To make these swanky flat-screen TVs, manufacturers are using a greenhouse gas called nitrogen trifluoride that is supposedly 17,000 times more polluting than carbon dioxide. According to Professor Michael Prather, an environmental scientist at the University of California, the rising demand for these TVs has led to an increase in use of this NF3 gas, with about 4,000 tonnes produced last year. He reckons this could end up having a greater impact on global warming than any of the world’s biggest coal-fired power plants.
NF3, which is apparently used to flush out by-products caused by applying the wafer-thin screens to the boxes, is certainly nasty stuff. It’s toxic enough to damage the liver and kidneys, corrosive to tissue, and needs to be transported in highly-pressurised cylinders – so you can see why people are worried about what it might do to the ozone layer in large quantities. Prather calculates that last year’s production was equivalent to about 67m tonnes of carbon dioxide – so its ‘potential greenhouse impact’ could be far greater than that of other harmful greenhouse gases like sulphur hexafluoride or perfluorocarbons, based on current emission levels.
Admittedly nobody quite knows how much of this stuff actually gets into the atmosphere – and chemical company Air Products, which makes the stuff for the electronics industry, told New Scientist that in fact hardly any escaped (although of course, it would say that). Still, as Prather points out, NF3 isn’t covered by the Kyoto Protocol (unlike those gases mentioned above), so companies have less incentive to control emissions.
The good news is that some manufacturers have already wised up to this; apparently Toshiba, for example, has stopped using it because it’s worried about the side-effects. But most of the other big companies are ploughing on regardless – and with our demand for flat-screen TVs showing no sign of slowing, the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better.
You might think there are still a lot of ifs, buts and maybes in Prather’s argument, but the basic premise seems compelling – and at some point it could lead to a difficult question: would we really be willing to give up our shiny new flat-screens, even to save the world...?