Andreas Späth

A new greenhouse gas

2013-12-24 14:31

Andreas Wilson-Späth

Now here’s something we needed like a hole in the head: in a recent study a group of Canadian researchers identified a new greenhouse gas (GHG).

Perfluorotributylamine (let’s just call it PFTBA) is actually not a new substance. It has been used in the electronics industry for decades, but while scientists have suspected that its molecules behave like tiny heat traps when they buzz around in the earth’s atmosphere, they’ve never confirmed that suspicion until now.

It turns out that PFTBA isn’t just you average garden variety GHG. It’s the world champion GHG. As far as climate change goes, it’s as ugly as its name.

PFTBA has what is known as an exceptionally high radiative efficiency – it has a particularly strong impact on atmospheric temperatures. The authors of the study estimate that, molecule for molecule, PFTBA is 7100 times more powerful a GHG than CO2 over a 100 year period. Put differently, one molecule of PFTBA has an impact on climate change that is equivalent to that of 7100 molecules of CO2.

More bad news: all PFTBA is made by humans – it doesn’t occur naturally. While it may be annihilated when it reaches the upper parts of the atmosphere, there are no known processes in the lower atmosphere that either remove or destroy it. So unlike CO2, which is constantly being absorbed by plants and the oceans, PFTBA is a very long-lived air pollutant that can remain in the atmosphere for 500 years or more.

Making matters worse, PFTBA and similar substances are as yet entirely unregulated. “PFTBA is just one example of an industrial chemical that is produced but there are no policies that control its production, use or emission,” says Angela C. Hong, lead author of the study. “It is not being regulated by any type of climate policy”.

There’s no need to panic though.

The total impact of a GHG doesn’t only depend on its radiative efficiency, but also on the concentration at which it is present in the atmosphere and luckily for us, there ain’t a whole lot of PFTBA around. In the Toronto area, the Canadian scientists measured it at a level of about 0.18 parts per trillion (that’s 180 parts per quadrillion, meaning that of every quadrillion units of air, by volume, just 180 units consist of PFTBA!). So it’s nowhere near as significant a cause of global warming as CO2.

This sort of research proofs that there are potentially a great number of industrial chemicals being used in various industries that have substantial GHG potency. PFTBA, for instance, is just one member of a whole family of compounds, called the perfluoroalkyl amines, more of which could be GHGs but have not been tested yet.

Studies like this should be heeded by regulators and the culprit GHGs removed from circulation or replaced by less harmful alternatives. Their overall contribution to climate change may be relatively small and our main focus should be on drastically reducing our fossil fuel consumption and related CO2 emissions, but every little bit counts. So let’s hope that this discovery will go some way towards doing away with PFTBA and similar substances.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
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