26 October 2008

Nitrogen trifluoride - should we be concerned?

Nitrogen trifluoride is a powerful greenhouse gas, and there's four times as much in Earth's atmosphere as we thought. The Earth from spaceNot only that, this stuff is 17 000 times more potent than carbon dioxide and the levels are increasing by eleven percent each year.

How serious is the situation? How did we allow it to happen? What can we do about it?

On 23rd October, NASA published a press release in which they state

Using new analytical techniques, Ray Weiss of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., led a team of researchers in making the first atmospheric measurements of nitrogen trifluoride. The amount of the gas in the atmosphere, which could not be detected using previous techniques, had been estimated at less than 1,200 metric tons in 2006. The new research shows the actual amount was 4,200 metric tons. In 2008, about 5,400 metric tons of the gas are in the atmosphere, a quantity that is increasing at a rate of about 11 percent per year.

'Accurately measuring small amounts of nitrogen trifluoride in air has proven to be a very difficult experimental problem, and we are very pleased to have succeeded in this effort,' Weiss said. The research will be published Oct. 31 in the American Geophysical Union's Geophysical Research Letters.

The gas is used in electronics manufacturing, especially LCD screens, solar cells and integrated circuits.

How serious is the situation? - It seems that nitrogen trifluoride contributes only about 0.15 percent of the total warming so we have no reason to panic. But the story does demonstrate how important it is to measure what we do - estimates of the amounts released were off by a factor of four times.

If we take no action it's clear that levels of this substance will continue to rise. With increasing production of electronics in general and LCD screens and solar cells in particular it seems rates of release of this gas can only accelerate. If so, we do need to be concerned and should be putting our house in order now while atmospheric levels remain low.

Nitrogen trifluoride breaks down very slowly in the atmosphere, six to seven hundred years. What we release today will be with us and our descendents for a very long time.

How did we allow it to happen? - It's not yet a major problem and we've only just become aware of the scale of its presence in the atmosphere. In ten years time if we are asked 'How did we allow it to happen' we'd have to admit to carelessness. But right now the question is a little unfair as the data were not available. Now that the world is aware of the situation it will be possible to decide whether action is needed and if so, what form it should take.

What can we do about it? - In terms of what has aleady been released - nothing. All we can do is wait for a thousand years or so until it goes away.

In terms of releasing less in future, or even banning the gas altogether, we can probably do a great deal. We will need the political will to act and for that we'll need to collect more data and then do further scientific and technical consultation. That stage is already underway.

In practical terms we could add the gas to the Kyoto Protocol (already being considered), find alternatives for electronics manufacturing (might prove difficult), or ban the production of the gas (could bring the electronics industry to its knees). Wisdom demands that we act fast enough to prevent a serious problem developing, but slowly enough to avoid expensive disruption to the electronics industry.

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