The chemical composition of modern refrigerant compounds has changed over the last few decades as a result of environmental concerns and international treaty agreements like the Montreal Protocol. Older refrigerant formulas containing chlorine atoms that had the potential to damage the ozone layer have slowly been phased out in favor of more environmentally friendly coolants [source: EPA].
Air conditioners use refrigeration to chill indoor air, taking advantage of a remarkable physical law: When a liquid converts to a gas (in a process called phase conversion), it absorbs heat. Air conditioners exploit this feature of phase conversion by forcing special chemical compounds to evaporate and condense over and over again in a closed system of coils.
The compounds involved are refrigerants that have properties enabling them to change at relatively low temperatures. Air conditioners also contain fans that move warm interior air over these cold, refrigerant-filled coils. In fact, central air conditioners have a whole system of ducts designed to funnel air to and from these serpentine, air-chilling coils.
When hot air flows over the cold, low-pressure evaporator coils, the refrigerant inside absorbs heat as it changes from a liquid to a gaseous state. To keep cooling efficiently, the air conditioner has to convert the refrigerant gas back to a liquid again. To do that, a compressor puts the gas under high pressure, a process that creates unwanted heat. All the extra heat created by compressing the gas is then evacuated to the outdoors with the help of a second set of coils called condenser coils, and a second fan. As the gas cools, it changes back to a liquid, and the process starts all over again. Think of it as an endless, elegant cycle: liquid refrigerant, phase conversion to a gas/ heat absorption, compression and phase transition back to a liquid again.
It's easy to see that there are two distinct things going on in an air conditioner. Refrigerant is chilling the indoor air, and the resulting gas is being continually compressed and cooled for conversion back to a liquid again. On the next page, we'll look at how the different parts of an air conditioner work to make all that possible.