows that the EPA is acting without any principles, without any position you could take seriously. In fact, the issue has never been about flammability, not in the past and not today. Their dubious arguments now only become obvious, that’s all. They just follow the line of the US chemical industry, independent of facts. Now they no longer talk about “flammability” but they name it “mildly flammable”. They didn’t even shy away from asking Greenpeace for its support for the new chemical, calling 1234yf a “bridge to hydrocarbons”. This is so stupid that we had to ask them: Why a bridge to hydrocarbons if HCs have been there long before chemicals replaced them?

HC21: Do you expect a change of course to happen soon, now that a new president has moved into the White House?

Lohbeck: Surely, the change of government could drive the issue in the right direction. But it already started earlier when the US had to acknowledge that it was navigating into a worldwide isolation when it came to hydrocarbon domestic fridges. Now, a change of course is taking place. Unilever (Ben & Jerry’s) and General Electric have requested approval from the EPA to use HCs in ice cream freezers and domestic fridges. This has opened the door to the US market.

HC21: But why this sudden change of position?

Lohbeck: My theory is the following: As the most important thing for the EPA seems to be to protect the interests of the US chemical industry, this issue will be treated again in the same way as many times before. There is the pressure to replace high global warming HFCs with yet another family of chemicals with lower Global Warming Potential, produced by the same chemical companies. As these proposed a flammable refrigerant last summer, the EPA had to move away from its long-held opposition to flammable refrigerants. Lifting the bans on hydrocarbons is just simply a way to clear the road for the new chemical.

HC21: GE and Ben & Jerry’s have already announced a rapid introduction of HC cooling equipment once the EPA legal ban on propane and butane is lifted. Is this a clear signal for an accelerated adoption of HCs on the US market?

Lohbeck: Yes. This will happen very soon, as this again is in the interest of the chemical industry trying to lose the stigma of flammability and hiding this issue from public attention. My prediction: Hydrocarbons will quickly enter the US market in a silent, unnoticed way. As a general rule, looking at the issue of CFCs, HCFCs, HFCs, and natural refrigerants, it is always wise to ask first: What is DuPont’s interest here? You will then automatically find the answer to most questions.

HC21: The proposed chemical 1234yf is supposed to raise concerns other than just flammability…

Lohbeck: It is just an insanity that the European car industry has been researching into CO2 Technology for more than 15 years. This technology complies with all legal and technical standards. It is now being stopped by the chemical industry again with its new miracle substance. Besides being flammable, it seems to be toxic and forms highly toxic reaction - products in case of a fire, it has no official approval yet - in short: it is a phantasy product. But yes, at least they managed to halt the fast success of CO2.

HC21: So, you think that hydrocarbons could enter the race again when it comes to vehicles? Or are they finally banned from the public discussion?

Lohbeck: Even worse than that, natural refrigerants in general, and more specifically CO2, could vanish from the public discussion. Effective lobbying by the chemical industry has made sure that first American, then also other manufacturers will sit back and do nothing. In the time remaining until an EU Directive will become effective the chemical industry hopes to push through its refrigerant.

HC21: Where do you see more HCs used in the future?

Lohbeck: I can see HCs being used more widely in supermarkets, using a secondary loop. Also in plug-in cooling solutions and beverage coolers. In large industrial applications it will be ammonia, in transport refrigeration mostly CO2. And of course, also in other applications, such as foaming agents, isolation etc.

HC21: Which projects are planned at Greenpeace to promote HCs?

Lohbeck: The most important now is to tell the public and the politicians how dangerous HFCs are, that they will make up the highest greenhouse gas concentrations pretty soon. We will use the Copenhagen Conference end-2009 to raise awareness. And we will talk to the public. Which marketing argument can be better than just the name: “natural refrigerants”? They are already here, you don’t have to manufacture them, they are part of the natural cycles, the nature knows hydrocarbons for billions of years. They are incredibly cheap, and more importantly, they are environmentally neutral. They are the future.

HC21: Thank you very much for your time Mr. Lohbeck


By Sabine Lobnig

Feb 13, 2009, 14:23

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