Coolant safety row puts the heat on Europe's carmakers

Wed Dec 12, 2012 5:22am EST
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By Christiaan Hetzner

FRANKFURT (Reuters) - When engineers at Mercedes-Benz tasked with field-testing a revolutionary new refrigerant watched it ignite in a ball of fire before their eyes, it took a while for the significance of their discovery to sink in.

Simulating a leak in the air-conditioning line of a Mercedes B-Class tourer, they had released a fine mixture of refrigerant and A/C compressor oil, which sprayed across the car's turbo-charged 1.6 liter engine.

The substance caught fire as soon as it hit the hot surface, releasing a toxic, corrosive gas as it burned. The car's windshield turned milky white as lethal hydrogen fluoride began eating its way into the glass.

"We were frozen in shock, I am not going to deny it. We needed a day to comprehend what we had just seen," said Stefan Geyer, a senior Daimler engineer who ran the tests.

Air-conditioning refrigerants are not the stuff of controversy. Traditionally, they have been made of relatively innocuous chemicals that change from liquid to vapor and back again, transferring heat and cooling the surrounding air in the process.

But the discovery at the German carmaker's Sindelfingen test track in early August suggested this new product posed a very real risk to car passengers.

It has set off a battle royal between Daimler and U.S. conglomerate Honeywell (HON.N: Quote), replete with mudslinging, conspiracy theories and spin-doctoring.

At stake is not just a lucrative business for Honeywell and its partner Dupont (DD.N: Quote), who have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to develop, market and produce the coolant known as HFO-1234yf. Their refrigerant also happens to be the only product of its kind that meets new EU climate guidelines.   Continued...

Employees of German car manufacturer Mercedes Benz work on Mercedes B-class cars at the Mercedes plant in Rastatt July 16, 2012. REUTERS/Alex Domanski