Potent "Missing Greenhouse Gas" Not Regulated By Global Warming Agreements

by Patriot Daily

A recent study has concluded that NF3 (nitrogen trifluoride), which is used in the manufacture of computers, cell phones, TVs and solar panels, can be identified as the "missing greenhouse gas." The study warns that NF3 may "cause more global warming than coal-fired power plants" because NF3 is 17,000 times "more potent than carbon dioxide." NF3 remains in our atmosphere for 550 years but it is not regulated by Kyoto or other agreements yet production of NF3 is significantly increasing. The irony is that the industry initially switched over to NF3 in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The study was conducted by University of California atmospheric chemists Michael J. Prather and Juno Hsu, who report that NF3 is a synthetic chemical which is not included in the Kyoto "basket of greenhouse gases or in national reporting under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)." NF3 was not included in Kyoto because it was used in small amounts when the Kyoto protocol was negotiated in 1997: Perfluorocarbons (PFCs) were then used in the computer industry but 2/3 of the PFCs "escaped into the atmosphere, contributing to the greenhouse effect." NF3 was viewed as an environmentally beneficial alternative:

Reacting to environmental concerns, the industry sought a substitute -- and estimated that NF3, though it had greater potential for global warming, was less likely to escape into the air.

Now, the study concluded that the signification production quantities of NF3 kick it up the scale of potential GHG impacts:

With 2008 production equivalent to 67 million metric tons of CO2, NF3 has a potential greenhouse impact larger than that of the industrialized nations' emissions of PFCs or SF6, or even that of the world's largest coal-fired power plants.

NF3 was previously believed to have a lifetime of 740 years, but this study calculated a shorter life of 550 years. Even knocking off 190 years leaves a substantial period of time for deleterious impacts:

What kind of impact is this suppose to have, you ask? The chemical is found to stay in the atmosphere for 550 years and there is no force of nature known to remove it. This year, nitrogen trifluoride emissions are expected to have an impact equal to Austria's CO2 output. Production of the chemical may double in 2009. The study points to a number of NF3 manufacturing facilities opening up in the US, Korea, and China. The production increase is due in part to the switch to digital television which will lead to increased LCD consumption and the disposal of older sets, some of them early LCD models.

This study is important because LCD monitors have been marketed as "environmentally friendly":

LCD monitors have long been presented as environmentally friendly, particularly next to lead-laden, energy inefficient CRT models. According to ENERGY STAR, they consume half to two-thirds the energy of CRTs. Heat output is also less, leading to lower air conditioning bills.

This year alone, plasma or LCD TVs constitute almost half of the global TV purchases. Moreover, the flat-screen TV market is expected to significantly increase when the US moves to digital television next year: "Americans are expected to discard 80 million analog TVs by the end of 2009."

While production has increased, Professor Michael Prather states that there are no reporting requirements. He estimates 4,000 tons of NF3 will be produced in 2008 and that number is likely to double to 8,000 metric tons in 2009. While production increases, it is unknown how much of the NF3 is being released into our atmosphere:

We don't know what's emitted, but what they're producing every year dwarfs these giant coal-fired power plants that are like the biggest in the world. And it dwarfs two of the Kyoto gases. So the real question we don't know is how much is escaping and getting out.

Critics of this study claim that this NF3 scare is much ado about nothing because the study concludes:

If released, annual production would increase the lower atmospheric abundance by 0.4 ppt, and it is urgent to document NF3 emissions through atmospheric observations.

Blogger Eli concluded that "there is no chance in hell that even 1% of the annual production would ever be released to the atmosphere including in case of nuclear war" because NF3 is "destroyed" in the electronics industry process. Eli notes that only one other blog realized that NF3 may not be as harmful as determined by this study. The Physical Insights blog stated:

I must say, this looks like more biased "You've got a TV? You're guilty of climate change!" baloney from the "green" fanatics in the press who like spinning scientific papers out of context.

