Scientists Rise To The Challenge Of Ridding The Globe Of CFCs

Inspired by the mandate to find alternatives, researchers link up to create new technologies and substitute chemicals WASHINGTON--Leslie Guth always thought her research was too technical for casual conversations. Not anymore. Now when Guth, a materials scientist for AT&T Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J., mentions that she's looking for new ways to finish electronic circuit boards without using chlorofluoro-carbons, people are eager to hear more about her battle against what many env

Oct 1, 1990
Elizabeth Pennisi

Inspired by the mandate to find alternatives, researchers link up to create new technologies and substitute chemicals
WASHINGTON--Leslie Guth always thought her research was too technical for casual conversations. Not anymore. Now when Guth, a materials scientist for AT&T Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J., mentions that she's looking for new ways to finish electronic circuit boards without using chlorofluoro-carbons, people are eager to hear more about her battle against what many environmentalists view as chemical Public Enemy No. 1.

Her company, her nation, and the world are depending on her and an army of other scientists and engineers to quickly find alternatives to substances that deplete atmospheric ozone. The deadline for phasing out CFCs is less than a decade away.

Stephen Evanoff thinks that the Montreal Protocol did more than commit the world's industrial nations to finding safe alternatives to CFCs. The 1987 agreement also forced his company, General Dynamics, to listen to what he had been saying for so many years.

"It gave people like me a lot more leverage," says Evanoff, a 31-year-old chemical engineer at the company's Fort Worth, Texas, division. Since 1986 he has been teamed up with a chemist and technician to develop water-based degreasers as alternatives to CFC and other volatile, chlorinated cleaners used in the finishing of metal surfaces and electronics in airplane manufacturing.

The Montreal Protocol made his company pay much closer attention to what he was doing. "It's improved communications," he says. Evanoff now meets twice a year with other company researchers interested in waste reduction, including the elimination of CFCs.

For the first time, the company has compiled a phone list of people he needs to talk to about this work. And other General Dynamics divisions have begun to use what his group has done to make rapid progress in developing alternatives for their particular applications. Plus, the public's heightened awareness of the need to preserve the environment has meant that the workers he needs to convince to change the way they do their jobs "are a lot more eager to take us seriously and to work with us," he says.

Evanoff says he joined the company's environmental division to try to correct the legacy of environment damage left by a previous generation of engineers. But before the Montreal Protocol, he recalls, "I sometimes felt like everyone had a zillion ways to say no. Now I feel much more legitimate in what we're doing."

It also makes him feel better about his profession. "It's one subject that nerdy scientists can talk about and people actually want to hear it," he says. "It's been an ego booster."

In September 1987, more than 20 countries signed the Montreal Protocol, which calls for a 50 percent reduction in CFC production by 1999. But last June, with mounting evidence that the problem was worsening and that companies could respond more quickly, the timetable for this technological revolution was pushed up. The developed nations agreed to eliminate CFCs by 2000, with a 20 percent reduction in three years and a 50 percent decrease by 1995.

Chemical industry giants like Du Pont and Britain's Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) firms that make or use these substances have created new departments or refocused their research and development efforts. They have recruited teams, from within their ranks as well as from academia, of up to 100 people in such disciplines as chemistry, materials science, and engineering.

But it won't be easy. Although these man-made compounds of chlorine, fluorine, and carbon are relatively stable and nontoxic, they have been linked to higher levels of chlorine in the atmosphere, which in turn destroys ozone. For the past 50 years, three commercial CFCs have helped create a huge industry involving cleaning, foam-making, and refrigeration technologies. The world uses about 2 billion pounds of these chemicals a year; in the U.S. alone, it's a $28 billion industry that employs 70,000 people at some 5,000 companies. CFC products include coolants in automobile air conditioners and refrigerators, and they are used to make foam products and as a cleaning and degreasing solvent. Consequently, the development of substitutes presents a great challenge for researchers.

"This [conversion] is more difficult than almost anything you can imagine," says chemical engineer Tony Vogelsberg. He's environmental manager of the Freon division at Du Pont, one of the world's largest makers of CFCs.

Thousands of products have been designed specifically to take advantage of the special properties of CFCs, and replacing them will force their manufacturers to make significant changes in how those products are designed and built. As a consequence, says Vogelsberg, "no single chemical is going to replace any one of those three. And the time frame [in the new agreement] is very short."

