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Science / Medicine : Chlorofluorocarbon's danger to the atmosphere has industry scrambling to replace the chemicals that are : Friends to Man, Enemies to Earth

January 23, 1989|JUDY BERLFEIN | Berlfein is a free-lance writer in Encinitas

The cost increase will be much more obvious for commercial applications. An air-conditioner installed in a 150,000-square-foot office building requires 1,500 pounds of coolant. A doubling of the cost of the coolant will raise the price of the system considerably.

The expense associated with new equipment applies also to the electronics industry. The new compounds developed for cleaning electronic parts and circuit boards require special machinery for dispensing the cleaning agent. Existing machines cannot accommodate the different properties of the new products.

One of those new compounds, which AT&T has been using since 1986, was developed by Petroferm, a small company in Fernandina Beach, Fla. BIOACT EC-7 is based on a completely different approach than other substitutes. The chemical, derived from citrus rinds and coniferous trees, bears no resemblance in its chemical structure to CFCs.

Fisher from AT&T said the company hopes eventually to use BIOACT EC-7 for 20% to 30% of its needs. It has limitations, however. The components must be rinsed with water, and not all parts can be immersed in water.

IBM is also experimenting with a new method for cleaning small mechanical parts for computers.

"It's not a revolutionary new alternative," said Ray Kerby, director of environmental programs at IBM in San Jose. The procedure uses a mixture of water and a soapy substance along with ultrasonic vibration.

Kerby said the IBM researchers have spent the last couple of years on technical work, "sharpening up its applicability to our particular cleaning." They are working with mechanical parts, which must be spotless to function properly. "Even a fingerprint can be a mess," Kerby said. "Absolute cleanliness is super important."

David Wirth, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, advocates cutting nonessential uses. "The nonessential uses should be the first ones to go," Wirth said. "There are still a large number of them out there." They include egg cartons and fast-food packaging, which could be made of other substances, such as cardboard.

In addition to cutting nonessential uses, other avenues exist for bypassing the use of new chemicals. CFCs are extremely volatile.

Containing CFCs in a closed unit or under a hood during cleaning may help. In the past CFCs have been routinely vented into the atmosphere when auto air-conditioners are recharged. Producers are encouraging users to contain the compounds during this process. Also, the chemicals can be recycled rather than disposed of after each use.

Representatives from industry, regulatory agencies and public interest groups have voiced optimism that the deadlines outlined by the Montreal Protocol can be met. But Fisher of AT&T expressed caution about focusing too heavily on specific deadlines and guidelines.

"I don't think we should be shooting for a 50% reduction by the year 1998. I think we should really be trying to eliminate CFC usage altogether. Anyone shooting for just a 50% reduction is missing the boat. I think we ought to be trying to eliminate CFCs . . . wherever we can."

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