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Keeping His Cool

Honeywell's Ian Shankland is awarded Perkin Medal for game-changing refrigerants and foam-blowing agents

by Marc S. Reisch
September 15, 2008 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 86, ISSUE 37

Follow The Leader
Credit: Honeywell
Shankland charts auto air-conditioning refrigerants from earliest to current to latest—HFO-1234yf, whose development he is leading.
Credit: Honeywell
Shankland charts auto air-conditioning refrigerants from earliest to current to latest—HFO-1234yf, whose development he is leading.

FIRST AS A BENCH CHEMIST at Honeywell International and later as a leader of research teams at the firm, Ian R. Shankland has devoted most of his 27-year career to the practical implications of the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer. The international treaty, which entered into force in 1989 and has been amended several times since, required the phaseout of several groups of halogenated hydrocarbons that were damaging Earth's protective upper atmospheric ozone layer.

For his devotion to preserving the environment, Shankland, a physical chemist and director of technology at Honeywell, will receive the Perkin Medal on Wednesday of this week at a dinner in his honor in Philadelphia. The award, from the American Section of the London-based Society of Chemical Industry (SCI), recognizes outstanding work in applied chemistry.

Shankland will receive the medal for his efforts to develop commercial alternatives to ozone-depleting fluorochemicals commonly used as refrigerants, aerosols, foam-blowing agents, and sterilants. SCI executives say the medal also serves as a positive example to chemists who will increasingly find that they must respond to government-mandated regulations with novel and cost-effective chemistry solutions.

Shankland and his colleagues developed seven commercial substitutes for ozone-depleting substances. They are hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC)-141b, a low-ozone-depleting blowing agent for closed-cell polyurethane insulating foam; HCFC-141b-based solvents for precision electronics cleaning; hydrofluorocarbon (HFC)-245fa, a second-generation foam-blowing agent; R-410A, a refrigerant for residential air conditioners; R-507, a refrigerant for stationary and commercial refrigeration units; and two blends of fluorochemicals and ethylene oxide used by hospitals and medical device makers to sterilize heat-sensitive reusable apparatus.

More recently, scientists have learned that some of these substitutes are powerful global-warming gases. To meet new European regulations, Shankland and his team responded with blowing agents and refrigerants that combine low ozone-depleting potential with low global-warming potential. They include a refrigerant for automotive air conditioners, hydrofluoroolefin (HFO)-1234yf, which Honeywell is developing with DuPont, and a proprietary blowing agent code-named HBA-1 for insulating foam used in new construction.

SCI executive committee member David N. Weidman tells C&EN that in choosing a winner the group reviewed a strong slate of founders of major companies with a deep science background—people similar to last year's Perkin Medal winner, Herbert W. Boyer, cofounder of the biotechnology company Genentech. Weidman, who is also chief executive officer of Celanese, says the group also reviewed individuals who have made strong scientific contributions to the chemical industry—people like Dow Chemical scientist James C. Stevens, an inventor of catalysts and plastics who won the 2006 medal.

The selection of Shankland, he says, was made easier by the recognition that the chemical industry may once again need to focus on solutions to complex regulatory issues. The 18-year period following the Montreal protocol was a relatively quiet one without major new chemical regulatory initiatives, Weidman points out. But that has now changed, thanks to the launch of the European Union's program for the Registration, Evaluation & Authorization of Chemicals, REACH, which went into effect last year, and to increased government concerns worldwide over the global-warming potential of industrial emissions, he says.

Shankland worked for Weidman between 1995 and 1997, when the latter headed the fluorine products business at Honeywell's predecessor, AlliedSignal. Weidman says he saw firsthand Shankland's success at developing substitutes for ozone-depleting chemicals. Challenges posed by REACH and the call for reductions in global-warming gases will affect a wide variety of chemicals. "Society will continue to have higher and higher expectations of the chemical industry," Weidman notes. Those who follow the example set by Shankland and his company will prosper under such demanding circumstances, he says.

Shankland "had the insight to understand what industry needed."

Shankland, who grew up in Australia, developed a keen appreciation for chemistry during his junior year in high school because of an enthusiastic teacher, Michael Kovaleff, with whom he still keeps in touch today. Top grades in a statewide exam helped further direct his focus on chemistry, although he was keen on mathematics, too. He settled on physical chemistry as his undergraduate major at the University of Adelaide as a way to combine his love of chemistry and math.

In graduate school he concentrated on the study of fluids, gases, and their transport properties. After receiving his Ph.D. at the University of Adelaide, he expected to pursue an academic career. In the late 1970s, the newly married Shankland and his wife, Erica, moved to Brown University, in Providence, R.I. There he completed a three-year postdoctoral stint with Joseph Kestin, head of the Center for Energy Studies, on a project to measure the heat transport properties of subterranean brine.

Shankland initially intended to go back to Australia, but he decided to interview for a research position at the Allied Chemical research installation in Buffalo, N.Y. In 1981, he seized the opportunity to get a bit of industrial experience as a way to enhance his academic credentials. He and his wife planned to stay in Buffalo for only a year, but they spent 17 years there. In Buffalo, they raised two daughters and saw snow storms the likes of which they had never seen in Australia. Shankland now works at Honeywell headquarters in Morristown, N.J.

Shankland recalls that his earliest projects for Allied focused on the use of fluorocarbons in gas-fired heat pumps for home heating and cooling and in solar hot-water systems. But his priorities shifted when the Montreal protocol was signed in 1989. The international agreement called for a 50% phaseout of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) by 2000; Allied, a major CFC maker, had to move quickly to come up with alternatives. "We had to develop environmentally safer products that retained the good attributes of CFCs such as low toxicity, low flammability, and good heat-transfer properties," he recalls.

