PFAs Are The Next PCBs...

Updated: May 28, 2020

PCBs: Toxic Cleanup Nightmare of the 1970s.

I've seen this before: Fifty years ago, the electrical power industry realized that a popular nonflammable dielectric fluid had a huge problem - it wouldn't degrade in the environment. Not biodegradable, it remained hundreds of years before it would break down. These dielectric fluids were a group of chemicals called PCBs that had been marketed for decades as safe, nonflammable coolants for transformers and capacitors. The nascent environmental movement recognized that PCBs persist in the environment and were starting to leak from old equipment, contaminating food chains and drinking water. As evidence of PCBs' lack of biodegradation mounted, world governments passed laws requiring the phaseout and destruction of PCB-containing equipment and expensive cleanup of landfills that contained PCB fluids. Billions of dollars were spent in the 1970s and 1980s in EPA "Superfund" sites to remove PCB contaminated equipment and soil.

It's Happening Again in Electronics Cooling.

Today, the same situation is occurring with another family of chemicals called PFAS, or Poly-Fluorinated Alkyl Substances. In my industry, PFAS are used as - you guessed it - nonflammable dielectric fluids for cooling electrical devices. Fluorinated fluids have been proposed for cooling data centers, EV Charging systems and battery arrays. Solvay Corporation's Galden® fluids as well as 3M's Novec® and Fluorinert® fluids are classified as PFAS. (1). Both the EPA and European environmental agencies are monitoring the emissions of these products from electronics cooling applications for future regulation to limit their spread through the environment. (See: "Uses and Emissions of Liquid PFC Heat Transfer Fluids from the Electronics Sector" EPA Report)

Environmental Persistence

As with PCB compounds, fluorinated compounds do not break down easily in the environment, and can persist for hundreds of years. As with PCBs, PFAs are contaminating water sources and are accumulating in the environment. And, like PCBs, PFAs are linked to a host of endocrine and metabolic problems in humans. According to European scientists, these are the affects of PFAs on the human body: (1)

Current and Upcoming Regulation

Environmental scientists are sounding the alarm on these fluorinated chemicals. The Union of Concerned Scientists have called upon US regulators to "regulate and clean up this toxic threat" (3) In 2015 and again in 2018, hundreds of scientists wrote Open Letters advising lawmakers to recognize the threat posed by PFAs accumulation (4).

And this attention is having the desired effect - US Lawmakers have introduced legislation calling for the phase-out of PFAs and the use of safer alternatives in popular applications such as fire-fighting and electrical insulation.

Engineered Fluids' Approach

At Engineered Fluids, we support the control and regulation of any chemical that doesn't break down naturally and is found to be toxic or harmful to the environment or human health. We have evaluated fluorinated fluids for use as a dielectric coolant, always concluding that, beyond the high cost and operational difficulties of using two-phase, boiling coolants, the environmental hazards and liabilities are simply too great. This is what we've done instead:

  • Instead of products that don't break down and persist in the environment, Engineered Fluids' products are almost completely biodegraded in standard 28-day laboratory tests.

  • Instead of products that are highly toxic, our coolants have achieved a "Food Grade" designation.

  • Instead of coolants with huge Global Warming Potential,