Natural refrigerant-based technologies are going to become “more common” in the Latin American market, according to David Osma, Project Engineer at Weston, a Colombian designer, manufacturer and installer of commercial and industrial refrigeration equipment.

To meet the region’s growing demand for natural refrigerants, the company is currently developing larger propane (R290) plug-in cabinets and chillers in line with updated international safety standards for commercial refrigeration equipment. These larger units will be available from January 2024, he added.

Whether it’s hydrocarbons or CO2 (R744), natural refrigerants offer “high versatility” for end users in the LATAM market, he said.

Osma delivered his remarks during the Contractors Panel session at the ATMOsphere (ATMO) Latin America (LATAM) Summit 2023. The conference took place November 8–9 in Mexico City and was organized by ATMOsphere, publisher of Hydrocarbons21.com.

Adoption of natural refrigerants

Weston began working with natural refrigerants in 2017 with its first CO2 installation. It then partnered with German OEM and transcritical CO2 specialist TEKO in 2019 to broaden the adoption of the technology in LATAM.

The company expanded into R290 three years ago with a project in collaboration with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the Colombian Ministry of Environment, explained Osma. The goal of the project was to develop energy-efficient natural refrigerant-based refrigeration equipment, and the manufacturer produced eight prototypes – three centralized units and five self-contained cabinets.

Based on results of the UNDP project, Weston has developed two types of R290-based equipment: a self-contained refrigerated display case that can be connected to a waterloop system depending on the application and location, and an R290 chiller designed for chain stores and cold storage for flower crops.

According to Osma, Weston is developing propane-based products with larger loads in line with regulations allowing higher refrigerant-charge limits.

“We want to foster these more,” he said. “The flower market is a good application here.”

Larger plug-ins are also good for food retail stores where installing centralized systems is difficult due to space, time or noise restrictions, or in stores where extending the pipework of its central systems is a challenge, he added.

‘Sustainable versatility’

During his presentation, Osma noted that natural refrigerants offer “sustainable versatility,” with several associated benefits ranging from reduced carbon footprint, energy consumption and maintenance costs to increased reliability (due to enhanced monitoring), a good return on investment and the possibility of tax incentives.

With regard to which refrigerant might be best, it varies from store to store, he explained.

“Each store is different; what works for one site might not work for another,” he said. “Sometime customers use both CO2 and hydrocarbons in the same shop.”

Decisions are often made based on financial drivers, including refrigerants, leaks, maintenance, energy costs and capex, among other things, but environmental factors are also a consideration, Osma said.

“Each store is different; what works for one site might not work for another. Sometime customers use both CO2 and hydrocarbons in the same shop.”

David Osma, Weston

Challenges to overcome

To ensure the adoption of natural refrigerants in LATAM, several challenges must be overcome, explained Osma. These include the cost of converting production lines to meet safety standards, a lack of awareness among end users and suppliers, the affordability and accessibility of f-gases like Freon, cheap energy and a lack of highly trained personnel.

“We have our own installers [whom] we have trained up internally,” he said. “For the rest of the market, the Colombian government has a program to create awareness among installers and technicians with propane training. The government is supporting a lot [in Colombia], but that is missing in other countries.”

He also noted a lack of government subsidies and incentives, as well as the demanding design conditions of tropical climates.