Search for a gas to save data from fire

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ONE OF the less celebrated aspects of the Government's effort to deal with environmental issues is the search to find a substitute for Halon gas.

This challenge, while not as dramatic as battles against disease and pollution, is nevertheless vital for businesses all over the world that have come to rely on Halon as the most effective protection against fire in their computer rooms.

Carbon dioxide is almost as good - it puts out a fire by suffocating it - but in so doing it also deprives the computer operator of oxygen. Halon, on the other hand, is an odourless and colourless gas that quells fire by interfering with the chemical reaction - and it does not hurt people. But it is seen as highly hazardous to the ozone layer - hence the concern of environmentalists and the adoption of an international protocol which requires that production of Halon ceases on 1 January 1994.

Supplies will still be available for a while after the main US manufacturers, Du Pont and Atochem, halt production - but in diminishing amounts and at higher prices, said Paul Jennings, an energy consultant.

The crisis has prompted the establishment of a Halon Users National Consortium (Hunc), which met last month to consider ways of managing the existing banks of Halon effectively.

Mr Jennings said the hunt for a Halon substitute appeared difficult, because any replacement was likely to work the same way, and therefore likely to pose a similar danger to the ozone layer.

His company, Retrotec, makes testing equipment and carries out inspections of safety facilities. The equipment is primarily designed to tell whether a room is air-tight. If a room is air-tight it will be Halon-tight, therefore meeting the demands of the insurance companies on whose behalf Mr Jennings mainly operates.

But although time is running out and the lack of a replacement is driving up insurance premiums, many companies seem blissfully unaware of the problems.

'There are things you can do, but you have to be looking and thinking - and a lot of companies aren't,' Mr Jennings said.

One of the options, he said, was to break up large databases and thereby reduce the risk of all computer material being destroyed in a single fire.

It is also possible to split databases within a building, scatter them about a site, or merely maintain back-up systems away from the main location. But, Mr Jennings added, it would be difficult to make this kind of change within a year.

'The chances of a fire are slim, but the consequences are great,' he added.