Quick, Save The Ozone

If James "Hugo" Steven ever doubted the importance of his work in finding substitutes for ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons, the Queen of England dispelled them. Her Majesty, worried about atmospheric damage from the refrigerants, met with the Imperial Chemical Industries PLC chemist and others in London two years ago to quiz them on their progress. Recalls the much impressed Scotsman: "She asked sensible questions."

And Steven had sensible answers. Years of pressure from world governments and unparalleled cooperation among chemical producers had led to chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) substitutes in record time. Steven could boast to the Queen that ICI, once an underdog in the CFC business, was setting the pace in a race with DuPont Co. and Elf Atochem to develop the technology. Last December, after an all-out, nearly $500 million development effort, an ICI plant in Louisiana was the first world-scale U.S. facility to start pumping out HFC 134a, an alternative to CFC 12, the chemical that accounts for more than 50% of CFC use.

The saga of 134a is an object lesson in how a global crisis can compel governments and companies to transform technology far faster than either thought possible. With deadlines for phasing out CFCs closing in, ICI and its rivals, DuPont and Elf, developed technology speedily by constructing factories even while their choice molecules were still being tested. ICI slashed the time it takes to commercialize a technology from the industry norm of more than a decade to only five years. Conclusion: If companies are forced to act on environmental issues, they do it. "Companies have always known how to push the hell out of something when there's a buck to be made," says Isadore Rosenthal, a senior research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. "This will teach them to do it somewhat faster."

No one was moving very fast when it came to replacing CFCs until 1985, when scientists found a hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctic. The gap supported a theory that chlorine from CFCs destroys atmospheric ozone, which protects the earth from the sun's radiation. Soon, higher rates of skin cancer and a potential global warming were blamed on a gas that for decades had leaked into the air from millions of car air conditioners and trashed home refrigerators. DuPont and other chemical makers knew CFC's days were numbered. They leaped to develop 134a and other alternatives, called HCFCs, which contain smaller amounts of chlorine than CFCs.

The effort required an enormous about-face for chemical makers. In 1985, CFCs were the refrigerants of choice worldwide. They were nontoxic, nonflammable, energy-efficient, and inexpensive--with a worldwide $1.5 billion-a-year market. True, in 1977, ICI re- searchers were among the first to tinker with 134a, a chlorine-free refrigerant that is as nonflammable as CFC 12 but without its ozone-depleting action. But their work languished in the late '70s and early '80s, because many scientists believed that a 1978 U.S. ban on CFCs in aerosol cans would solve the problem. Besides, no one wanted to develop a chemical that would cost five times as much as CFCs, then 57 a pound.

GAMBLE. In 1985, ICI decided to go for the brass ring. The British company held less than 10% of the CFC market--way behind industry leader DuPont. ICI figured that the first company to ramp up the most efficient production would gain an advantage. Executives decided to pin their fortunes on 134a. By focusing on just one CFC alternative, it gambled that it would develop the technology faster and grab a hefty share of a market estimated to approach $2 billion a year by the turn of the century. "We knew the clock was ticking," says Anthony G. Mash, commercial director for fluorochemicals at ICI Americas Inc.

ICI dragooned Steven to head research for KLEA, ICI's 134a even though the chemist, who had worked on blue sky research at ICI since 1974, had no experience commercializing research. Steven plowed ahead regardless, building his team of scientists from just eight in 1985 to more than 80 in 1990. By then, ICI had 200 staffers dedicated to 134a.

From the start, strategy dictated research. In the critical matter of what kind of chemical broth to choose as the basis for the creation of KLEA, ICI opted for one that contained chlorine because it would yield no wasteful byproducts. That required that researchers find a way to neutralize the chlorine. The trade-off was worth it. Since ICI didn't need the byproducts, the process ultimately was more efficient without them.

In 1987, the team set 1995 for the opening of a commercial plant. It was an ambitious target, since no one knew what gear was needed, much less how to design the plant. But with the signing a few months later of the Montreal Protocol, the treaty that initially called for a 50% CFC phaseout by '98, the team had to accelerate the timetable by two years. Recalls Steven: "We were all in shock."

Scores of people were mobilized. Researchers and engineers had to reverse their conventional operating practices. Normally, chemists would devise a process for turning out a chemical, then hand the recipe over to engineers so they could design the plant. With an ironclad deadline looming, chemists had to promise catalyst details by certain dates so engineers could start designing reactors. To encourage risk-taking, ICI managers promised there would be no penalties for mistakes. "If we expected people to do the impossible, we couldn't burn them when they were wrong," says Steven.

Fostering camaraderie and dedication was critical. Toiling away in secret, at ICI's Runcorn lab in northern England, helped. Steven, now 44, also led his colleagues on team-building exercises. Several spent a weekend together in the hills near Manchester, navigating their way through a forest. Once, a group of 25 shared a night in a barn. The team became so close that by project's end, at least two couples wound up marrying.

