By Bill Bradner (for U.S. Army Environmental Command)April 19, 2013
The Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) recently won the 2012 Secretary of the Army Environmental Award for Excellence in Weapon System Acquisition for their work in detecting and mitigating the effects of counterfeit refrigerant in Army vehicles.
TARDEC is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, located in Warren, Mich.
The Center formed an integrated process team (IPT) in response to an All Army Activities (ALARACT) Message sent March 2, 2012, that alerted the Army that they may have been provided with contaminated of counterfeit refrigerant. The ALARACT indicated that contaminated refrigerant had been found in the Middle East and Europe and had caused cooling system fires when technicians serviced systems that contained R-40, and not the safer R-134a.
R-40 is also a suspected carcinogen, contains a deadly chemical called methyl chloride, and is flammable when exposed to aluminum.
At the time of the ALARACT, the U.S. Army had not received any reported incidents involving counterfeit refrigerant. However, since many Army vehicles use aluminum in their coolant/refrigerant systems, and existing unit recovery/refill equipment did not identify whether or not refrigerant contained R-40, the IPT needed to act quickly to prevent damage to property or injury to personnel.
"There were environmental impacts, as well," said Andrew Schultz, Lead Engineer in the TARDEC division, "due to refrigerants leaking out of contaminated systems.
Their plan called for determining if Army vehicles or containers contained counterfeit refrigerants, determining the impact and contamination risk if R-40 was present, determining the risks involved in servicing equipment with R-40 and how to mitigate those risks, developing a field testing unit to allow Soldiers to test refrigerant prior to use, and developing disposal procedures for contaminated refrigerants.
The IPT worked with industry and academia subject matter experts, members of the Society of Automotive Engineers and the Defense Logistics Agency, and numerous other Departments of the Army and Defense logistics, safety, maintenance and depot representatives to develop solutions for the identification, containment and mitigation of contaminated refrigerants.
The TARDEC-Industry collaboration was instrumental in being able to quickly develop, test and field information products, solutions and testing and mitigation equipment.
"Without industry, it may have taken 21 to 24 months to duplicate the required characteristics," said Jeffrey Marcinok, a TARDEC Mechanical Engineer, "but there had already been years of technological development in industry.
"The goal of the IPT was to leverage that technology already in place, by modifying it to fit Army and Department of Defense needs," Marcinok added.
One of their first products was a "Safety of Use" message to the field, developed in coordination with TACOM LCMC officials. The message included technical information and precautionary measures to take when working with refrigerants of unknown quality. Initial research conducted indicated that the counterfeit refrigerant erodes the seals built to sustain R-134a systems, allowing potentially toxic gases to leak into vehicles during operations. The intent was to ensure the safety of maintenance personnel and vehicle operators as quickly as possible.
No incidents were reported in the Army or DoD that were attributed to counterfeit refrigerant when the safety of use message was released, but there had been three deaths reported in the refrigerated shipping container industry that were directly attributed to counterfeit refrigerant, Shutlz explained.
"Other instances of vehicle and machinery explosions were thought to be the result of contaminated refrigerant," Shultz said, "and since we knew there was a possibility of deployed units buying refrigeration locally, we stressed the importance of being proactive to Army leadership."
Concurrent with the safety of use message, TARDEC began working with Michigan Technological University researchers to assess R-40 effects on system components and how it reacts with system components and other refrigerant oils.
In the months following, through extensive Army-wide integrated vehicle screening initiatives, more than 18 different refrigerants were found in military vehicles, including the toxic and reactive R-40 which initially sparked the formation of the IPT.
To allow the field to safely and effectively detect counterfeit refrigerants, TARDEC leveraged their automotive industry relationships to develop an electronic tester for R-134a. Via a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with Neutronics, Inc., existing testers were modified and updated to identify vehicle systems contaminated with counterfeit refrigerants. TACOM performed initial field tests in Kuwait, and stationed testers at several Army Depots to increase the number of vehicles tested, the initial data collection and user feedback on the testing devices.
"Discussions with industry also revealed a machine that could be adapted to recover contaminated systems," Shultz said. "We were able to use various commercial-off-the-shelf components for recovery.
In less than a year, the technology was transferred to the field in the form of an electronic test kit and instructions for use.
To date, there have been no reports of injury to personnel or major loss of equipment in the Army due to contaminated refrigerants… though approximately 25% of the vehicles tested have contained some level of refrigerant contamination, Shultz said.
Due to the large varieties of contaminants found in the initial testing stages, a lab analysis is required to determine what mix is in the refrigerant system if it doesn't contain pure R-134a. Some mixtures require special handling and expensive disposal equipment. Procedures for safely repairing contaminated vehicles are currently being developed, and for now contaminated vehicles are being isolated until those procedures are validated.
The field testing kit will also help isolate the source(s) of contaminated refrigerants, allowing officials to ensure contaminated sources are not used in the future.