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When industrial ice making became popular in the late 19th century, ice houses were huge buildings with massive refrigeration equipment. The refrigerant gas used was Ammonia. You know how it smells, so you can imagine how dangerous an unexpected release of the refrigerant would be. Still, it powers industrial ice making plants in many parts of the world.
In the late 1800s, when smaller commercial refrigeration units became available, the first popular refrigerant was sulfur dioxide. You know how rotten eggs smell, so you know sulfur dioxide. Methyl chloride was then used, it is colorless and smells slightly sweet, but it is highly inflammable and toxic in large quantities, so it’s use ended about the time of World War II.
In the 1920s, after tragic accidents with refrigerants; General Motors, who owned Frigidaire, and DuPont Chemical set about looking for a better refrigerant. They developed chlorofluorocarbons with several derivatives, which were branded as “Freon” This became the refrigerant of choice, replacing methyl chloride; and other manufacturers produced similar products with all becoming known as Freon in the trade.
Regretfully, decades later it was discovered that chlorofluorocarbons were extremely dangerous to the earth’s ozone layer, which protects us from too much sun radiation. Freon manufacture is now illegal in the US, but licensed technicians are allowed to recapture it from a system, where it is then recycled and used again. The cost of the recycled gas is many times the cost of the original and highly taxed, so as present systems wear out, it will eventually cease to exist.
R-134a and R-404a are now popular as refrigerants because they have zero ozone depletion potential as well as a low direct global warming potential. There are other refrigerant derivatives being developed as we progress.