A greenhouse gas that is thought to have a potent impact on global warming was detected in trace amounts in the atmosphere for the first time, according to a new study.
Researchers at the University of Toronto discovered very small amounts of an industrial chemical, known as perfluorotributylamine (PFTBA), in the atmosphere. While only traces of PFTBA were measured, the chemical has a much higher potential to affect climate change on a molecule-by-molecule basis than carbon dioxide (CO2), the most significant greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, and a major contributor to global warming, said study co-author Angela Hong, of the University of Toronto’s department of chemistry.
For the study, the researchers collected atmospheric data from November 2012 to December 2012, and measured the proportion of PFTBA in the atmosphere at 0.18 parts per trillion. This means that for every 1 trillion air molecules, less than a full molecule of PFTBA is present. For comparison, the proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exceeded 400 parts per million earlier this year.
PFTBA has been used in electrical equipment since the mid-1900s. So far, there are no policies in place to regulate its use, particularly within the context of climate change, Hong said.
There are also no known ways to destroy or remove PFTBA from the atmosphere, and the chemical has a very long life span. Molecules of PFTBA could linger in the lower atmosphere for hundreds of years, according to the researchers.
Yet, much is still unknown about the chemical’s history, including whether concentrations of PFTBA have changed over time.
“Our measurements are snapshots within the November to December 2012 period, so we can only see how things varied during that time,” Hong said. “We don’t have any historical measurements, so we can’t project backward or forward.”
The researchers hope their findings encourage others to study the chemical’s behavior, and how it could affect global warming.