The Impact of Natural Refrigerants on Lubricants


The refrigeration industry is undergoing a transformation. Global legislation is limiting the use of refrigerants with a high level of Ozone Depletion Potential (ODP) or Global Warming Potential (GWP). As a result, businesses are increasingly adopting natural refrigerants – such as ammonia, carbon dioxide (CO2) and hydrocarbons – to help reduce the impact on the environment.

Alessandro Di Maio, Industrial Product Technical Advisor– EAME, ExxonMobil

This switch to natural alternatives presents a number of new challenges that operators must face – not least when it comes to lubrication. And with refrigeration among the most complex industries from a lubrication standpoint, below is some guidance on the challenges and how an informed decision can help companies to overcome them.

The fundamentals of natural refrigerants

A recent report on refrigeration trends highlighted the top three refrigerants that are set to experience the most growth as a result of legislative pressure.

  • Leading the pack is CO2, which is projected to see the highest growth in the natural refrigerants market through to 2020. This is due to an increase in demand from superstores and food retail chains for its use in refrigeration and air conditioning applications.
  • Ammonia refrigerants, which saw the highest market growth in 2015, were ranked third behind hydrocarbon refrigerants. They are set to experience steady growth because of their wide adoption in industrial refrigeration.
  • Hydrocarbon refrigerants are expected to grow on the back of their usage in domestic refrigeration.

Carbon dioxide – the best option?

The principal advantage of CO2 is evident in its properties as a refrigerant; it has an ODP of zero and a GWP value of 1. Compare that with hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which have a GWP ranging from 4.1 to 4,800, and the benefits of CO2 are clear.

There are additional benefits, too, including:

  • Size: CO2 systems are smaller than HFC-based ones and can be designed in various configurations, including ‘direct expansion’ and ‘secondary brine’.
  • Cost: CO2 has excellent heat transfer properties, which means that on average a system can pay for itself in three years.
  • Safety: CO2 systems have low toxicity and are non-flammable.

However, CO2 is not suitable for retrofitting into HFC systems due to its higher operating and standstill pressures.

The challenges of CO2 as a refrigerant

Systems that use CO2 as a refrigerant, however, also present their own distinctive challenges, especially for their lubricants. The principal issues arise due to the high operating pressures and solubility that happen in both subcritical cascade systems and transcritical high pressure CO2 applications.

High operating pressures (a standstill pressure of 50 to 130 bar) and temperatures place higher loads and stresses on bearings and other contacting parts in motion compared with HFCs. This presents particular lubrication challenges.

Also, because CO2 is more solvent than HFCs, lubricants for traditional applications cannot be used. Fortunately, there are synthetic lubricants specifically designed for refrigeration applications that withstand the high solvency of the CO2. They also help protect against insufficient lubrication, which can result in increased bearing wear, reduced component life and increased maintenance costs. Inadequate lubrication can also result in improper sealing of clearances and loss of compression, lower compression efficiency, higher operating cost and greater energy consumption.

Looking at ammonia as a refrigerant

Ammonia refrigerants, another of the ‘natural’ options, have a long history, but were phased out after the introduction of Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the 1920s. Ammonia, in fact, saw the highest growth of all refrigerants during 2015: however like its CO2 counterpart it has its own distinct set of benefits and challenges.

Benefits of ammonia

With a GWP and ODP of zero, ammonia is one of the most environmentally attractive refrigerant options. It also has thermodynamic heat transfer properties that allows for the use of equipment with smaller heat transfer areas, cutting manufacturing costs. Ammonia is also cheaper than HFCs in most countries while also being 3-10% more efficient, which helps reduce energy bills. In terms of lubrication, ammonia’s low vapour pressure reduces oil consumption and the need for top-ups. Its low solvency helps prevent changes in viscosity, which helps ensure a wide temperature operating range.

Challenges of ammonia

Although ammonia systems work at lower pressures than the ones that employ CO2 they still require pressure-related preventative maintenance. This is especially important given the toxic nature of ammonia. It is also flammable, which when combined with its toxicity, means that high levels of training are required for engineers handling ammonia refrigerants. Importantly, ammonia is not immiscible with most oils, which can reduce lubricant efficiency while its high operating temperature can diminish the efficiency of mineral oils, a problem that can be overcome by the use of synthetic oils.

Next generation lubricants

To overcome the lubrication challenges presented by natural refrigerants, ExxonMobil recently introduced two new products. Mobil Gargoyle Arctic™ 68 NH, its most advanced mineral-based lubricant for ammonia applications, and Mobil SHC™ Gargoyle 80 POE, a synthetic oil for COapplications. Mobil Gargoyle Arctic™ 68 NH is designed for large industrial reciprocating and rotary refrigeration compressors. It is formulated to help improve system efficiency and offers cost and performance benefits by extending oil drain intervals while maintaining a superior oil flow across a wide temperature range. Mobil SHC Gargoyle 80 POE is designed specifically for the lubrication of refrigeration compressors using CO2. It offers excellent wear protection, as well as chemical and thermal stability. Its unique formulation offers excellent low-temperature fluidity, in-service viscosity control and potential contribution toward system efficiency improvements, when compared to mineral oils.