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Methane dangers in the Artic PDF Print E-mail
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The Russian research vessel Academician Lavrentiev conducted a survey of 10,000 square miles of sea off the coast of eastern Siberia.

They made a terrifying discovery - huge plumes of methane bubbles rising to the surface from the seabed.

'We found more than 100 fountains, some more than a kilometre across,' said Dr Igor Semiletov, 'These are methane fields on a scale not seen before. The emissions went directly into the atmosphere.'

Far East Siberia: The melting of 'permafrost' under the sea has led to huge releases of methane - far more abrupt and intense than anything on land

Earlier research conducted by Semiletov's team had concluded that the amount of methane currently coming out of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf is comparable to the amount coming out of the entire world’s oceans.

Now Semiletov thinks that could be an underestimate.

The melting of the arctic shelf is melting 'permafrost' under the sea, which is releasing methane stored in the seabed as methane gas.

These releases can be larger and more abrupt than any land-based release. The East Siberian Arctic Shelf is a methane-rich area that encompasses more than 2 million square kilometers of seafloor in the Arctic Ocean.

Methane bubbles trapped in ice: Normally, bubbles from the seabed turn into carbon dioxide before reaching the surface, but the East Siberian Arctic Shelf is so shallow the methane travels directly into the atmosphere

'Earlier we found torch or fountain-like structures like this,' Semiletov told the Independent. 'This is the first time that we've found continuous, powerful and impressive seeping structures, more than 1,000 metres in diameter. It's amazing.'

'Over a relatively small area, we found more than 100, but over a wider area, there should be thousands of them.'

Semiletov's team used seismic and acoustic monitors to detect methane bubbles rising to the surface.

Scientists estimate that the methane trapped under the ice shelf could lead to extremely rapid climate change.

Current average methane concentrations in the Arctic average about 1.85 parts per million, the highest in 400,000 years. Concentrations above the East Siberian Arctic Shelf are even higher.

The shelf is shallow, 50 meters or less in depth, which means it has been alternately submerged or above water, depending on sea levels throughout Earth’s history.

During Earth’s coldest periods, it is a frozen arctic coastal plain, and does not release methane.

As the planet warms and sea levels rise, it is inundated with seawater, which is 12-15 degrees warmer than the average air temperature.

In deep water, methane gas oxidizes into carbon dioxide before it reaches the surface. In the shallows of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, methane simply doesn’t have enough time to oxidize, which means more of it escapes into the atmosphere.

That, combined with the sheer amount of methane in the region, could add a previously uncalculated variable to climate models.

Algae research in Texas PDF Print E-mail
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More famous for its oil prospectors than green entrepreneurs, it is home to a surprisingly large conurbation of algae start-ups.

They are part of the latest generation of firms trying to solve the problems that have prevented algae making any meaningful contribution to the world's energy needs.

Algae fuel is based on technologies which seek to use algae or bacteria to produce fuels by combining light, carbon dioxide, water and nutrients through photosynthesis.

It is a dream which has arisen every time the oil price has spiked.

Following pioneering research during the 1950s and 60s in places such as Berkeley, University of California, the US Aquatic Species Program was launched by President Jimmy Carter in 1978.

The hope then, as now, was to use fast-growing, simple plant organisms to produce vast quantities of transport fuels.

That programme slowly fizzled out, culminating in a report in 1998 which concluded that the price of oil needed to be far higher than the then $15-20 a barrel to make algae viable.

By 2007, with the oil price well north of $100, interest in algae had risen again.

"On paper, it's seven times more productive than terrestrial plants, it grows faster and the amount of oil exceeds that in terrestrial plants," says Adam Powell from the University of Swansea in Wales, which is backing a European research and development project, Enalgae.

That sort of logic, and laboratory experiments backing it up, saw a rash of start-ups around the world - and especially in the US - seeking venture capital funding based on promises of limitless, cheap, clean fuel.

Algae are grown in tubes to increase the surface area open to sunlight

But none has yet succeeded in producing fuel commercially and at scale.

Instead, many firms have shut down.

In 2009, MIT spin-off Greenfuel Technologies closed after $70m (£44m) of investment to build its own mini-algae plant.

"No-one knows how to grow any kind of micro-organism at very large scale - multiple hectares," says Prof Jerry Brand from the University of Texas in Austin, which is leading research in the field.