For Guth and others like her, these deadlines require increased creativity, dedication, and cooperation among colleagues (see Close-Up on page 5). So far, their companies have responded with new positions, unprecedented levels of support, and quicker development and implementation schedules.

The picture for the post-CFC era is not clear. Du Pont and ICI are promoting their own alternatives, possibly with the effect of crowding out better technologies, complain environmental activist groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. Greenpeace's science director in Britain, Jeremy Leggett, has criticized ICI's claims about its alternatives, pointing out the replacements may cause less ozone depletion but are still potent greenhouse gases. These groups fear that less well-publicized technologies, such as water-based solvents, soft foams, or new approaches to refrigeration, will be ignored.

But the enormous opportunities posed by the need to replace CFCs have opened the door for innovative approaches by smaller companies. Experts believe that the new market will be more fragmented, making profitable some products that would not be able to capture a sufficiently large share of the existing market. Even CFC users are looking to develop their own ways to comply with the ban through substitute chemicals or technologies that do not rely on CFCs.

All this attention has invigorated scientists in the field. Never before have these industrial researchers felt like such celebrities. "The outside public interest has pushed us to go even further and faster, and that's exciting," says Guth. "No matter where I am, people's eyes light up when I tell them what I do."

And that aura seems to extend worldwide. "There's a much higher level of motivation," says Andy Lindley, an organic fluorine chemist for ICI in Runcorn, England. "Everyone knows that their piece of work is critical."

That motivation spills over into the company board rooms. "The corporate backing is there, and the customer is there, too, because they all want alternatives," says Guth. "[Not having adequate corporate backing or customer demand] are the kinds of things that sometimes frustrate you in research and development. But when it's something like this, you don't have to worry."

ICI has shifted 100 scientists and engineers to its plant in Runcorn. The idea is to come up with a new refrigerant and at the same time design a plant and applications for the CFC alternatives. In the facility's first two years, ICI has increased from 10 to 60 the number of chemists working on the problem, and has spent between $100 million and $180 million. As the project matures, the company will enlist additional researchers, especially control, design, and mechanical engineers, in the effort.

These engineers and chemists discuss their results and bounce ideas around in daily conferences. "Previously, researchers developed a project and then handed it to an engineering function," says Lindley. "But a broader approach lets you solve problems faster. You can achieve a better result immediately." So far ICI is working on a hy-drofluoroalkane, HFA-134a, as a refrigerant to take the place of CFC-12, and a hydrochlorofluoro-carbon, HCFC-123, as a refrigerant and blowing agent. Both replacements will lead to less ozone depletion than current CFC products.

Du Pont's efforts are even more extensive. The company has 10 pilot plants and facilities working to perfect processing and provide cus-tomers and toxicity testers with sufficient quantities of CFC alternatives to evaluate. Those compounds include hydrochlorofluorocarbons, hydrofluorocarbons, and blends of those chemicals.

Du Pont's search for CFC alternatives goes back to the 1970s, but these investigations were abandoned a decade ago because "we could not find any of our customers interested in giving [alternatives] a serious look," says Vogelsberg. That attitude changed as concerns about the environment grew, he says. The program was resumed in 1986 and, since then, Du Pont has poured more than $225 million into the effort. It expects the total cost of the conversion to reach $1 billion.

The race to find a better chemical has produced an unprecedented level of cooperation between companies as well as among disciplines. "A lot of stuff that we did internally, we have since made public," says Guth. "Years ago, and if it were not so important for the environment, we would have kept it internal, because it provided us with a competitive edge."

To reduce development costs and to speed technology transfers, the hundreds of firms in the industry that make and use these substances have combined in an array of joint activities. Some have united to form the Program for Alternative Fluorocarbon Toxicity Testing (PAFT). Others are also part of the Alternative Fluorocarbons Environmental Acceptability Studies (AFEAS) consor- tium. "It's the first time ever that a global industry has gotten together voluntarily," says Vogelsberg.

CFC users are also playing a larger role in the search for alternatives. Electronics companies, for example, are modifying production to avoid CFC solvents. Refrigerator manufacturers are examining their systems and thinking about new approaches to heat transfer. "You're seeing people beginning to look and ask, `Why not change?'" says Jean Lupinacci, program manager in the global change division of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Leslie Guth, at 33, is already a distinguished member of the technical staff at AT&T Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J. In her six years with the company, she has received two key patents that are expected to make it possible for her company and others to meet the international goal of abandoning CFCs by 2000.

