WASHINGTON — Think propane and butane are just for barbecuing? Think again: The common cooking fuels can also chill your drinks and ice cream with less energy and almost none of the global warming worries of current refrigerants.
Some of the world’s largest consumer product companies are promoting freezers and refrigerators in the U.S. that use propane, butane and other coolants that don’t trap heat in the atmosphere as much as Freon and other conventional refrigerants.
The new so-called hydrocarbon coolers are being tested by Ben&Jerry’s ice cream company at stores in the Washington and Boston areas. Meanwhile, General Electric is seeking approval to market a home refrigerator in the U.S. using a hydrocarbon refrigerant.
The new freezers take advantage of the way hydrocarbon gases absorb heat when they change from a liquid to a gas. It’s the same process when a propane tank becomes cool to the touch when you’re using it with a gas grill. The hydrocarbon refrigerant is compressed and expanded as it makes its way through the compressor and tubes surrounding the freezer.
Unlike car exhaust that’s spewed directly into the air, the coolants used in most U.S. refrigerators today only enter the atmosphere when their compressors leak, or when appliances are thrown out and their refrigerant eventually escapes.