"As you scale up, it's not that things get cheaper, but that new problems emerge."

One problem is that despite being very small, you can't actually grow algae very densely. The algae closest to the light - or the surface of the water - block the light for algae lower down.

Another is harvesting the green gloop, or the oil it produces.

Ben Graziano is technology commercialisation manager at the UK's Carbon Trust and was in charge of the algae programme before it was scrapped as part of the government's spending cuts.

"You need to find ways to harvest those particular strains that produce oil, and it so happens that those are quite challenging to harvest," he explains.

Both of these make scaling up more difficult than many first thought.

Currently, he says, only around 20,000 tonnes of algae are produced a year. To make any impact, it would need to be millions of tonnes.

And algae's own mixed history has left the sector short on expertise.

"There are probably only 10, maybe 20, people who know how to do it and you've got to go up from there," Mr Graziano says. 

In the US, research is focused around the north-east, California and Texas.

The University of Texas has curated one of the largest collections of algae in the world, with more than 3,000 strains.

That, combined with the constant sunshine and plentiful local sources of carbon dioxide and dirty, brackish water have attracted firms trying to solve the seemingly intractable problems algae pose.

One firm is genetically engineering micro-organisms to excrete fuel

One is AlgaEternal, which has set up its pilot on the university campus.

The pilot consists of 120, 12ft-high tubes designed to make growing the algae more efficient than using shallow ponds.

It isn't the only pilot of its kind - but given its high cost the idea depends on preventing contamination of the system.

In the past, as Mr Graziano puts it, scientists have "woken up one morning, gone to the farm and discovered their whole system has crashed and they can't clean the tubes, and at that point you see a few bankruptcies".

Another start-up, OpenAlgae, is also working with the university on a method of cost-effectively extracting the oil.

But out of town, a test site has been set up for a slightly different solution, employing something which isn't technically algae at all - blue-green algae or cyanobacteria.

Massachusetts-based Joule Unlimited claims that by genetically engineering the micro-organism to excrete fuel, it can avoid many of the problems that have bedevilled its rivals.

"Rather than using sunlight and then water to grow up organisms which we can then harvest, we are engineering our organisms with pathways that are specific for the molecules of interest. In the case of alkanes we are making a diesel-like mixture of hydrocarbons," says Dan Robertson, the firm's senior vice-president of biology.

The company, which is opening a second, larger, test site in Hobbs, New Mexico, says it eventually hopes to produce fuel at the equivalent oil cost of $50 a barrel - about half the current price of oil.

Ultimately, the firm, like others, will be judged on its results.

"Right now there are lots of people scaling up and growing different types of algae in the US," says Prof Peter Nixon from Imperial College London.

"This is the year when they'll work out the sums - either these companies will make money or they'll go under." 

In the UK, much of the research is focused on reducing the cost of algae and finding other uses beyond transport fuels.

At the University of Bath, Prof Roderick Scott is working on a programme which uses waste water to lower the cost of producing fuel from algae.

"We are very interested in using waste streams of various kinds, waste CO2 which is in abundance and which gives you [carbon] credits, and waste water which contains, depending on where its from, reasonably good levels of nitrates and phosphates," he says.

The university is working with UK start-up Aragreen on the project, hoping to benefit from support for cleaning water and removing CO2.

Prof Scott's team is also examining the local Roman baths for a possible solution to another problem faced by algae entrepreneurs - the fact that algae perform quite badly when hot.

They have identified the algae which live in the baths and are testing to see if they are productive enough to produce fuel.

But ultimately, success for algae in the short term may lie in the other, higher value, goods that can be produced from algae.

One firm, Martek, has succeeded by producing key oils involved in baby food formula.

Others are targeting the burgeoning field of nutraceuticals.

"We'll see a lot of people moving into earlier, higher-value markets like proteins, fish oils, colourants and dyes," says Mr Graziano.

E coli into bio diesel PDF Print E-mail
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Biodiesel has often been hailed as a possible solution to reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.

Biodiesel - made from either plants or used cooking oil is dense, and chemically similar to fossil fuels that we currently use - so it could easily be used in large engines.

Trains, cars and even aircraft already run on the fuel.

But most vehicles that use biodiesel use reprocessed cooking oil - which is too expensive, and too scarce to work on a large commercial scale.

