Sulphur Hexafluoride (SF6) is a synthetic gas that is colorless and odorless. It is a cheap and non-flammable gas that is widely used as an insulating material for medium to high-voltage installations of electrical lines.
Indeed SF6 is hugely useful to the electrical industry, especially in ensuring that no short circuits and accidents may befall. But in recent news, it was found that there have been leaks of SF6 in electrical companies in the UK. However small the number of leaks may have been, the cause can be inevitable and irreversible. The leaks were said to be equivalent to throwing about 1.3 million cars on the road, all of which are adding their own share of pollutants in the atmosphere.
Yes! The significant downside to using SF6 is that it is the most powerful global warming potential known to humanity. In fact, SF6 is emitting 23,500 times more greenhouse gas compared to carbon dioxide (CO2). A kilogram of this heinous gas can warm the entire world to a similar extent as when 24 passenger planes are flying round trip flights from New York to London.
The use of SF6 leaves a long-term effect on Earth. It leaves a warming and persisting effect on the global atmosphere for at least 1,000 years.
But why are we still using SF6?
As part of an ever-evolving world, the way by which companies produce electricity also changes rapidly. The use of large coal-fired power stations is now being replaced by mixed power sources such as gas, wind, and solar. However, these electrical innovations also gave rise to the use of circuit breakers, switches, and other electrical components.
The vast number of these switch gears and electrical circuits use SF6 to help cool down arcs and prevent short circuits. The bigger the turbines, the more switch gears are required, hence more amount of SF6 is needed.
How damaging is SF6 to the climate?
SF6 is a synthetic gas, hence, it cannot be destroyed or absorbed naturally. Thus, the effects are lingering and irreversible.
Researchers from the University of Bristol reported close monitoring of the concentration of warming gases such as SF6 and CO2 have been significantly rising in the past 20 years.
Although concentrations of SF6 in the atmosphere is very small right now compared to the vast amount of CO2 found in the air, SF6 is expected to grow by 75% in 2030. The effects of this harmful gas may seem insignificant at the moment but its concentration has been rapidly increasing in the atmosphere.
Countries with large electrical companies are now expected to provide a report to the UN on how much SF6 are being used in their facilities. But there are no restrictions imposed just yet on the use of SF6.
What happens next?
Researchers are looking for viable alternatives for SF6. When there are better sources for cooling down switch gears, there are no reasons for using SF6.