The world’s worst greenhouse gas cools off computers and lets mice breathe underwater

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Breathing easy thanks to perfluorotributylamine.
Breathing easy thanks to perfluorotributylamine.
Image: 20th Century Fox

If you think rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are scary, wait until you hear about perfluorotributylamine (PFTBA), an obscure industrial chemical that researchers have determined to be the most powerful greenhouse gas ever studied: It’s 7,000 times worse than carbon dioxide.

The odorless and colorless chemical is widely available on e-commerce sites like eBay and Alibaba. Although only an infinitesimal amount of PFTBA can currently be found in the atmosphere, it lasts hundreds of years in the atmosphere before it breaks down, and is completely unregulated. “There are no policies that control its production, use or emission,” Angela Hong of the University of Toronto, part of a team that just published a study on the chemical, told the Guardian.

Industrial conglomerate 3M, which has sold a line of related chemicals called Fluorinert for more than 40 years, notes on its website that they “have high global warming potentials and long atmospheric lifetimes. As such, they should be carefully managed to minimize emissions.”

The unique chemical properties of PFTBA and other so-called perfluorocarbons make them perfect for cooling lasers and electrical circuits. Google, for example, has filed several patents to use them to keep computers in its vast server farms from overheating, and Quartz has reported on cloud computing firms using various exotic liquids as liquid coolants.

Perfluorocarbons are also a frequent plot device in works of science fiction, as in James Cameron’s 1989 underwater thriller, “The Abyss.” Because perfluorocarbons can carry high levels of oxygen compared to other liquids, they could in theory be used by astronauts or deep-sea divers as a liquid replacement for oxygen, as the movie’s fictional Navy SEAL demonstrates with this rat:

In the real world, mice have actually survived for several weeks after breathing perfluorocarbon, albeit with some damage to their lungs. PFTBA is also used in artificial blood and can even be used to fry potato chips:

The University of Toronto researchers only found 0.18 parts of PFTBA per trillion in the atmosphere, compared to 400 parts per million for carbon dioxide. But they argued its use should be carefully monitored, and warned that there are vast numbers of other potentially powerful greenhouse gases out there that have not been studied.

The way the earth’s climate is going, with air quality getting worse and sea levels getting higher, we might all need that liquid breathing technology before too long.