For biodiesel to make a real impact, it would have to come directly from plants.

Now University of Stanford researchers say that the chemical process to produce cheap plant-based biodiesel could be within reach.

But recent experiments with E coli have hinted that the bacteria - commonly found in the intestines of mammals, and in some strains, responsible for food poisoning - could be the key.

Producing viable biodiesel from plants is a complicated process - and so far, there has not been a viable way to mass-produce the substance from plant oil.

E Coli can convert plant sugars into fatty acid derivatives - a chemical more similar to soap, but a good precursor of workable fuel.

But scientists were unsure whether the bacteria had enough chemical 'oomph' to be used commercially.

The Earthrace 'bioboat' was powered entirely by biodiesel - but it's not been commercially viable on the large scale due to the difficulty of producing the fuel directly from plants

Stanford professor Chaitan Khosla investigated whether there was a theoretical 'limit' to the amount E. Coli can help to turn sugar into a fatty acid derivative - ie whether the bacteria really does have the power to unlock fuel from ordinary plants.

It appears the answer is, 'Yes', according to a report published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

'The good news is that the engine that makes fatty acids in E Coli is incredibly powerful,' said Khosla. 'It can convert sugar into fuel at an extraordinary rate.'

This Formula 3 car was engineeered to run on biodiesel: Now it appears that the fuel could be produced on a commercial scale, cheaply from plants

But this process is tightly controlled by the bacteria - and fuller understanding of the biochemistry of E. Coli willl be required.

Khosla's team are already working on this - having isolated the molecular engine that produces fatty acids in a lab environment.

'We want to understand what limits the ability of E. Coli to process sugar,' said Khosla to Physorg.com, 'The question we were asking is like what limits the speed of my Honda to 150 miles an hour?'

So far, it appears that the bacteria limit the production to stop themselves being hurt by the fatty acids they produce.

The 'defences' it uses are highly effective - but researchers are already working on manipulating the bacteria to produce more.

If successful, biodiesel could suddenly leap from being a novelty to being a viable, commercial fuel.

'It is closer to a barrel of oil from Saudi Arabia than any other biologically derived fuel,' said Khosla.

Fusion from Lasers PDF Print E-mail
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Using the most powerful laser system ever built, scientists have brought us one step closer to nuclear fusion power, a new study says.

The same process that powers our sun and other stars, nuclear fusion has the potential to be an efficient, carbon-free energy source—with none of the radioactive waste associated with the nuclear fission method used in current nuclear plants.

Thanks to the new achievement, a prototype nuclear fusion power plant could be operating within a decade, speculated study leader Siegfried Glenzer, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

Glenzer and colleagues used the world's largest laser array—the Livermore lab's National Ignition Facility—to heat a BB-size fuel pellet to millions of degrees Fahrenheit.

"These lasers are pulsed, and for a very short amount of time"—one ten-billionth of a second—"the power they produce is more than all the power generated by the entire electrical grid of the United States" at any given moment, Glenzer said.

The test confirmed that a technique called inertial fusion ignition could be used to trigger nuclear fusion—the merging of the nuclei of two atoms of, say, hydrogen—which can result in a tremendous amount of excess energy. Nuclear fission, by contrast, involves the splitting of atoms.

The laser demonstration means scientists are now much closer to triggering nuclear fusion in a controlled setting—something that's never been done before and which is necessary if fusion is to be harnessed for energy.

Nuclear's Nice Side?

Performing nuclear fusion in the lab requires enormous amounts of laser power, but if perfected, controlled fusion should generate ten to a hundred times more electrical energy than is used to spark the nuclear reactions. Nuclear fusion, after all, is what allows stars to burn for billions of years.

And fusion could be not only powerful but clean and green as well.

Not only does nuclear fusion not produce long-lasting nuclear waste, but fusion could potentially be used to chemically neutralize radioactive pollutants and has been "proposed as a cure to our nuclear waste problem," Glenzer said. Simply put, neutrons released by fusion could rearrange radioactive atoms so they aren't radioactive anymore.

Nuclear fusion energy is also potentially carbon free, meaning it could be used to generate power without creating any more carbon dioxide gas, which contributes to global warming

And while fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, and nuclear fission fuels, such as uranium, are limited resources, there's enough nuclear fusion fuel on, in, and around our planet "to power the Earth longer than the lifetime of the sun," Glenzer said.

