Flat-panel companies rely on gas from U.S.



The toxic gas is used as an industrial cleansing agent in producing flat-panel items.
PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER
HOMETOWN, Pa. -- Virtually all flat-panel products -- televisions, laptop computers and desktop monitors -- come from Asia.
But the largest source for one crucial component in the manufacturing process for flat-panel products is a gas plant in the Appalachian coal town of Hometown about 50 minutes northwest of Allentown, Pa.
It's here that Allentown-based Air Products & amp; Chemicals Inc. manufactures nitrogen trifluoride, a highly specialized and toxic gas used as an industrial cleansing agent in flat-panel production.
With the explosion of flat-panel-TV sales, global supplies of what everyone calls NF3 have tightened so much that the Hometown plant is shipping most of its gas to South Korea and Taiwan. It is part of an evolving global economy in which the United States ships raw materials and commodities to Asia, where they are transformed by cheap labor and modern factories into consumer goods and shipped back to U.S. stores.
Heading out
Several times a week, 20- to 40-foot-long metal canisters filled with NF3 depart in trucks, winding their way through mountainous roads to highways heading into New Jersey and the Newark ports. There, the canisters, anchored in special cradles, are unhitched from the trucks and loaded onto cargo ships to Asia. Unloaded 12,000 miles away, the canisters are then trucked to flat-panel factories.
Once depleted, the canisters reverse the trek to Pennsylvania on freighters packed with consumer goods, cars and, yes, desktop monitors and liquid-crystal-display flat-panel televisions.
"It is much more expensive to ship the empties back from Asia than it is to send the full ones over because of the trade imbalance," said Mike Cudzil, Air Products inventory control manager for the electronics materials division. "We're booking room on the same ship that Wal-Mart is, and we are competing with that. It's a problem."
Big-volume shippers such as Wal-Mart crowd out periodic shippers such as Air Products. When that happens, the canisters can wait on the docks in Asia.
Air Products says about 300 special cradles circulate the globe as part of its burgeoning NF3 business. The containers travel three or four months between refills. Air Products will not say how much NF3 costs. But industry sources say it runs 8 to 9 a pound, compared with less than 1 a pound for a commodity gas such as oxygen.
Former niche product
For years, NF3 was a niche product in Air Products. It was initially developed by the military as an experimental rocket fuel in the 1960s. In the Reagan era, it was used in high-energy chemical lasers for the Star Wars missile-defense system.
In the mid-1990s, Air Products persuaded the computer-chip industry to use NF3 as a cleanser for its equipment. The gas vaporizes excess silicon and other contaminants in self-contained equipment used to manufacture silicon wafers which are later cut into computer chips.
NF3 was a better cleanser than the previous gas and does not harm the ozone layer, said Suhas N. Ketkar, Air Products manager of analytical and technical services.
But it was this decade that NF3 took off, with the popularity of notebook computers and flat-panel televisions. According to DisplaySearch, a market-research firm in Austin, Texas, shipments of flat-panel TVs will more than double in 2006 to 44.6 million sets from 21.2 million in 2005.
Revenue generated
NF3 is part of the Air Products electronics business, which generates 1.3 billion a year in revenue. Traditional chemical companies, includingDuPont Co., are seeking faster growth by developing products for the electronics-manufacturing industry. Sales of older chemical products grow 3 percent to 7 percent a year. Chemicals and process gases sold to electronics-makers grow 10 percent to 15 percent a year, or faster.

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