Dubbed the “missing greenhouse gas,” nitrogen trifluoride (NF3) was found by a recent study to have a global climate impact 17,000 times greater than carbon dioxide. The chemical is found in the LCD panels of cell phones, televisions, and computer monitors, as well as in semiconductors and synthetic diamonds. The chemical is not one of the greenhouse gases monitored by the Kyoto Protocol, due to the fact that LCDs were not produced in significant quantities when it was drafted.
What kind of impact is this suppose to have, you ask? The chemical is found to stay in the atmosphere for 550 years and there is no force of nature known to remove it. This year, nitrogen trifluoride emissions are expected to have an impact equal to Austria’s CO2 output. Production of the chemical may double in 2009. The study points to a number of NF3 manufacturing facilities opening up in the US, Korea, and China. The production increase is due in part to the switch to digital television which will lead to increased LCD consumption and the disposal of older sets, some of them early LCD models.
LCD monitors have long been presented as environmentally friendly, particularly next to lead-laden, energy inefficient CRT models. According to ENERGY STAR, they consume half to two-thirds the energy of CRTs. Heat output is also less, leading to lower air conditioning bills. Some companies have gone even further to lessen the environmental impacts of their LCD displays. Lenovo has nearly a dozen EPEAT gold certified displays to offer and Phillips made news with their Eco TV in April. Though the use of mercury and arsenic have been of concern to the environmental and human health, LED-backlit display technology has begun to address these issues.
How companies are going to respond is up in the air. It is cheaper for companies to create NF3 in a way that produces more emissions. Companies could engineer their products to emit less of the chemical, an appropriate response that would please green buyers. However, the cost of doing so may be significant. On top of that, convincing the consumer why this is environmentally positive may be difficult, making the reward far less great. While the environmental impacts and production amounts of the chemical are known, companies may also want to know how much of the gas is present in the air, numbers which the study says have not been gathered. Perhaps atmospheric measurements that might stir public outcry and convince companies to change.