The compound nitrogen trifluoride (NF3) is a "missing
greenhouse gas" that may have an impact 17,000 times as great as carbon
dioxide, according to a new study by atmospheric chemist Michael Prather, published
in the journal Geophysical Research Letters on June 26.
The compound is used in the production of Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) Panels,
in semiconductors, and in synthetic diamonds. According to Prather, the
compound was initially missed by the Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty
governing response to global warming, due to the fact that it was not widely
used at the time.
The Kyoto protocol covered six gases, and nitrogen trifluoride was noticeably
absent. Since that time, production of the compound has grown at a
frenzied pace due to the proliferation of LCD panels in phones, TVs, and
computer screens. More semiconductors are also using the compound. According
to Pranther, global production may double in 2009, to 8,000 metric tons.
The treaty left out about a dozen gases that technically were greenhouse gases,
but were not manufactured in sufficient quantities to have an impact.
Perfluorocarbons (PFCs) and of sulfur hexafluoride, which were considered,
actually are projected to have less effect this year than the nitrogen
The amount of nitrogen nitrofluoride emissions is expected to total this year
to approximately the emissions of a smaller industrialized nation, such as
Austria in CO2, the equivalent of about 67 million metric tons
The Kyoto Treaty's failure to consider changes in industrial use may come back
to haunt it. Particularly ironic is that the chemical was touted as a way
to prevent global warming. Since flat-panel TVs consume less power than
rear project or plasma models, they were
presented as environmentally friendly.
In reality when the LCD market hits full swing, as is expected with the 2009
switch to digital television, the increased production will send levels of this
new greenhouse gas soaring. Worse yet, with 80 million analog
TVs projected to be discarded by Americans in the shift, some older LCD
models, more of the gas and other hazardous chemicals may be released if
they're disposed of improperly and merely tossed in landfills or incinerated.
Another piece of bad news is that the gas has a very long half-life -- staying
in the atmosphere for approximately 550 years, with almost no ecological cycles
to aid in its removal.
While carbon dioxide emissions remain a pressing issue, soon we may be hearing
a lot more about nitrogen trifluoride if the study's conclusions hold true.