The History of Freon

Technician checking car air conditioner refrigerant levels
Checking air conditioner refrigerant levels.

Witthaya Prasongsin / Getty Images

Refrigerators from the late 1800s until 1929 used the toxic gasses, ammonia (NH3), methyl chloride (CH3Cl), and sulfur dioxide (SO2), as refrigerants. Several fatal accidents occurred in the 1920s because of methyl chloride leakage from refrigerators. People started leaving their refrigerators in their backyards. A collaborative effort began between three American corporations, Frigidaire, General Motors and DuPont to search for a less dangerous method of refrigeration.

In 1928, Thomas Midgley, Jr. aided by Charles Franklin Kettering invented a "miracle compound" called Freon. Freon represents several different chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, which are used in commerce and industry. The CFCs are a group of aliphatic organic compounds containing the elements carbon and fluorine, and, in many cases, other halogens (especially chlorine) and hydrogen. Freons are colorless, odorless, nonflammable, noncorrosive gasses or liquids.

Charles Franklin Kettering

Charles Franklin Kettering invented the first electric automobile ignition system. He was also the vice-president of the General Motors Research Corporation from 1920 to 1948. General Motors' scientist, Thomas Midgley invented leaded (ethyl) gasoline.

Thomas Midgley was chosen by Kettering to head the research into the new refrigerants. In 1928, Midgley and Kettering invented a "miracle compound" called Freon. Frigidaire received the first patent, US#1,886,339, for the formula for CFCs on December 31, 1928.

In 1930, General Motors and DuPont formed the Kinetic Chemical Company to produce Freon. By 1935, Frigidaire and its competitors had sold 8 million new refrigerators in the United States using Freon made by the Kinetic Chemical Company. In 1932, the Carrier Engineering Corporation used Freon in the world's first self-contained home air conditioning unit, called an "Atmospheric Cabinet." The trade name Freon® is a registered trademark belonging to E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company (DuPont).

Environmental Impact

Because Freon is non-toxic, it eliminated the danger posed by refrigerator leaks. In just a few years, compressor refrigerators using Freon would become the standard for almost all home kitchens. In 1930, Thomas Midgley held a demonstration of the physical properties of Freon for the American Chemical Society by inhaling a lung-full of the new wonder gas and breathing it out onto a candle flame, which was extinguished, thus showing the gas's non-toxicity and non-flammable properties. Only decades later did people realize that such chlorofluorocarbons endangered the ozone layer of the entire planet.

CFCs, or Freon, are now infamous for greatly adding to the depletion of the earth's ozone shield. Leaded gasoline is also a major pollutant, and Thomas Midgley secretly suffered from lead poisoning because of his invention, a fact he kept hidden from the public.

Most uses of CFCs are now banned or severely restricted by the Montreal Protocol, because of the ozone depletion. Brands of Freon containing hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) instead have replaced many uses, but they, too, are under strict control under the Kyoto protocol, as they are deemed "super-greenhouse effect" gasses. They are no longer used in aerosols, but to date, no suitable, general use alternatives to the halocarbons have been found for refrigeration that is not flammable or toxic, problems the original Freon was devised to avoid.

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Your Citation
Bellis, Mary. "The History of Freon." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 28). The History of Freon. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "The History of Freon." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).