ICI needed the internal harmony to counteract outside pressure. Rival chemical makers had agreed to share information on the safety of 134a and other substitutes, but the cooperation ended there, giving way to fierce competition to get into production first. In 1988, DuPont grabbed headlines when it announced that it would phase out CFCs even though it wasn't then required. Later, DuPont and Elf Atochem announced ambitious plans for factories. But ICI won out when it opened its first commercial plant in Runcorn in 1990.

PARALLEL ENGINEERING. The real production test came with the St. Gabriel (La.) plant. In early 1991, ICI set out to build a $100 million, 22-million-pound production facility in less than two years. To meet the deadline, plant manager Stephen Barnes had to adopt parallel engineering. Designers moved from one project to another even before their first job was finished, ironing out wrinkles with construction staffers along the way. Later, parts of the plant were tested while others were being built. The overlap allowed ICI to start up last December--just after the world's nations agreed to accelerate the phaseout of CFCs, ending their use entirely in developed countries by yearend 1995.

But it wasn't until St. Gabriel was almost built that ICI made a key technical advance. For three years, Steven's group looked for the catalyst that would boost the efficiency of the chemical reaction that yields 134a. In all, they scrutinized 150 candidates, narrowing the field to three by testing. Then, they built a small chemical plant to determine which one worked best. Last year, they picked their winner. The ultra secret catalyst will enable ICI to double its production capacity to 80 million pounds a year.

Even before breaking ground for the St. Gabriel plant, ICI had to face the marketing challenge posed by 134a. Chemical makers had to prove not only that the substitutes worked but also had to help customers make the engineering changes required to adopt them. In 1989, ICI sent Mash, one of its business directors in Europe, to the U.S.--the world's largest CFC market--to persuade carmakers, refrigerator makers, and other prospective customers to switch to KLEA. Since safety testing of the chemical wouldn't be cleared until 1992, the job wasn't easy.

Skeptical customers didn't help. In January, 1990, Ken Taulbee, vice-president for the Americold division of Electrolux AB, the largest U.S. refrigerator-compressor outfit, delivered a technical paper at an industry conference that said 134a was unsuitable. The problem: Lubricants added to the gas gunked up the narrow tubes inside refrigerators. Within a few months, ICI scientists reformulated the oils. Says Taulbee: "ICI showed courage in moving ahead with production for 134a before anyone approved its use."

PITCH AND WOO. U.S. carmakers weren't easy to win over either. Not only were they reluctant to take on the costs of changing to the technology, recalls Angelo P. Patti, an engineering supervisor for Chrysler Corp., "we weren't sure when the chemical would be available, what its properties would be, and what problems we would run into." Mash campaigned hard to get carmakers to sign on, supplying engineering and technical assistance that helped make Chrysler an early convert. Its 1992 Jeep Grand Cherokee became the first American vehicle to use 134a. By 1994, all Chrysler models will use it. ICI is now a major supplier of 134a to carmakers, even though it wasn't a factor in that market with CFCs. "ICI was more aggressive than DuPont and Atochem," says Patti. "They had to be to get your attention."

ICI can't rest on its laurels, though. This year, U.S. taxes on CFC 12 have driven its price to more than 134a's $5 a pound, an incentive to switch to substitutes. But price alone won't induce manufacturers to convert. ICI will face escalating competition from DuPont and others, some of whom offer a broader array of CFC substitutes.

Even more worrisome, some scientists wonder whether one day, they could find that even 134a poses yet-unknown environmental risks. After all, CFCs were heralded as a brilliant advance in safety when they were introduced in the 1930s. So ICI and its rivals will have to stay nimble in case they are forced into action again.

      TO BRING 
      TO MARKET 
      Chlorofluorocarbons used in cooling systems have been implicated in the destruction of the earth's protective ozone layer. Here's how companies raced against constantly changing deadlines to produce
      a substitute.
         1974 Scientists theorize that CFCs could deplete the ozone layer.
         1977 ICI and France's Elf Atochem identify 134a as a likely CFC substitute.
         1978 U.S. bans use of CFCs in aerosol propellants.
         1985 Scientists observe hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica.
         1987 Montreal Protocol is enacted, calling for a 50% cut in CFC use by mid-1998. ICI, DuPont, and Elf Atochem start up 134a pilot plants.
         1990 Montreal Protocol revised, calling for 50% reduction in most CFCs by 1995. ICI starts up world's first commercial 134a plant in Britain.
         1992 Montreal Protocol revised to ban CFCs by 1996. Elf Atochem opens its 134a plant in France. ICI starts up its $100 million U.S. plant, the world's largest, built in less than two years.
         1993 DuPont accelerates production phase-out of CFCs to 1994 and plans to open a 134a plant in Texas.
         1994 AlliedSignal will open a 134a plant in Louisiana.
         1995 Elf Atochem plans to open its U.S. 134a plant in Kentucky.
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