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A tale of counterfeits and contaminants

Thursday, May 1, 2014 - 07:00
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This newest model of identifier can work on R1234yf and R134a systems. Photo: Neutronics

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Back in March 2011, Auto A/C Reporter (AAR), a respected publication serving the automotive air conditioning industry in Europe, reported the discovery of severely contaminated R134a in several locations across the European Union. The magazine reported that these containers contained large quantities of R40 and R22, and there had been instances of severe system damage as a result of the use of these contaminated sources. About the same time, it was found that hundreds, if not thousands, of international refrigerated shipping containers had been serviced with the same formulation of counterfeit refrigerant.

Inside those containers, a bomb was brewing.

R40 is more properly known as methyl chloride. Any material can be used as a refrigerant if you can manipulate its pressures accordingly, and any material considered for use as such is assigned an “R” designation. The problem with using this particular gas in any modern refrigeration unit — be it a shipping, automotive or aerospace application — is that it doesn’t play well with the aluminum found in most of these systems. When it interacts with aluminum, it forms a third compound called trimethylaluminum (TMA) that is “pyrophoric” — which means that it is a flammable liquid and vapor that ignites in contact with air.

Kind of like the contact with air you might see in a leaking system, or when connecting your service equipment.

U.S. Army issues alert

As the evidence grew that the use of R40 in formulating counterfeit refrigerants was not limited to a particular geographical area, the U.S. Department of the Army issued a G4 All Army Action (ALARACT) message titled “Counterfeit R-134A of 021415MAR12,” highlighting the discovery and potential dangers of R40 present in these counterfeit supplies.

Andrew Schultz, lead engineer of Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center’s (TARDEC’s) Power Lab, told Motor Age, “When we became aware of the news about counterfeit refrigerant problems, we surveyed our vehicles at various locations. This revealed that we had contaminated refrigerant in our [ground] vehicles.”

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