02 Ammonia – A Natural Refrigerant // Das natürliche Kältemittel Ammoniak

eurammon-Information No. 2 / Updated version, April 2016

Environmentally friendly, economically efficient


Our developed society depends on industrially produced refrigeration. Whether at home, in the production and storage of foodstuffs like frozen foods, yogurt and coffee, as part of industrial production processes in the automotive and chemicals/pharmaceuticals industry, or in air-conditioning systems – refrigeration is a central element everywhere. Industrially produced refrigeration is what makes a modern lifestyle possible. And natural refrigerants such as ammonia, carbon dioxide and hydrocarbons are an integral element in refrigeration.


Natural refrigerants have been used to produce cold energy – mainly in food production and storage – since the mid-19th century. Ammonia (NH3) in particular has proven its worth in industrial refrigeration for over 120 years. Although “safety refrigerants“ – such as the now illegal CFCs – were increasingly used in plants built in the 1950s and ‘60s, ammonia has always managed to prevail in industrial refrigeration technology. Due in great part to the environmental debate surrounding ozone depletion and global warming, ammonia’s share in the market for refrigeration technology is on the rise again, and companies of long-standing tradition and experience prefer to work with ammonia.


Compelling Characteristics

Ammonia is a colourless gas that liquefies under pressure and has a pungent odour. In refrigeration technology, ammonia is known as R 717 (R = Refrigerant). Although it is synthetically produced for use in refrigeration, ammonia is considered a natural refrigerant because it occurs in nature’s material cycles. Ammonia has no ozone depletion potential (ODP = 0) and no direct greenhouse effect (GWP = 0). Its indirect greenhouse effect contribution is also very limited due to its high energy efficiency. Ammonia is combustible only to a limited degree; its ignition energy is 50 times higher than that of natural gas and ammonia will not burn without a supporting flame. Due to the high affinity of ammonia for atmospheric humidity it is rated as “hardly flammable”. Ammonia is toxic, but has a characteristic, sharp odour with a high warning effect. It becomes noticeable in the air at concentrations of just 3 mg/m³ ammonia. This means that ammonia becomes evident at levels far below those which endanger health (> 1,750 mg/m³). Ammonia is lighter than air and therefore rises quickly.


Ammonia is also an ideal refrigerant from a climate protection point of view, as it contributes neither to ozone depletion nor to global warming. Of all known refrigerants, ammonia requires the lowest primary energy input for the “typical” application fields of the refrigeration and air-conditioning technology to create a given refrigerating capacity, thanks to its excellent thermodynamic properties. This means that its indirect global warming potential is also very low. Thus, plants that use ammonia as opposed to other refrigerants have a better TEWI (Total Equivalent Warming Impact). The TEWI is the sum of the direct global warming impact – caused by the refrigerant lost through leakage and recovery – and the indirect global warming impact, in relation to the energy used over the life of the plant.


Ammonia is sustainable not just from an ecological, but also from an economic point of view. Unlike synthetic refrigerants, it is an inexpensive feedstock and available everywhere. The difference in price becomes evident when initially charging a plant, but also and especially when topping off leakage losses. Experts assume annual losses of between 2 and 17 percent for ramified industrial refrigeration plants, depending on a plant’s age and condition.[1] In addition to the costs of synthetic refrigerants, which are significantly more expensive than ammonia, leakage also puts a considerable strain on our climate whose effects are not yet foreseeable to their full extent.


Energy Savings with Ammonia

Plants that use ammonia also have an edge when it comes to overhead or running costs.[2] Beyond the lower cost from leakages, reasons include lower maintenance expenses and – especially for industrial plants – reduced energy consumption. Ammonia is one of the most efficient refrigerants around, resulting in low energy costs. And finally, there’s the inexpensive disposal when a plant has reached the end of its life.


Ammonia’s virtues as a refrigerant have opened up whole new fields of application. In light of carbon dioxide emissions trading, which forces operators to curb their energy use, many operators are choosing ammonia refrigeration plants. Today, ammonia is used in such widely different fields as process refrigeration, air-conditioning in airports, office buildings and production halls, and sports and recreation facilities. Indirect refrigeration systems and cascades, e.g. using carbon dioxide as the low-temperature refrigerant, now prevail in plant design. The advantage: ammonia charges are kept low, and the “cooling” is delivered to the consumer loads via fluids like carbon dioxide and glycol water.


