Another greenhouse gas to worry about
NASA released a report last week on new data showing much higher atmospheric concentrations than expected for a synthetic greenhouse gas, nitrogen trifluoride (NF3). The new NASA study found air concentrations of NF3 at five times the level expected. Worse, levels seem to be rising about 11% per year. Nitrogen trifluoride is only present at 0.454 parts per trillion, which isn’t even close to toxic. But the gas is worrying because 1) it is 17,000 times more potent than CO2 in trapping heat, on a per-molecule basis, 2) it is likely to last about five times longer in the atmosphere than the CO2 we produce, and 3) we had no fracking clue it was building up so much.
Nitrogen trifluoride is used for a lot of high-tech wonders, including thin-film photovoltaics, plasma screens, and high energy chemical lasers. Unlike CO2, NF3 is not a waste product, but apparently the world’s industries are using NF3 a lot more wastefully than anyone suspected. Industrial estimates held that on average only about 2% of NF3 is accidentally lost during industrial use. The new data add up to a lot more waste; about 18%.
By itself, NF3 is not an extravagantly big deal. It’s just one compound, and only accounts for about 0.04 percent of the current contribution of human-induced influences to global climate, based on its concentration and how strongly it stores infrared radiation. But NF3 is only one of dozens of powerful synthetic greenhouse gases used around the world, in some very necessary industries. Another is sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), a heavy industrial gas that is 22,000 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse heat collector, will make you sound like a Goa’uld if you inhale it, and is also increasing in atmospheric concentration at a worrying rate.
Collectively the halo-gases are a nagging climate influence. Right now all the halo-gases put together still have a minority role in human-induced climate change, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But that could change. We’re not going to stop using these compounds in the foreseeable future, if ever. They’re easy to make, fairly non-toxic, highly useful, and made of common elements.
In the next few years the climate change discussion is going to be all about carbon. There are massive challenges facing the new President and Congress regarding climate, carbon trading, carbon taxes, nuclear power and renewable energy. The discuss will probably focus on CO2, which as the largest bulk source of human-induced climate change deserves the biggest billing in global energy policy. But while everyone is distracted by CO2, greenhouse halo-gases will keep building up at rates that could make them the dominant source of anthropogenic climate change before the century is done. It would be wise to keep them in mind now, and start planning ahead.