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Ozone-Safe Formula Is Unveiled by Hughes : Environment: Citrus-based substance would replace CFCs now used extensively for cleaning solvents.

January 22, 1992|MARLA CONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a development heralded as a major breakthrough in protecting the Earth's ozone layer, Hughes Aircraft Co. said Tuesday that it has created a technology that can replace ozone-depleting chemicals widely used in the electronics and aerospace industries.

The Hughes process uses a nontoxic formula with a citrus base to replace chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, which are used as a cleaning solvent. The new formula is considered safe for the environment as well as effective enough to meet the standards of the U.S. military.

The process, considered a low-tech solution to a complex problem, was developed and tested at the company's Ground Systems Group in Fullerton.

Top officials of the South Coast Air Quality Management District who are familiar with the new system hail it as a creative, environmentally safe discovery that could eliminate tons of the damaging chemical.

Aerospace and electronics industries are among the nation's biggest sources of CFCs, which react in the upper atmosphere and consume the ozone shield that safeguards the Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation.

Hughes officials declined to discuss details before the start of news conferences scheduled Thursday in Los Angeles and Washington.

But a source at Hughes and AQMD officials said the patented process, called HF1189, is being used in four of the company's defense projects in Fullerton. They said it has been approved by the U.S. Navy for several defense projects, and the Pentagon has reportedly agreed to change its specifications to allow wider use.

An engineer at Hughes' Fullerton operation created the new technology after experimenting with the formula in his own home.

The Hughes official said the company will share the technique with other companies at a "minimal cost" because it is too important to the world's environment to keep it only for Hughes' use. Hughes plans to charge other companies for installing the process, but "we are not about to make a lot of money off this," he said.

"Anybody can use it, and it's so cheap," he said.

Large quantities of CFCs are used by Hughes and other manufacturers to clean acidic compounds, known as fluxes, off circuit boards. The fluxes are applied to clean corrosion from the boards before they are soldered. Circuit boards are used in equipment ranging from radar on ships and aircraft to household VCRs and other electronics.

The new technology uses a citrus-based, water-soluble substance instead of the acidic fluxes. Eliminating the need for fluxes eliminates the need for CFCs.

James Lents, executive officer of the AQMD, said Tuesday that the new system will also help reduce smog because CFCs also produce air pollution.

Emissions of the destructive gases could be cut by several million pounds a year in the Los Angeles basin alone if the entire electronics and aerospace industry switches to it, according to the AQMD. Hughes said it could eliminate two-thirds of the CFC emissions in the two industries worldwide.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that industrial cleaning of electronic equipment this country is responsible for 12% of the ozone depletion. Other large sources include the manufacture of polyurethane foam and automobile air conditioning.

Lents said the Hughes technology is an example of how environmental laws can force new advances in technology.

In an agreement called the Montreal Protocol, major industrial nations, including the United States, have agreed to phase out production of CFCs and ban them by the year 2000. Because of the phaseout, manufacturers and the military have been struggling to find substitutes.

In an advisory announcing Thursday's news conferences, Hughes said that although some electronics firms have developed limited techniques to remove CFCs, this is the first to satisfy military specifications.

Kyle Olson, a Washington consultant who has worked extensively with the Pentagon on chemical issues, said a solution would be well-received, since the military for years has recognized the need to replace CFCs in manufacturing.

"There's been a great deal of interest in the electronics industry and in the Pentagon in finding alternatives," he said.

Olson said CFCs used by the electronics industry are considered more destructive to the ozone layer than other sources of CFCs because, pound for pound, they more readily evaporate than those used, for example, in car air conditioners.

AQMD officials said that the new materials are so harmless that they could be added to a cocktail. "It's a water-soluble, citric-based flux that is very environmentally benign," Lents said.

Times staff writer Melissa Healy contributed to this report.

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