NF3 is essentially a cleaning agent that can be broken down into fluorine plasma to clear away excess silicon from production chambers. It is stable and transportable, cleans faster than other available options, and most of it is eliminated during use.
But a small percentage leaks into the atmosphere. The question researchers have asked in recent years is exactly how much gets leaked.
"People are doing a better job of leaking less, but it's still a fair amount, considering production is going way up," said Dr. Prather. "The fraction that gets leaked seems to be declining a bit, but it's not declining fast enough."
NF3 gained popularity as a substitute for even more harmful global warming gases that were used in the same types of manufacturing. That's why the country's top producer of NF3, a company known as Air Products and Chemicals Inc., received an award from the EPA in 2002 for its role in helping to safeguard the climate. A company spokesperson for Air Products didn't respond to requests for comment.
The good news is that despite increased chemical production and use, EPA figures suggest NF3 emissions in the United States - which are calculated based on data reported by the semiconductor industry - may have plateaued in recent years.
The bad news is, those numbers might be low.
In 2008, a team of researchers released a study comparing atmospheric levels of NF3 against the amount that industrial players reported they had emitted.
The air samples revealed the presence four-and-a-half times more NF3 in the atmosphere than expected given the amount of emissions reported by industry, according to the lead author of the study, Dr. Ray Weiss, a geochemistry professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
"In the end, the climate only cares about what you actually emit, not what you report," Dr. Weiss said.
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Asked whether the most recent US NF3 emissions numbers from the EPA should be considered accurate, Dr. Weiss said, "It's a really hard question to answer. There's a lot of guesswork going into it. But it is plausible to think emissions have flat-lined, partly because most of the manufacturing is not in our country."
He added, "The big question is: What's going on in Asia?"
Almost half of NF3 demand now comes from Asian manufacturers, according to Hexa Research.
Yet Dr. Weiss said he sees reason for optimism.
"The industry has done a good job of responding to environmental concerns," he said. "The amount of NF3 that is used has risen exponentially. But they've also managed to use it more efficiently and to cut leaks."
The opportunity represented by NF3, according to Dr. Weiss, is that it represents "low-hanging fruit" for environmentalists looking for ways to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, and flummoxed by the difficulty of limiting carbon dioxide.
"These really potent gases are a really good place to start, because you get a lot of good bang for your buck," he said.
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