King of Greenhouse Gases Crowned: It's Not CO2

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A chemical used in artificial blood and in the electronics industry traps more of the sun’s heat within the Earth’s atmosphere than any other gas known. Recent research discovered that the chemical, perfluorotributylamine (PFBTA), insulates the planet 7,100 times more effectively than carbon dioxide.

What’s more, nothing in nature absorbs or breaks down the chemical. That means PFBTA will still be insulating the planet centuries from now. Unlike PFBTA, many other greenhouse gases eventually disappear from the air. For example, plants absorb carbon dioxide and thereby reduce its quantity in the atmosphere.

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“PFTBA is extremely long-lived in the atmosphere and it has a very high radiative efficiency; the result of this is a very high global warming potential,” said Angela Hong, of the University of Toronto and lead author of the study published in Geophysical Research Letters, in a press release. “Calculated over a 100-year time frame, a single molecule of PFTBA has the equivalent climate impact as 7100 molecules of CO2.”

Luckily, there isn’t much PFBTA in the atmosphere. Although the chemical has been used for decades, the air tested in the recent study contained only 0.18 parts per trillion PFBTA by volume. Other chemicals related to PFBTA may have a similar greenhouse effect, but have not yet been studied.

PFBTA once served as an ingredient in the artificial blood substitute, Fluosol, which is no longer used. PFBTA  continues to be used in electronics testing and as a heat transfer agent.

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By recognizing that PFBTA has such a potential to trap heat, manufacturers can take steps to limit the escape of the gas into the environment. Currently, no laws regulate the release of PFBTA and similar chemicals. Now that chemists have identified the threat, legislators may find justification to control PFBTA pollution.

Similar efforts slowed the release of CFCs, or chlorofluorocarbons, starting in the late 80s after a gaping hole was discovered in the ozone layer of Antarctica. Chemists realized that the hole was caused by CFCs, used in spray cans and as the coolant known by DuPont’s brand name “freon.” Swift legislative action banned production in many nations.

IMAGE: View of Earth from space. (NASA)

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