Properties of Ammonia









characteristic, pungent

Solubility in water (20 ºC, 1 bar)

0.517 kg or 650 l(g)/l water

Heat of solution

36 kJ/mol

Molar mass

17.03 kg/kmol

Boiling point (1.013 bar)

-33.3 ºC

Density of the saturated vapour  (20 ºC)

6.7025 kg/ m³

Thermal decomposition

> 450 ºC

Explosion limits

15 Vol.-% to 34 Vol.-%
108,000 mg/m³
to 240,000 mg/m³

Ignition temperature

650 ºC

Ignition energy (20 ºC, 101 kPa)

14 mJ

Water content in the cycle

of negligible importance

Detection threshold

5 ppm 3.5 mg/m³

MAK value

20 ppm 35 mg/m³

Recognition threshold

250 ppm 175 mg/m³

Tolerance limit

500-1,000 ppm 350-700 mg/m³

Symptoms of poisoning

2,500 ppm 1,750 mg/m³

Fatal concentration

> 5,000 ppm 3,500 mg/m³

Long-term effects

not carcinogenic, not mutagenic

Concentration in human blood

0.8-1.7 ppm

Amount produced daily in the human body

17 g ˜ 1 mol

Water endangerment category

2, ID No. 211

Enthalpy of evaporation at 0 ºC

1,262 kJ/kg

Vapour pressure at 0 ºC

4.29 bar

Pressure ratio at 0 / 35 ºC


Volumetric refrigerating capacity at
0 / 35 ºC

3,798.2 kJ/m³

Isentropic refrigerating capacity number
0 / 35 ºC


Isentropic discharge temperature
0 / 35 ºC

82.6 ºC

Thermal conductivity of the liquid at 0 ºC

518.5 * 10-3 W/mK

Kinematic viscosity of the liquid at 0 ºC

2.66 * 10-7 m²/s

Heat transmission (evaporation, condensation)

very high


Ozone Depletion and Global Warming Potential of Various Refrigerants



Ozone Depletion Potential (ODP)

Global Warming Potential (GWP)

Ammonia (NH3)



Carbon dioxide (CO2)



Hydrocarbons (Propane C3H8, Butane C4H10)



Water (H2O)



Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)


4600–14000 [3]

Partly halogenated Chlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs)


120–2400 [3]

Perfluorinated hydrocarbons (PFCs)


5700–11900 [3]

Partly halogenated fluorinated hydrocarbons (HFCs)


124–14800 [4]

Unsaturated fluorinated hydrocarbons (HFOs) 0 < 10 – effects on the environment no known to full extent

Ozone Depletion Potential (ODP)

The depletion of the ozone layer is driven primarily by the catalytic action of chlorine, fluorine and bromine in compounds, which split up ozone molecules (O3), thus destroying the ozone layer. A compound’s Ozone Depletion Potential (ODP) is shown as its equivalent in chlorine (ODP of a chlorine molecule = 1).


Global Warming Potential (GWP)

The greenhouse effect arises from the capacity of materials in the atmosphere to reflect the heat emitted by the Earth back onto the Earth. The direct Global Warming Potential (GWP) of a compound is shown as a CO2 equivalent (GWP of a CO2 molecule = 1).



[1]   Palandre, L., Clodic, D., Kuijpers, L.: HCFCs and HFCs emissions from the refrigerating systems for the period 2004–2015, The Earth Technology Forum, Washington DC, April 14 2004.

[2]   König, H., Roth, R.: Wirtschaftlichkeitsanalyse für Industrie-Kälteanlagen mit CO2 als Tieftemperaturkältemittel, KI Luft- und Kältetechnik, C. F. Müller-Verlag, Karlsruhe, S. 333–336, Heft 7, 2002. (Feasibility Analysis for Industrial Refrigeration Plants Using CO2 as Low-Temperature Refrigerant)

[3]   IPCC III Status Report – 2001

[4]   IPCC IV Status Report – 2005 (Basic for F-Gas Regulation 517/2014)



In case of doubt, the German-language original should be consulted as the authoritative text.


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