CFCs were also chemically inert, which means they did not decompose in an air conditioner or in foam. "But that was their Achilles' heel," Shankland says. "They were so chemically stable that when they leaked into the atmosphere, they didn't decompose. Their atmospheric lifetimes were hundreds of years—sufficient time to be transported to the stratosphere, where they do decompose by exposure to ultraviolet radiation," he explains. "As a consequence, they liberate chlorine atoms that catalytically destroy Earth's protective ozone layer." Without that layer, UV radiation at ground level would rise, leading to increases in skin cancer, damage to crops, and harm to marine life.

Shankland met the crisis head on. "It was a good time for science and the environment and a great time to be a chemist," he says. He immediately began working to find a new blowing agent to replace CFC-11 in refrigerator insulation foams. Soon after, he took on responsibility for finding a replacement for the CFC-12 used to make medical device sterilization gases.

Shankland and the team of scientists he led worked with academic colleagues, refrigeration equipment makers, and even competitors to develop and qualify a new generation of non-ozone-depleting chemicals. After the Montreal protocol came into force, says Kenneth N. Marsh, a thermodynamics expert and editor of the American Chemical Society's Journal of Chemical & Engineering Data, he and Shankland "had many discussions regarding the measurement of the properties of some new non-ozone-depleting refrigerants." Those talks ultimately led to the development of the refrigerant mixture R-410A for residential air-conditioning units.

John Winfield, a fluorine chemist at the University of Glasgow, in Scotland, says, "I regard the work that Ian has led in the production of the alternative foam-blowing agent HFC-245fa very highly." He says the research team and "world class" facilities assembled at Allied were "no doubt due to a great extent to Ian's leadership."

Another colleague, William F. Walter of United Technologies' Carrier heating and refrigeration equipment unit, recalls working closely with Shankland in the 1990s. Walter was a bench chemist, and Shankland chaired a committee of refrigerant suppliers and users established to set standards. "Ian had the insight to understand what industry needed," says Walter, who is now Carrier's manager of industry relations. Shankland spent a lot of time meeting with equipment makers, Walter adds.

Credit: Honeywell
Credit: Honeywell

THE DISCOVERY of the stratospheric ozone hole in the upper atmosphere of Antarctica led to amendments to the Montreal protocol in the mid-1990s. They called for the ultimate phaseout of all chlorine-containing fluorocarbons, just when Honeywell had opened a new plant to make the chlorine-containing foam-blowing agent HCFC-141b.

Trying to get ahead of the curve, Shankland proposed a project to develop a replacement that ultimately became HFC-245fa. When HCFC-141b was phased out on Jan. 1, 2003, Honeywell was ready. The company had started up a "brand-new, $100 million 245fa plant about six months before that," he says. To complete the HFC-245fa development project, Shankland gathered a team of more than 50 people. The plant design and building phase, he points out, involved many more people.

"If you look at what's been done from an overall industry perspective, including end users like the automotive industry and stationary air conditioner makers, billions of dollars were spent moving away from CFCs," Shankland says.

Now another phaseout effort is under way. Many more dollars are being spent to find replacements for the now-standard automotive air-conditioning chemical, HFC-134a, which does not deplete atmospheric ozone but has a global-warming potential (GWP) 1,400 greater than an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide, the standard measure of global-warming gases.

Emissions of global-warming gases are regulated by the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which the U.S. has not signed. The European Union did sign it, though, and has enacted a ban on the use of HFC-134a in new cars beginning in 2011. The EU has also directed that any replacement must have a GWP of less than 150. Shankland's team at Honeywell is now working together with DuPont to develop HFO-1234yf, a substitute with a GWP of about 4.

Shankland says he's not entirely convinced of the need to replace HFC-134a. "Even though HFCs are potent greenhouse gases," he says, "they make a small contribution overall because CO2 emissions and other greenhouse gas emissions, such as nitrous oxide and methane, are very high by comparison."

However, he acknowledges the need to deal with the reality of the new EU regulations and greenhouse gas regulations under consideration in California, Australia, and Japan. Honeywell and DuPont should have HFO-1234yf in production in time for automotive customers to meet the new regulations. The hydrofluoroolefin's main competition, ironically enough, is from CO2 itself, which some automakers and environmental groups are proposing as a substitute for HFC-134a.

Shankland contends that CO2 is not nearly as energy efficient in the long run as HFO-1234yf. He argues that a climate-performance analysis over 10 to 20 years shows that air-conditioning's greatest contribution to global warming comes from the CO2 emitted while burning fossil fuels to drive air-conditioning systems—and not from the refrigeration gas in those systems.

"To decrease the environmental footprint of your refrigerator or automotive air conditioner, it is important to increase its energy efficiency," he says. "I would propose that we use a technology with the lowest life-cycle climate performance. Choose a technology with low GWP, but also choose a technology that is energy efficient."

Having worked on replacements for ozone-depleting chemicals, Shankland is gratified that "recent measurements show that chlorine is decreasing in the atmosphere." He can look back on work with fellow chemists and find nine substitutes for ozone-depleting substances that he saw go from the bench to production and widespread adaptation.

"You don't have many opportunities to do that," Shankland says. "And to do it more than once, that's extraordinary. You have to be lucky in life as a chemist to have that opportunity."



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