The Missing Gas

Nitrogen Trifluoride (NF3 ) has been termed the “missing greenhouse gas,” with a global warming potential over 17,000 times greater than CO2 in a hundred-year period. The research was published in June 2008 in Geophysical Research Letters from the American Geophysical Union. Professor Michael Prather and his colleagues are at the forefront of research on this little-known gas. The potency of NF3 is 60% higher than previously published estimates. Despite the research, NF3 is not listed among the greenhouse gases covered in the Kyoto Protocol’s international climate change agreement. Over a dozen gases were left off the list in 1997 because they were not produced at a scale large enough to cause significant environmental harm.

But NF3 is used in chemical vapor deposition, a process involved in making LCD televisions, semiconductors and synthetic diamonds, so production of the gas has jumped in recent years—up to 4,000 tons this year—and is expected to double by next year. LCD panels are not only used in televisions, but also cell phones and computers. With the upcoming switch to digital cable across the country, sales of flat-screen TVs are expected to spike.

At a United Nations climate convention meeting last August, a report was presented on various gases used in manufacturing electronics, including NF3. This meeting was one of seven that will take place before the 2009 annual U.N. climate meeting, which is the deadline for a new treaty to extend Kyoto beyond 2012. The report warns that adding more gases to the list will likely increase the U.N.’s carbon markets, raising the demand for emissions allowances and credits.