Super Greenhouse Gases

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Super Greenhouse Gases (SGG) are hundreds or thousands of times more powerful than CO2 in warming planets, and are regulated on Earth for that reason. On Mars, which is too cold, long lived Super Greenhouse Gases (SGG) are considered an economic and desirable way to warm the planet. Types of gases which are long lived under Martian conditions are especially valuable for this purpose.

Discussion of Greenhouse Gases

Planetary atmospheres warm planets by allowing light to hit the world, but slows the radiation of infrared (heat energy) leaving the world. Without our atmosphere, Earth would have a sub freezing temperature of -10 C. However, not all gases warm planets equally. Some such as oxygen (O2), and nitrogen (N2) are transparent to heat energy. More complex molecules tend to slow the radiation of heat to space. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a Greenhouse gas which is causing the Earth to warm, as it concentration increases in Earth's atmosphere. The strength of other green house gases are measured relative to carbon dioxide. For example: methane is 80 times more powerful than CO2 during the 20 years it is expected to remain in the atmosphere. Water (H2O) is a powerful greenhouse gas, but it rapidly leaves the atmosphere as rain and snow. Carbon dioxide remains in the air for a long time. (CO2 is expected to last in the air for about 200 years, when it is typically absorbed by some sort of plant. However, the CO2 is returned to the air when the life rots a few years later. To draw down the CO2 permanently, it needs to be removed from the atmosphere AND the biosphere.)

Many gases will help retain heat, but each is best at trapping specific wavelengths of infrared radiation. To warm Mars, we would wish to pick gases which block 'windows' in the spectrum where heat can escape from Mars. (There is plenty of CO2 on Mars, and if it warms, then water (H2O) will also be more common in the air. So gases which block wavelengths that these two compounds don't, are of special interest.

Super Greenhouse Gases (SGG)

If kilotonnes of gases are to be created then we want to create compounds which will be stable in the Martian atmosphere for many decades or centuries. Mars is bombarded by Ultraviolet light the most energetic of which has energies sufficient to break molecular bonds. Fluorine (F) has the strongest chemical bonds, so its compounds are ideally suited for SGG in Mars' atmosphere. Unfortunately, fluorine is fairly rare. Chlorine (Cl) is chemically similar and much more common and cheaper, so some fluorine atoms may be replaced with Cl, as a cheaper, less long lived substitute. However, Chlorine can destroy the ozone layer, so in the long term it should be avoided. Several industrial refrigerants such as 1,1,1-Trichloroethane, have been suggested, but with Cl as part of the structure, they will fight the goal of building up Mars' Ozone layer.)

Because these gases absorb different parts of the infrared spectrum, it is likely that the ideal solution for warming Mars would be a mix of several chemicals.

Large molecules tend to have better warming potential (they can hold heat by more vibration modes between the atomic bonds), but are more likely to be broken up by Ultraviolet light, so they last for shorter periods in the atmosphere. Unless a short term 'burst' of warming is wanted, longer lived molecules will likely be preferred.

The following table shows several chemicals, their greenhouse gas warming potential (relative to CO2), and their expected lifetime in the Martian air. (Relative warming looks at how much stronger the greenhouse gas is compared to CO2, over a 100 year period.) The lifespan is for Earth, there the lower atmosphere is protected by the Ozone layer. Mars gets about half the sunlight as Earth (so gases will last longer), but lacks an ozone layer (so the gases will break up more quickly). If life on Mars develops an ozone layer, the lifespan there will likely be higher than on Earth, for now it is likely to be lower.

Name Formula Relative Warming Lifespan (Years) Notes
Carbon Tetrafluoride CF4 6,500 (times more than CO2) 50,000 Also known as Tetrafluoromethane, or R-14
Hexafluoroethane C2F6 9,200 10,000 Some sources say its lifespan is ~500 years.
Octafluoropropane C3F8 24,000 ~3,000 y? Used in semiconductor production
Sulfur Hexafluoride SF6 23,900 800 to 3,200 y Used in transformers and Mg production
Chlorotrifluoromethane CF3Cl 14,000 640 Chlorine can destroy ozone layer
Fluoroform CHF3 11,700 270 Used in semiconductor industry and as a refrigerant
Nitrogen Trifluoride NF3 500 17,200 Semiconductors, toxic in high concentrations.

The very long lifespan of carbon tetrafluoride (CF4) and its high relative warming makes it attractive.

The paper below studied the following 5 gases:

  • SF4(CF3)2
  • CR3CF2CF3
  • CF3SCF2CF3
  • CF5CF3
  • SF6

These were picked since they covered a lower set of frequencies than the carbon - fluoride compounds listed above. However the large complex molecules broke down more quickly, and were intended to be used after Mars had an ozone layer to protect them.

After studying these gases they suggested that sulphur hexafluoride the best to use of the ones studied.

Compounds After the Breakdown of SGG

Carbon tetrafluoride (CF4) is an ideal greenhouse gas, but eventually it will be broken down by Ultraviolet (UV) light by losing a Fluorine atom. The fluorine is HIGHLY reactive, likely combining with CO2 to form COF. The CF3 will eventually form another molecule such as CF3OH or CHF3.

These molecules are also likely greenhouse gases, but little is know about them as far as their lifetime in the Martian atmosphere, or their greenhouse potential. This should be a subject of future study.

Cost of Creating These Gases

As Martian industry expands, these gases will be created for various purposes. For example, SF6 will be created for use in electrical transformers. On Earth, great care (and expense) must be taken to prevent it from leaking into the air. On Mars such effort is not needed since we WANT the planet to warm. Thus small amounts of these chemicals will inevitably build up, for 'free', in the Martian atmosphere as Mars develops.

That said, here are the 2021 prices for some of the compounds listed above:

  • CF4.. $7,000 / tonne
  • C2F6.. $150 / tonne
  • C3F8.. $500 to $700 / tonne
  • SF6.. $6,000 / tonne
  • CHF3.. $45,000 / tonne

(Note, these prices are from quick google searches. Someone more knowledgable please correct these values if they are off.)

If industries developed to mass produce the gases by the kilotonne, these prices would drop.

The paper below suggests that no more than 170 kilotonne per Earth year would be needed to make up for the loss of these gases by UV photolysis. If we assume the average cost of these gases is $1,000 / tonne, and we want to produce 500 kilotonnes / year to build up the concentration, then the price to engineer Mars' atmosphere would be $500 million per year. This price would drop to a maintenance level of about 1/3 that once we reach the target temperature.


"Terraforming: Engineering Planetary Environments", by Martin J. Fogg, ISBN 1-56091-609-5.

// Paper discussing which SGG would be idea for terraforming Mars.