A guest contributor at grist agreed with blogger Eli, concluding that "Plasma TVs won't catch up to SUVs, carnivorous pets (e.g., dogs and cats), MacDonalds hamburgers, or junk mail as contributors to climate chaos any time soon."

NPR reported yesterday that a "major producer of NF3" also, not surprisingly, disagrees with the study:

Not everyone agrees. Corning Painter, Vice President at Air Products, a major producer of NF3, believes that Prather got it wrong. He writes that for one thing, NF3 has replaced another product that was significantly worse for the environment. More important, he says, only two percent of NF3s are released into the atmosphere during product manufacturing. He says Mr. Prather's worst-case scenario assumes that a 100 percent is released.

It should be noted that Air Products is the "world's leading producer" of NF3 and has vested financial interests at stake because the company last year announced plans for "major production expansion at its U.S. and Korean plants."However, the NF3 producer Air Products generally agrees with the UC study that NF3 production will increase substantially. Air Products provided estimates of NF3 world production which appears to be generally in the same ballpark as the UC study. The UC study author estimated 4,000 tons of NF3 will be produced in 2008 and that number is likely to double to 8,000 metric tons in 2009. Air Products NF3 producer estimated world production of 8,000 tons annually by 2010. (Note: A metric ton is similar to a ton. A metric ton is "equivalent to 1,000 kilograms" while a "ton is equal to 2000 pounds, or roughly 907kg").

In terms of impact, everyone seems to agree that NF3 is a potent greenhouse gas with a long lifetime and some in the electronics industry are now using alternatives in order to reduce GHG emissions. There is also agreement that NF3 is not regulated by global warming agreements.

The disagreement between the UC study and the NF3 producer Air Products lies in the quantification of NF3 emissions during manufacturing:

Air Products officials say that about 2% of NF3 is emitted during manufacturing and that much of that is burned off before reaching the atmosphere.

But Prather, a leading author of the influential reports of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, cited a study showing that even "under ideal conditions," more than 3% may be emitted. And, he added, "a slippery gas" such as NF3 could easily leak out undetected during manufacture, transport, application or disposal.

"We don't know if 1% is getting out or 20% is getting out. . . . But once you let the genie out of the bottle, you can't get it back in."

The UC researchers are presenting trying to develop a "method to measure concentrations of the gas in the atmosphere so that industry emissions estimates would not be the only source of information."

It is noteworthy that atmospheric scientists not associated with the UC study agree that the UC study has raised valid questions which need to be addressed:

  1. Charles E. Kolb Jr., an IPCC scientist (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a scientific body created by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme) agrees that "NF3 lives a very long time in the atmosphere" and given that it is hard to control "carbon dioxide and methane -- we shouldn't be creating a new problem."
  1. "Another climate scientist, V. (Ram) Ramanathan of UC San Diego, noted the potency and long life of NF3, adding: 'This paper raises new awareness of this molecule. We need to know how much of these super-greenhouse gases are up there.'"

The good news is that concerns over NF3 led Toshiba Matsushita Display Technology in 2006 to find a substitute for NF3 to reduce GHG emissions.

And, today, The Linde Group, a technology company, presented a "unique solution to replace the powerful greenhouse gas" NF3 in the production of LCDs and solar panels.

The Linde Group states that it has "proven technology" to "replace NF3 with pure fluorine, which has a zero global warming potential." This technology was developed in the 1990s and has been used by some companies since 2003:

Linde's on-site fluorine generators have been installed at more than 20 semiconductor, LCD and solar cell production sites, including Toshiba Matsushita Display, Samsung, and LG. This technology is particularly important for the solar panel industry, because it eliminates the environmental impact and makes the panels and the electricity they generate more cost-competitive.

This is terrific news because the solar cell industry is expected to become a significant NF3 consumer whose "growth might lead to a six-fold increase in NF3 use by 2020."

Cross-posted on Daily Kos

Guest contributor Patriot Daily is an environmental lawyer in California who blogs regularly at Daily Kos on environmental, water, political and human rights issues.