20 years of innovation in sustainable science

How a family of proprietary 3M products has evolved to meet customer needs for sustainable alternatives to CFCs, HFCs, Halon, Sulphur Hexafluoride and more... John Owens shares the Novec story.

The Novec story – 20 years of innovation from scientists and engineers

The story behind the 3M brand Novec goes back over 20 years and is a great example of how engineers and scientists can develop innovations that tangibly change our world for the better.  Novec products touch many peoples’ lives every day, protecting equipment and people, or improving product performance in a wide variety of applications and industries. 

The Novec story begins with a pressing necessity, one that had – and continues to have – huge global implications.  Roll back to the late Eighties and early Nineties, when concerns about the ozone layer and environmental issues really began to gain momentum.  It rapidly became clear that usage of many substances considered to cause ozone depletion needed to be reduced or phased out altogether to meet the requirements of the Montreal Protocol (agreed to in 1987, with multiple revisions since). 

Materials in the spotlight included Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), widely used for applications ranging from cleaning to refrigeration.  Although there was a phase-out plan, halons – another class of ozone-depleting chemicals - were subject to more rapid substitution, with the majority having deadlines in the mid Nineties. 

 Many organisations turned to Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) as CFC replacements, typically used as refrigerants, solvents, blowing agents for plastic foam manufacture and in fire protection.  They have zero ozone depletion potential (ODP) but are potent greenhouse gases with high global warming potentials (GWP).

Visit the Novec site to watch the full video and for more information, including best practice guides, plus application and industry-specific content

Finding a better way

Back to the Nineties: a group of 3M scientists and engineers sat down and put their heads together.  It was considered likely (as has been the case) that environmental legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would continue to gain momentum in the future.  So, rather than investing in material and technology that would ultimately become obsolete, they decided to create a family of products that would meet customers’ requirements across performance, safety and sustainability.

This was no easy task, because these requirements pulled in different directions: the products needed to comply with environmental legislation, whilst being safe for people and workers, with no compromise on efficacy.  No-one was going to use CFC, HCFC or HFC alternatives if they did not provide comparable or better performance.

John Owens, today Lead Research Specialist at 3M, was involved in Novec’s evolution from the beginning and remembers those days well.  “It was a challenging balancing act.  We had a team of engineers and scientists working at an intense pace synthesising different chemicals to come up with a solution. We wanted to create something that scientists and engineers like ourselves would be comfortable using for many years to come, but we were also under pressure to get a viable product on the market as soon as possible.  People ask us if we used advanced automated modelling to design the products. We did where possible, but in the end Novec was the result of thousands of lab hours, a lot of trial and error, and people who were persistent about finding solutions to these problems.”


The eureka moment was the creation of segregated hydrofluoroethers (HFEs), a 3M innovation.  They are non-ozone depleting with low global warming potentials. They are colourless and odourless, with low toxicity, low viscosity and are liquids at room temperature.  Depending on formulation, boiling-point is between 34 and 167 Celsius. 

Due to their molecular structures and environmentally sustainable attributes, segregated HFEs are not being phased down by the Montreal Protocol, nor any subsequent or anticipated future environmental legislation. 

Says John Owens, “There was quite a buzz in the industry when we introduced our first Novec product.  I remember being at a conference and everyone talking about it, particularly users who were desperate to find suitable alternatives to CFCs at that time.”

“We’ve always been very transparent about the formulation of the Novec products,” Owens continued, “That’s an important part of 3M being able to demonstrate their environmental and safety attributes.  In addition, we have always performed extensive internal and external tests to demonstrate that all the Novec products really deliver on performance in each of their main application areas.  For instance, when Novec fluids are used for cleaning or degreasing metal components, they leaves no residue, have fast-drying times and requires less fluid and energy than alternative approaches.”

Novec fluids can also be found helping to keep data centres cool, cleaning components for racing cars or even titanium hip replacements, or helping to protect valuable assets in libraries or museums from fire.

Sustainable fire protection

The development of a Novec product for use in fire suppression was another historical landmark.   Halons and HFCs being used for fire suppression were – and continue to be – impacted by environmental legislation.  More recently, this has included the F-gas Regulation here in Europe and 2016’s Montreal Protocol amendment agreed in Kigali, Rwanda, which saw a landmark deal to phase-down use of the fastest growing greenhouse gases, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), commonly used in fire suppression systems. 

Some regions – including the USA and Europe – must start cutting use of HFCs as early as 2019.  Given that fire suppression systems have a typical life-span of 25 years, this has immediate impact on the purchase of new systems. 

Back to the 3M lab, where earlier this century, the Novec scientists and engineers were already looking at alternatives to existing fire protection solutions.  The result of 3M’s R&D efforts was Novec 1230 Fire Protection Fluid, invented in 1999 and commercialised in 2001.  It has zero ozone depletion potential, an atmospheric life of five days and a global warming potential (GWP) of less than one.  It is also highly effective at extinguishing fires: the discharge time to reach the required extinguishing concentration level occurs in just 10 seconds. In addition, Novec 1230 fluid leaves no residue and does not damage the valuable assets being protected. It is particularly suited to environments where water-less fire suppression is essential. The volume of agent discharge is much lower than inert gases, alleviating the need for venting, and fewer cylinders can be used, saving on overall system footprint.

Keeping the world’s lights on

Adds John Owens, “Coming up with a strong alternative to existing fire protection solutions was one of the most demanding Novec projects, but it worked out well.  Since then, we’ve continued to apply our minds to other challenges, including finding an alternative to SF6, which we now have.”

As many readers will probably know, SF6 – or Sulphur Hexafluoride - is relied upon around the globe by utilities to insulate medium and high voltage power equipment: without it, the lights around the world will literally go out.  However, SF6 is also the most potent greenhouse gas, as noted in the 2013 IPCC Fifth Assessment Report.  To provide some perspective, it has a GWP 23,500 times that of CO2 across a 100-year period, so finding an alternative has long been on the agenda.  3M’s answer is Novec Insulating Gases, which are already helping power utilities to reduce greenhouse gas impacts by up to 99.99% compared with equipment applications using SF6.

John Owens concludes: “Two decades on and Novec is still going strong.  What we’ve learnt along the way – and what we would share with IET members – is don’t give up: for every Novec success, there were many trials along the way that did not work out, but we kept going until we found the right answers, which are the ones without compromise.  Balancing environmental needs with safety and performance continues to challenge and inspire us to carry on innovating.”

Visit the Novec site to watch the full video and for more information, including best practice guides, plus application and industry-specific content.


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