Another Greenhouse Gas to Watch

Reader Contribution by Ramsey Cox

Thanks to constant 2008 election coverage, many Americans missed important news stories this fall. came up with a list of 10 articles people may have missed, one of which found that one type of solar panels might actually be harmful to the environment.

A research study by Scripps Institute of Oceanography based out of the University of California, San Diego was the first to measure the amount of nitrogen trifluoride (NF3) in the Earth’s atmosphere. NF3 is used for cleaning microcircuits in flat-screen televisions, iPhones and thin-film solar panels.

NF3 is a gas 17,000 times worse for the environment than carbon dioxide (CO2) in causing global warming, and it stays in the atmosphere about five times longer. But NF3 was thought to be a better alternative to CO2 because, according to industry estimates, only 2 percent of NF3 ever makes it to the atmosphere. This encouraged companies to use NF3, as did the fact that it wasn’t considered dangerous enough to be covered by the Kyoto Protocol — the 1997 agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions signed by more than 150 countries.

The study, funded by NASA, was the first to test the amount of NF3 in the atmosphere, and it found that it is more prominent than previously thought. It had been estimated that less than 1,200 metric tons of NF3 was in the atmosphere in 2006. The new research by Scripps shows the actual amount was 4,200 metric tons. In 2008, about 5,400 metric tons of the gas was in the atmosphere, a quantity that has increased at a rate of 11 percent a year.

“This is a significantly higher percentage than has been estimated by industry, and thus strengthens the case for inventorying NF3 production and for regulating its emissions,” the published research said.

But not all solar panels are made with NF3; the problem only applies to thin-film solar panels. According to the Energy Information Administration, in 2006 thin-film solar panel represented 30 percent of photovoltaic cells made by the U.S. solar industry.

However, thin-film solar panels have recently gained popularity though because they are generally cheaper to produce.

It looks like we need to take another look at the manufacturing process for thin-film solar since it isn’t quite perfect, darn it.