Sulfur hexafluoride

Sulfur hexafluoride:

Sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) is an inorganic, colorless, odorless, non-toxic and non-flammable gas (under standard conditions). SF6 has an octahedral geometry, consisting of six fluorine atoms attached to a central sulfur atom. It is a hypervalent molecule. Typical for a nonpolar gas, it is poorly soluble in water but soluble in nonpolar organic solvents. It is generally transported as a liquefied compressed gas. It has a density of 6.13 g/L at sea level conditions, which is considerably higher than the density of air.

SF6 can be prepared from the elements through exposure of S8 to F2. This is also the method used by the discoverers Henri Moissan and Paul Lebeau in 1901. Some other sulfur fluorides are cogenerated, but these are removed by heating the mixture to disproportionate any S2F10 (which is highly toxic, unlike SF6) and then scrubbing the product with NaOH to destroy remaining SF4.

There is virtually no reaction chemistry for SF6. It does not react with molten sodium, but reacts exothermically with lithium.

Starting from SF4, one can prepare SF5Cl, which is structurally related to SF6. The monochloride is, however, a strong oxidant and readily hydrolyzed to sulfate.

SF6 is used in the electrical industry as a gaseous dielectric medium for high-voltage (35 kV and above) circuit breakers, switchgear, and other electrical equipment, often replacing oil filled circuit breakers (OCBs) that can contain harmful PCBs. SF6 gas under pressure is used as an insulator in gas insulated switchgear (GIS) because it has a much higher dielectric strength than air or dry nitrogen. This property makes it possible to significantly reduce the size of electrical gear. This makes GIS more suitable for certain purposes such as indoor placement, as opposed to air-insulated electrical gear, which takes up considerably more room. Gas-insulated electrical gear is also more resistant to the effects of pollution and climate, as well as being more reliable in long-term operation because of its controlled operating environment. Vacuum circuit breakers (VCBs) are displacing SF6 breakers in industry as they are safer and require less maintenance. Although most of the decomposition products tend to quickly re-form SF6, arcing or corona can produce disulfur decafluoride (S2F10), a highly toxic gas, with toxicity similar to phosgene. S2F10 was considered a potential chemical warfare agent in World War II because it does not produce lacrimation or skin irritation, thus providing little warning of exposure.

SF6 is also commonly encountered as a high voltage dielectric in the high voltage supplies of particle accelerators, such as Van de Graaff generators and Pelletrons and high voltage transmission electron microscopes.

Because SF6 is relatively slowly absorbed by the bloodstream, it is used to provide a long-term tamponade or plug of a retinal hole in retinal detachment repair operations.

In a further medical application, SF6 is employed as a contrast agent for ultrasound imaging. Sulfur hexafluoride microbubbles are administered in solution through injection into a peripheral vein. These microbubbles enhance the visibility of blood vessels to ultrasound. This application has been utilized to examine the vascularity of tumours amongst other things.

Sulfur hexafluoride was the tracer gas used in the first roadway air dispersion model calibration; this research program was sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and conducted in Sunnyvale, California on U.S. Highway 101. Gaseous SF6 is an ongoing commonly used tracer gas for use in short-term experiments of ventilation efficiency in buildings and indoor enclosures, and for determining infiltration rates. Two major factors recommend its use: Its concentration can be measured with satisfactory accuracy at very low concentrations, and the Earth's atmosphere has a negligible concentration of SF6.

Sulfur hexafluoride was used as a harmless test gas in an experiment at St John's Wood tube station in London, United Kingdom on 25 March 2007. The gas was released throughout the station, and monitored as it drifted around. The purpose of the experiment, which had been announced earlier in March by the Secretary of State for Transport Douglas Alexander, was to investigate how toxic gas might spread throughout London Underground stations and buildings during a terrorist attack.

It has been used successfully as a tracer in oceanography to study diapycnal mixing and air-sea gas exchange.

Sulfur hexafluoride is also used as a reagent for creating thrust in a closed Rankine cycle propulsion system, reacting with solid lithium as used in the United States Navy's Mark 50 torpedo.

SF6 plasma is also used in the semiconductor industry as an etchant.

The magnesium industry uses large amounts of SF6 as inert gas to fill casting forms.

Sulfur hexafluoride is also used to pressurize the waveguide in radar systems.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, SF6 is the most potent greenhouse gas that it has evaluated, with a global warming potential of 22,800 times that of CO2 when compared over a 100 year period. However, due to its high density relative to air, SF6 flows to the bottom of the atmosphere which limits its ability to heat the atmosphere. SF6 is very stable (for countries reporting their emissions to the UNFCCC, a GWP of 23,900 for SF6 was suggested at the third Conference of the Parties: GWP used in Kyoto protocol). Its mixing ratio in the atmosphere is lower than that of CO2 about 6.5 parts per trillion (ppt) in 2008 versus 380 ppm of carbon dioxide, but has steadily increased (from a figure of 4.0 parts per trillion in the late 1990s).  Its atmospheric lifetime is 3200 years.

In Europe, SF6 falls under the F-Gas directive which ban or control its usage for several applications. Since January 1st 2006, SF6 is banned as a tracer gas and in all applications except high voltage switchgear.

Another effect is the gas's ability to alter vocal sound waves. The gas can be inhaled in a small, safe amount and cause the breather's voice to sound very deep. This is due to the gas density. Unlike helium, which is much less dense than air, SF6 is approximately 5 times denser than air, and the velocity of sound through the gas is 0.44 times the speed of sound in air. Inhalation of SF6 causes a lowering of the timbre, or frequency of the formants, of the vocal tract, by contrast with inhalation of helium, which raises it.

This was demonstrated by Adam Savage on the Mythbusters television program on 3 September 2008 (along with an inhalation of helium, to show higher pitched sound).

Although inhaling SF6 can be a novel amusement, the practice can be dangerous because, like other inert gases, it displaces not only the oxygen needed for life, but also the CO2 that is the primary trigger of the breathing reflex. In general, dense, odorless gases in confined areas present the hazard of suffocation. A myth exists that SF6 is too heavy for the lungs to expel unassisted, and that after inhaling SF6, it is necessary to bend over completely at the waist to allow the excess gas to "spill" out of the body.

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