LAKELAND – Gases escaping from fertilizer company cooling ponds have been blamed for injuring orange trees and making cows teeth fall out after they eat tainted grass.
But a Polk County company has invented a new way to recover a valuable commodity from the ponds, which DuPont says it is ready to buy.
What’s more, the cooling ponds that pose an environmental problem in Central Florida could actually be eliminated while providing a raw material that can aid the earth’s damaged ozone layer, says co-inventor Bill Erickson.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates it may cost as much as $36 billion to eliminate chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). International agreements call for production of CFCs to be phased out this decade.
As a result, companies are scrambling to serve what is expected to be a huge market, both in terms of chemical and equipment manufacturing.
Phosphate Engineering & Construction Co. Inc. of Lakeland this year patented a process to create hydrogen fluoride, which is used to make the alternative CFCs.
The company anticipates that much of the fluorine that the fertilizer companies have little use for today will have more value as alternative CFCs are developed.
“The whole intent is to make something that is profitable,” said Erickson, president of the Lakeland company.
The U.S. demand for fluorine, which was 400,000 tons, is expected to jump 25 percent by next year, said Erickson. Even though 600,000 tons of fluorine are contained in the 20 million tons of phosphate rock mined in Florida, the fluorine market has been inaccessible because the fluorine is tied up with silica, a hard, glassy material.
Erickson, however, said the new process allows the silica to be removed from the fluorine.
However, the manufacturing technique has never been fully commercialized.
In addition to future markets such as CFC replacements, Erickson envisions hydrogen fluoride will be sold to be used in Teflon products as well as for waterproofing sportswear and making carpets stain resistant.
Steve Bernhardt, a product program manager for DuPont, said the chemical agent already has signed an agreement to purchase hydrogen fluoride developed with PECO’s process.
Currently, he said, most of the hydrogen fluoride that is used by the chemical industry is manufactured from a mineral called calcium fluoride, mined in Mexico, China and South Africa.
“Fluorine is an important building block for the whole enterprise” of developing alternative CFCs at DuPont, said Bernhardt. DuPont, which invented CFCs and has been their largest producer, is phasing out its own CFC production and has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to manufacture possible substitutes.
A new company, Chemical Capital Inc. of Mobile, Ala., was formed to finance the PECO idea, said Ron Stevens, company vice president. An initial $5 million investment is planned, project backers said.
“Anytime you come up with a new idea, it can be difficult going from a pilot plant level to full production,” said Stevens. “It’s always easier where you can show where it’s been done before.”
In this instance, the convincing to be done is with the fertilizer companies, with whom Chemical Capital needs to have an agreement to get its project off the ground.
Stevens said that while much of the original motivation of the research was to find ways to reduce environmental impacts from cooling ponds, the added market demand for hydrogen fluoride makes it financially attractive as a money making venture.
Fluorine is a toxic, soluble material that can kill surrounding vegetation. It can also return to the land after carried by rain, said Rodney DeHan, a drinking water analyst with the Department of Environmental Regulation.
Cooling ponds typically cover 100 to 500 acres, and DeHan said he would be encouraged by new technology that reduces environmental impacts.