Frequently Asked Questions About TCE Alternatives

TCE is facing regulatory scrutiny in many states and countries across the globe. Fortunately, MicroCare offers a number of excellent TCE alternatives including Tergo Metal Cleaning FluidTergo Chlorine Free Cleaning Fluid and Opteon SF80 Specialty Fluid.

What is TCE?

TCE (Trichlorethylene) is a manmade chemical compound. It is an industrial cleaner degreaser. TCE is a volatile, unsaturated, aliphatic halogenated hydrocarbon (C2HCl3). It is a clear, colorless liquid and has a sweet smell that can be offensive. It is a low boiling (189° F, 87°C) solvent that is also non-flammable with a flashpoint of >200°F (93°C). Some of the industrial abbreviations for trichlorethylene include TCE, Trike, Triclor, Tri or Tricky.

Within the critical cleaning industry, TCE solubilizes contaminants such as oil, grease and buffing compounds on many types and configurations of metal parts. The combination of its vapor density (4.53), viscosity (0.545) and surface tension (0.0264 N/m at 20 deg C) make it a good cleaner degreaser.

It is a strong cleaner with a Kb value of 133. Kb value refers to a standardized ASTM test that measures the relative strength of a non-aqueous cleaning fluid. The test involves measuring the solubility of a very specific type of contamination, called “kauri gum.” Kb values range from 10 (very mild) to 200 or even higher (very strong).

TCE is an ingredient in a wide variety of commercial and industrial products, including degreasers, cleaning solutions, paint thinners, pesticides, resins, glues, and a host of other mixing and thinning solutions. Its chlorine-containing chemical structure helps it to efficiently dissolve organic materials like fats and greases and to serve as a raw material or intermediate in the production of other chemicals.

What is the history of TCE (Trichlorethylene)?

Throughout the years, Trichlorethylene has been an aggressive, inexpensive and readily available solvent that worked very well in a number of different industries.

Trichlorethylene (TCE) was first produced in the 1920s. Its major use was in food processing. TCE extracted oils including coconut, soy and palm from plants. It was also part of the process to decaffeinate ground coffee.

From the 1930s through the 1960s, both in Europe and North America, TCE served medicinal purposes. It replaced the malodourous and volatile options of chloroform and ether as an anesthetic. It also once served as a painkiller, most often inhaled by obstetrical patients.

Due to concerns about its toxicity, the use of trichloroethylene in the food and pharmaceutical industries is phased out or completely banned in much of the world since the 1970s. However, it is still being used as an anesthetic in less developed countries.

TCE plays a role in the manufacture of refrigerants, adhesives and paint removers. It also served as a drycleaning solvent through the 1950s and as a textile spot cleaner through 2000.

However, the greatest use of TCE is as a cleaner and degreaser for metal parts. It removes machining oils, metal fines, grease, fingerprints and waxes from components prior to painting, plating, welding or other subsequent processing.

The demand for TCE as a degreaser started to decline in the 1950s in favor of the less toxic 1,1,1-trichloroethane. However, 1,1,1-trichloroethane production phased out in most of the world under the terms of the 1987 Montreal Protocol as a compound responsible for ozone depletion. As a result, TCE experienced a resurgence in use as a degreaser.

In 2011, the US EPA (United State Environmental Protection Agency) issued a health assessment for TCE. Their assessment recognizes TCE as carcinogenic to humans by all routes of exposure (i.e., by ingestion, inhalation, and skin exposure).

Today, TCE continues to be on the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and State OSHA watch lists. It isn’t officially banned yet. In Europe it is classified as SVHC (Substance of Very High Concern). However, experts speculate that TCE will most likely phase-out over the next ten years and safer substitutes for trichloroethylene will take their place.

Even now, some chemical companies still have TCE in their products. However, many companies are proactively removing TCE from their aerosol formulations. Still others have stopped selling TCE altogether, making TCE availability more limited. This in turn has driven up costs for manufacturers resulting in higher prices on TCE for the end users. Fortunately, this has prompted many end-users to search for a safer substitute for trichloroethylene.

What is the PEL of TCE?

To help protect people who work in potentially hazardous environments, OSHA established a PEL (Permissible Exposure Limit) range. A PEL is the legal limit of a chemical substance that workers are exposed to during a typical eight-hour day, 40 hours per week, for a working life time (40 years). A lower number means even a brief exposure to the chemical may pose health hazards. A relatively hazardous liquid might have a PEL of 5 or 10 ppm. A safe fluid would be 400 ppm or higher. The highest possible rating is 1,000 ppm. TCE has a PEL of 100.

Do you use TCE alternatives in a vapor degreaser?

Both TCE and MicroCare TCE replacement fluids are for use in a vapor degreaser.

How do I handle TCE alternatives?

MicroCare trichlorethylene replacement fluids are nonflammable and ship as “DOT non-hazardous”. Keep them in a cool, dry location, out of sunlight. You can recycle the cleaning fluid hundreds of times through distillation before disposal. When needed, handle the empty containers and spent fluid according to Federal, State and local regulations. Contact a MicroCare precision cleaning expert for more details.

Do the replacement cleaners turn acid like TCE?

The replacement fluids for TCE are thermally and hydrolytically stable. They will not turn acid unless exposed to a strong base or acid or if exposed to extreme heat. They also do not require stabilizers or scavengers that are common with TCE.

Are TCE alternatives safe for all materials?

TCE replacements have the same or better material compatibility than TCE.

Are TCE replacement cleaners flammable?

All of the cleaning fluid formulations that MicroCare provides for vapor degreasing are nonflammable.

Are the replacement cleaners as strong as TCE?

MicroCare offers a variety of cleaners that perform just as good, if not better than TCE.

Do TCE replacements meet SNAP approval?

All of the MicroCare TCE replacement cleaning fluids meet EPA SNAP rules.