Guth received her Ph.D. in materials science at the University of Pennsylvania in 1984. She joined AT&T's soldering process group because of her desire to work with commercial applications. "It was the company that sparked my interest [in CFC alternatives]," she recalls. "It was the focus of the group I joined." In fact, that focus was so strong that last year it changed its name to the environmental materials and processing group.

Over the years Guth has worked to develop AT&T's Low Solids Fluxer, a device that uses ultrasound to control the application of flux, a cleaning and wetting agent, onto printed circuit boards. In the past, the excess flux applied to the circuit boards was removed with CFC-113. But the new fluxer eliminates the need for the chemical by insuring that the right amount of flux is applied. In addition, Guth has helped develop water-based cleaning procedures and chemicals for electronics that also avoid the use of CFCs. That work has earned her two patents.

"I'm thrilled with the fact that I am doing something that really has an impact on the world," says Guth.

Her efforts extend beyond the laboratory. She has participated in a United Nations program to review technologies that might replace CFCs for cleaning purposes, and she's also active in the Ad Hoc Solvents Working Group. "I've been lucky to work for a company that has been very supportive of this kind of work and that has allowed me to share the technology with others," she adds.

The scramble also promises to carve up a fairly concentrated market, because no single substitute seems suitable for all applications. "I think there will be a lot more companies involved," says Lupinacci.

There's no consensus, however, on precisely which niches those new companies will fill. Industry experts predict that slightly less than a third of this now-splintering market will be sopped up by new technologies rather than by a substitute chemical such as an HCFC. And new chemicals aren't the only discoveries on the horizon.

"You'll have not only substitute materials but substitute processes, and new designs of hardware," points out Stephen Evanoff, a chemical engineer for General Dynamics' Fort Worth (Texas) Division, a company phasing out CFCs (see Close-Up on page 4). "You'll have more fragmentation of the market," he says. "It will be a good chance for smaller organizations to get their foot in the door."

For example, CFC-113, which was invented almost 50 years ago, has since become a "wonder" solvent that generates $200 million a year in sales as a cleaner and solvent in finishing metal surfaces and in electronics manufacturing. Now a product called BIOACT EC-7, water-based cleaning processes, and "closed system" cleaning technologies that recycle the cleaning fluids are making a dent in that market. And that is good news for companies like Petroferm Specialty Chemical Co. of Fernandina Beach, Fla., which makes BIOACT EC-7, a terpene-based solvent derived from the oil of orange peels.

"Had we invented it 10 years earlier, probably nobody would have cared," says Mike Hayes, a physical chemist at Petroferm. "Now people are actually doing something [about the CFC problem] instead of just talking about it."

Hayes is not so optimistic about technologies that are not as far along. "By the time a new technology could be developed, most people will have already invested in a way to get out of CFCs, and my guess is that they will be loathe to change," he predicts. Adds Du Pont's Vogelsberg, "Everyone needs to have something that they know will work by the year 2000. So I think the window [of opportunity] is today."

However, the perspective of scientists such as Vogelsberg and Hayes may be distorted by the fact that they are committed to championing the technologies their companies have already developed. "Industry has valuable investments and patents in certain areas, so they are going to push the things they know," says James L. Adcock, associate professor of chemistry at the University of Tennessee. "They've got blinders on." Evanoff worries that companies are not paying attention to making energy-efficient alternatives and that some alternatives to CFC may pose equally serious hazards to the environment.

Experts agree that HCFCs and current ozone-safe alternatives are just a first step in trying to solve the environmental problems caused by these former "wonder" gases. "We're looking at second-generation alternatives," says Lupinacci. "These will be chemicals or technologies that will be energy efficient as well as environmentally safe." And no one really knows where that technology will come from.

That's good news for scientists like Adcock. A decade ago, it was difficult for academic researchers to drum up much outside support for their work because CFCs were thought to be such perfect chemicals. But that's no longer the case.

Adcock makes molecules that no commercial process is yet capable of producing. He uses a technology called aerosol direct fluorination that he developed. Now, with $300,000 from EPA and the Electric Power Research Institute, he is spending three years evaluating perfluorinated ethers as refrigerants. Already, he has investigated 14 novel chemicals, assessing them via computer modeling. He has ruled out three as potential substitutes, while others have shown promise and now need to be made in kilogram quantities, enough for testing in a real refrigeration system.

"These were technologies that had no lifeblood at all," says Adcock about his past efforts. "But now we're getting desperate." Adcock thinks companies will soon seek out his process for commercialization in their search for alternatives. "It's just a matter of time."