US emissions of a greenhouse gas thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide have expanded tenfold over the past two-and-a-half decades, according to fresh government data. And one reason — wait for it — is America’s increasing reliance on solar power.
The gas, nitrogen trifluoride, or NF3, is a key chemical agent used to manufacture certain types of photovoltaic cells for solar panels, as well as semiconductors and LCD flat screens.
NF3 is produced in minuscule quantities compared to carbon dioxide and now adds only a wafer-thin margin to America’s total greenhouse gas emissions, while carbon dioxide makes up 82 percent and methane nearly another 10 percent. But researchers warn NF3 is dangerous due to its devilish efficiency in trapping energy, and long atmospheric lifespan of up to 740 years.
NF3 is thought to be 17,200 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, according to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
“By itself, NF3 is not going to create a climate problem,” said Dr. Michael Prather, a professor of earth system science at the University of California, Irvine, who has tracked nitrogen trifluoride emissions. “But everything adds up. Everybody should be paying attention to the pieces that all add up.”
The 1,057 percent increase in US annual emissions of NF3 from 1990 to 2015 compares to an increase of 5.6 percent in carbon dioxide emissions, according to EPA data in a recently-published draft of a new report, Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2015. The report said overall emissions fell 2.2 percent in 2015 as the country continued to swap coal for natural gas and a warmer winter reduced demand for heating fuel.
To be sure, it’s easier to achieve impressive-looking growth rates from a low starting point.
As of 2011, total NF3 emissions equalled only 0.06 percent of the amount of greenhouse gas emissions contributed by CO2 using an apples-to-apples comparison, according to a study led by researcher and University of Edinburgh climate specialist Dr. Tim Arnold, then with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
But both production and industrial use of NF3 has soared since 1990, and analysts project continued expansion over the coming decade amid strong demand for solar electricity, computers, smartphones and televisions. The NF3 market is expected to rise 13 percent every year and reach $1.2 billion by 2020, according to Hexa Research, a California-based research and consulting firm.