Deadly Gases’ Worst Enemy Could Mitigate Climate Change

Carbon dioxide and methane are the largest gaseous hurdles the world needs to overcome to combat climate change—but they’re far from the worst gases that can be unleashed on our atmosphere. Take, for instance, Sulfur Hexafluoride (SF6). Although a little-known gas to most of us, it’s an extremely useful synthetic compound that has been used in electric utilities since the 1950s thanks to its insulating properties. However, SF6 has a dark side: it’s the most deadly greenhouse gas known to science.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPAreports that SF6 is a staggering 22,800 times more effective at trapping infrared radiation than carbon dioxide. It’s also extremely long-lasting and can remain in the atmosphere for centuries, so even a little bit of the gas can have a devastating impact. Because of its stable structure, it’s extremely hard to render inert, but scientists from Paderborn University in Germany have developed a “Lewis superacid” that’s potentially capable of breaking down Sulfur Hexafluoride and other non-biodegradable substances into more environmentally-friendly chemicals. The authors published their findings in the journal Angewandte Chemie (Applied Chemistry).

For strong bonds, you need highly reactive reagents,Paderborn chemistry professor Jan Paradies says in a university press release. “We managed to produce such molecules and use them in catalytic reactions. This makes it possible to, for example, activate and further convert … carbon-fluorine or sulfur-fluorine bonds.”

Lewis acids,” named after American chemist Gilbert Newton Lewis, add electron pairs, which makes them perfect for speeding up chemical reactions. However, superacids—as their name suggests—are even stronger than the strongest Lewis acid, which is antimony pentafluoride (SbF5). As a result, these Lewis superacids are more than capable of breaking down even the strongest chemical bonds.