By Ankita Sah, Lekha Sridhar, and Vaibhav Chaturvedi
With the upcoming global negotiations to the Montreal Protocol, it is likely that an amendment to include high global warming potential (GWP) refrigerants (hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs) will be reached later in the year. Over the coming years, Indian industries across sectors will have to find and switch to suitable low-GWP alternatives. The foam sector in this regard, makes for an excellent example of leadership as the sector has already started leapfrogging to environment friendly alternatives in its course of transition from the use of ozone depleting substances (ODS).
Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) are used in polyurethane (PU) foam, mainly rigid foam and extruded polystyrene foams. The Indian Polyurethane Association (IPUA) estimates that the polyurethane technology has a growth rate of 12 per cent per year and is expected to double every five years and grow to be the second largest market for PU in Asia by 2018. Emissions in this sector are likely to occur during the manufacturing process or the in-use phase, with the majority of emissions not occurring until end-of-life (IPCC, 2006).
Different types of foam find use in a variety of applications: mattresses, automobiles, furniture, domestic and commercial refrigerators, thermoware, general insulation, packaging and spray. HCFCs are used in the manufacture of foams as blowing agents, which ensure that the polymer matrix expands prior to solidifying.
HCFCs are on track to being totally phased out globally by 2030 under the Montreal Protocol. As per the Indian phasedown schedule, by 2020 the commonly used HCFCs (HCFC-22, HCFC-142b and HCFC-141b) will be replaced with alternatives. The choice is to switch to HFCs like HFC 134a (and HFC- 245fa and HFC 365mfc to a much lesser extent), that are not ozone depleting but are potent greenhouse gases or to move to low-GWP alternatives.
A number of low-GWP foam blowing agents such as water, hydrocarbons and CO2 have become feasible in the recent decades (UNEP, 2011). Hydrocarbons have been tried and tested in applications and are economical. The blowing efficiency of hydrocarbon blowing agents is substantially better than that of CFCs and HCFCs (TEAP, 2014). Methyl Formate has undergone trials where it has been tested in applications in India. Though it is a zero ODS and low GWP, the chemical has its constraints in terms of patents and not being a drop-in replacement. Methylal is another option which has yet not been tried and tested in India and has warnings associated with its use as it requires safe handling. The sector has performed large scale trials, but the results have not yet been very pronounced. The option of low GWP HFOs is limited, with several major issues surrounding patents, affordability, and availability.
In the earlier transition from CFCs under the Protocol, the foam sector was one of the first to transform by using hydrocarbons and HFCs in some sectors. The transition to alternatives was thought to be relatively easy as the alternatives were stable and tried and tested in the developed countries. The flexible foam industry moved to using water and large enterprises (like domestic refrigerators) moved toward hydrocarbons while the remaining applications opted to use HCFC 141b which currently is predominantly use in the sector, mainly in internal skin, discontinuous panel, thermoware and commercial refrigerators applications.
Under the HCFC Phaseout Management Plan, many industries which were using HCFC 141b have already converted to hydrocarbons, entirely leapfrogging the use of HFCs. According to the IPUA, these industries invested significantly in superior technology and technical training to handle cyclopentane (hydrocarbon) with fire safety systems and were also able to bear the capital expenditure involved in the transition. Also, very noticeably, the sector achieved 18 per cent of reduction in HCFCs in 2015, which was far more than the earlier set target of 10 per cent reduction by that year.
With the exception of some rigid foam sub-sectors, there has already been a steady shift in many sectors to long term solutions that entirely bypass the non-climate friendly transitional alternatives. Wherever application of zero-ODP technologies was not feasible because of non-availability, safety, and safety-related costs, or for energy-efficiency reasons, HCFCs have been selected as a transitional replacement in all foam sub-sectors. In the medium term HCFCs are expected to be replaced by zero-ODP and low-GWP substitutes, such as water, carbon dioxide or hydrocarbons. Flexible moulded type foam industries switched to water and has already leapfrogged to a long term solution in the transitional phase from CFCs and requires no alternative blowing agent. Similarly, the integral skin foam sector and some other applications have begun use water and cyclopentane.
That said, these voluntary shifts have largely happened at the level of medium to large sized industries while most small and medium enterprises (SMEs) face great difficulties in switching to these solutions due to safety and cost issues. While this has been recognised as a challenge by the Ozone Cell, options for SMEs for switching to low-GWP options remain few. The Multilateral Fund only provides support for one year toward incremental costs, and this also does not include many additional, hidden costs from increased technical and safety issues as well as the significantly higher cost of the alternatives in later years.
It should be emphasised that many representatives from the foam sector feel that the phase-out of HFCs is possible, with many available alternatives. Inculcating dedicated training to enhance the potential of skilled manpower, maintaining and promoting ethical standards, public-private-partnership in the foam industry has resulted in a much greater reduction in consumption of HCFCs and HFCs. The industry representatives have also successfully leveraged effective representation before policymakers and precise dissemination of information. It is clear that for India to be the global leader in HFC transition, there is a need for forward thinking by industries to find suitable options that are not just transitional but serve as long term solutions with benefits for all stakeholders.