Friday, February 1, 2013
Fluorochemicals - Worldwide Demand
There has been much in the news lately that concerns the global demand for fluorochemicals. What exactly is a fluorochemical and what is all the fuss about? Defining a fluorochemical is a bit like going to a Chemistry 101 lecture in college. The simple term is "a chemical compound containing fluorine, especially a fluorocarbon". Okay. My next question is still, what is a fluorochemical? Googling fluorochemical doesn't help much either. My next attempt led me to "an organic compound in which the majority of the hydrogen atoms directly attached to carbon atoms have been replaced by fluorine". Well, I thought, now we're getting somewhere! Digging further, I was educated with this definition: "a manmade, petroleum-based compound where fluorine atoms have been substituted in place of hydrogen atoms. In the paper industry fluorochemicals are coated onto or added into paper fibers to provide oil and grease resistance". All this led me to the question, "What is fluorine?" Now, it seems, I was getting somewhere.
Fluorine is a pale yellow, gaseous, non-metallic element with an atomic number of 9. It is pungent, poisonous, corrosive and highly reactive and will unite directly with almost all the other elements. Items such as metals, glass, ceramics, carbon and even water will burn in fluorine with a bright flame. It occurs naturally as the minerals fluorite and cryolite. When combined with certain other elements, such as hydrogen to make hydrogen fluoride, it can be used in etching glass. Fluorine also combines with other elements to make up Freon, which was widely used as a refrigerant. Fluorine and its related compounds are now used in producing uranium and more than 100 commercial fluorochemicals, including many high-temperature plastics. Fluorine in its soluble state known as fluoride can be carefully added to drinking water to prevent tooth decay. In its elemental state, fluorine is being studied for use as a rocket propellant because it has such a high "specific impulse rate" or SIR. In laymen's terms, this is a way to describe the efficiency of rocket and jet engines - the higher the SIR, the less propellant is needed to gain a given amount of momentum. All this could lead to making more propellant efficient rockets. Once I learned this about fluorine, I truly was back in Chemistry class, but with a little bit clearer view of what fluorochemicals actually are.
By taking a look at DuPont, a worldwide renowned chemical production company, it is clearer still why the global demand for fluorochemicals is on the rise. DuPont has sponsored research into the field of manufacturing fluorochemicals since the 1930s, when General Motors, who had discovered the wonders of Freon, but lacked the capacity to produce it in the large quantities that were in demand, turned it over to DuPont in a joint venture they called Kinetic Chemicals. DuPont took the Freon and ran with it, developing uses in aerosols, cleaning agents and an aid for foam blowing.
Another great discovery that came from the DuPont researchers and helped to further the allure of fluorochemicals was Teflon. Teflon is an extremely inert material that can stand up to most acids and corrosive chemicals. One of the greatest advantages to using it is that it can stay solid at temperature markedly higher than any other plastic developed before. Teflon first came to the forefront during World War II when it was used to coat nose cones on artillery fuses. It also became famous for being a part of the clandestine research that went on during the Manhattan Project because of its ability to stand up to the corrosiveness of producing Uranium. Leaving the world of defense, the early 1960s brought Teflon's biggest market ever with the development of using it as a non-stick coating on pots and pans.
In the 1970s, DuPont continued its research into the world of fluorochemicals and developed high grade plastics that would go into the production of aluminum siding for home building, manufacturing of wire insulation, and as an important part of the sealant market. Also in the 1970s, research began to show that there was a connection between a form of fluorochemicals known as chlorofluorocarbons and the damage they were doing to the ozone. DuPont stood up and took a stand against harming the environment and began the phasing out of the harmful chemicals. Their research and development department since has come up with a new, safer propellant for aerosols that is not harmful to the environment. They have also continued to run an environmentally responsible company by helping to develop ways to keep pollutants out of the atmosphere.
So, by painstakingly defining the word fluorochemicals, finding their link between the element fluorine and then tracing it to a number of developments that have been created in the last 80 years, it has finally become clear why there actually is a worldwide demand for these chemicals. Countries that were once considered Third World are now viewed as "developing" countries with a growing economy and a burning desire to enter the 21st century as viable and competitive in the world of business and finance. In order to do this, the potential of fluorochemicals to help industrialize these developing countries is coming to light as rising income levels and more advanced manufacturing indicate a growing economy.
Craig Elliott is a writer for halocarbon.com. Halocarbon.com is a leading provider of Fluorochemicals
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