As green initiatives become a concern in many industries, the digital signage marketplace is beginning to assess the environmental friendliness of the technology. And while most agree that the use of flatscreens has some green attributes, one scientist says they are highly destructive to the atmosphere.
The issue arose last month in an article where University of California professor and scientist Michael Prather said that nitrogen trifluoride (NF3), a gas used in cleaning of electronic manufacturing chambers and microchip etching, was 16,800 times as potent as carbon dioxide and has the potential to cause atmospheric damage. Prather noted that the gas was used in large volumes during the manufacturing process of LCD displays.
News of the report's accusations was spread worldwide by the Australian Broadcasting Company and was pinned with the headline "Flat screen TVs blamed for accelerating global warming." Prather said that the LCD production process uses large manufacturing chambers and hence uses large amounts of NF3.
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Prather later said the gas has a risk of escaping into the atmosphere during the manufacturing and post–production processes, which he called a "bypass release."
"NF3 is a very inert, slippery gas, and is hard to trap," he said. "It can easily escape during manufacture, transport, application and disposal."
Screen manufacturers and many in the digital signage industry have countered that accusation, saying that Prather's report lacks the facts about how much NF3 is actually escaping from the LCD screen manufacturing process.
Dr. Paul Fraser, chief research scientist at the Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, was quoted in the ABC article as saying, "We haven't observed [NF3] in the atmosphere. It's probably there in very low concentrations."
"The portion of NF3 used in LCD production is a small fraction of the total world production," said Alfred Poor, author of the daily HDTV Almanac. "The people I know who are familiar with LCD production say that it is too valuable to just exhaust away."
Pat Summers is an environmental affairs manager for NEC Display Solutions and has been following Prather's report since its release. He said that during the manufacturing process more than 95 percent of NF3 is destroyed.
But Prather says that the remaining percent is anywhere five to 30 percent, and that part is not destroyed during the manufacturing process but rather in post-production, where it must be burned into NO (nitric oxide) and HF (hydrogen fluoride).
Prather said that this combustion process is not complete and the success in the disposal stage is not verified by measuring the exhaust from the factories of LCD screens. He said the ability to measure at these low concentrations is difficult and the chemical companies do not generally have this capability.
Regardless if the gas proves to be an atmospheric threat or not, the report has caused many in the digital signage industry to evaluate its environmental impact and consider the question: Is digital signage a green business?
The opinions thus far differ. Many consider digital signage to be green because it can be used to replace paper signage, saving companies from having to buy new signs every time they need changing.
"By using digital technology in place of posters you're cutting down fewer trees," said Brad Gleeson, vice president of business development for Planar Systems. "We've certainly seen reports and interest in the marketplace by customers who say â€˜it costs me as much to create and ship 20,000 of these posters as it would for me to just buy this digital signage network.' They make that investment once and then don't have to do the posters over and over again."
The environmental impact of using digital signage as opposed to paper signage could also be efficient further up the supply chain.
"Printed signage uses various inks, paints, glues, paper, wood, metal, etc. and every time it gets changed, someone has to print new signs, ship them, and use fuel to do so," said Tim Burke, owner of Electronic Art. "Those inks, paints and solvents require a lot of greenhouse gases to produce and much of the printed signage goes into landfills."
The long lifespan of a digital sign also means that, depending on the frequency of use one screen can last several years.
"When you're talking about a digital sign that has an operating time of 50,000-60,000 hours, you're talking about something that is going to be installed for a long time and people are going to get a lot of use out of it," said Kirt Yanke, director of product development for NEC Display Solutions.
On the other hand, Gleeson said that flatscreens, like those used for digital signage applications, are still considered dispensable products.
"People use them and then throw them away when they're done," he said "Our economy is based on things buying bigger, newer, brighter, faster things all the time. As long as you have that kind of economy the question remains â€˜What do we do with the old one?'"
Can digital signage be a green business? Hear Brad Gleeson's opinion.
Screen recycling programs
Several display manufacturers have already responded to that issue by adding screen recycling to their slate of green initiatives.
LG Electronics recently launched its recycling program in conjunction with Waste Management. The companies offer free recycling of screens and other electronics to those who drop them off at one of Waste Management's 160 designated sites.
NEC also offers a trade-in program for its customers, where the company will take back old equipment and dispose of it through a third-party recycler.
Can digital signage be a green business? Hear the opinion of Jeff Blankensop, director of business development for NEC.
A green future?
Display manufacturers are also working to cut down on the power consumption of screens, especially as high-brightness screens become more popular for outdoor use.
"Long term, we are going to look at other technologies that can be used for LCD backlights that can allow us to be more efficient," Yanke said. "Anyone can make a high brightness display that can be three times as bright with three times the power. We want to be able to look at technology that would allow us to have three times the brightness but maybe only a 20-30 percent increase in power."
In the future, the "green" movement will likely cause the digital signage industry to become more aware of the environmental impact of screen manufacturing and the use of digital screens.
"We have to tackle this head on," Gleeson said. "I think it's great to create the visibility and awareness and to say â€˜this is a problem we need to solve.'"
As for NF3, if it becomes a problem experts are confident the industry will respond accordingly.
"If we wanted to find another way around using the gas that I think we could," Gleeson said. "We found another way to refrigerate besides using CFCs. We've banned propellants from aerosols. I think if the public awareness is there and if the economics don't make it completely untenable than these things will be worked out."