Gold Fusion

During the laser experiment, the fuel pellet was placed inside a solid-gold cylinder about the size of a pencil eraser, which was hit by multiple laser beams.

The gold cylinder absorbed the laser energy and converted it into thermal x-ray energy.

The x-rays then ricocheted inside the cylinder and struck the fuel pellet from all sides. As the pellet absorbed the x-rays, it heated up—eventually reaching about 60 million degrees Fahrenheit (33 million degrees Celsius)—then collapsed in on itself.

The experiment was designed only to test the lasers' ability to heat the cylinder efficiently. Made largely of plastics and helium, the fuel pellet was not filled with enough actual fuel—chemical variants of hydrogen called deuterium and tritium—to actually trigger nuclear fusion.

Actual fusion, Glenzer said, will occur sometime this year.

With a fully loaded fuel pellet, "the implosion will be like squeezing a soccer ball to the size of a pinhead," he added. "The center of that spherical ball will get so hot that nuclear fusion starts."

Nuclear Fusion Plant by 2020?

If successful, the upcoming nuclear fusion experiment will create two classes of energetic particles: alpha particles and neutrons.

"The neutrons escape and can be used to do things like heat up water"—which could potentially be used to produce steam to drive turbines in an electrical plant, Glenzer said.

"The alpha particles remain trapped [in the burning sphere] and continue to heat the fuel and make it burn," as happens in a star.

Scientists estimate that if they can get to the point where they can burn about five fuel pellets a second, a power plant could continuously generate up to a gigawatt of energy—about what the city of San Francisco is consuming at any given moment.

A working prototype of a such a plant could be built in a decade, Glenzer said.

Nuclear fusion researcher Michael Mauel is "very excited" about the recent experiment and said it shows the ignition method works as expected.

But "whether or not we'll have lasers imploding pellets to make fusion energy—it's way too early to tell," said Mauel, who was not involved in the study, which will be published in the journal Science tomorrow.

In addition to the considerable engineering challenges involved in ramping up the laser systems for wide-scale use, the cost of the fuel pellets will also have to come down, said Mauel, a Columbia University physicist.

"Each one of these costs between ten [thousand] and a hundred thousand dollars," Mauel said. To use the pellet method to generate nuclear fusion power, "they'll have to cost less than ten cents a piece."

When the power goes out PDF Print E-mail
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  1. Cover the windows. Feel your windows; if they're cold, that means they're making your whole house cold. The smart, long-term thinking, cost-effective solution is to insulate your doors and windows for extreme weather conditions. Proper insulation cuts your electric bill and makes your house more energy-efficient, which is all great, but not much use when you're under three feet of snow. The bricoleur last-minute solution is to nail heavy blankets over the windows. One important tip: make sure the windows are shut all the way before you cover them.
  2. Hot water bottles. They're not just for sick cartoon characters any more! Water has a high heat capacity, which means it takes a lot to change its temperature. A bottle of warm water will hold its heat for a while even in a cold house, acting as a very cheap mini-furnace. The rubber bottles made for this purpose may be better insulated and more comfortable to hug, but any bottle will do in a pinch. A quick and dirty DIY cover made out of an old sweater improves warmth, storage and snuggliness.
  3. Hot beverages. This one is hardly a secret, but cup after cup of tea, cocoa, and/or coffee are an integral part of any winter survival plan. It seems important to mention here that, despite what you may have heard, liquor doesn't actually make you warmer. From my pre-storm grocery run, the wider population doesn't seem to have received that particular piece of scientific information. However, for those so inclined, the right drink can make you feel warmer. A cup of just about any kind of non-fruity tea with a shot of whiskey combines the best of both worlds.
  4. Forts. Living-room forts should be familiar to anyone who has ever been or met a child, but here's how they work: gather as many pillows and blankets as you can from around the house and pile them into an inhabitable structure. This is not only a fun way to make a mess of the house, forts can keep you warm for free. As long as you're willing to confine yourself to one room that you leave only for food and cocoa, a fort is a great way to make a final stand against the cold since it concentrates all the available insulation in a smaller space. Fort building is also a fun group activity to combat seasonal affective disorder.
  5. Layers. Anyone who puts on one sweater and then wants to turn on the heat just isn't trying hard enough. If one doesn't work, try two, three, seven sweaters or pairs of socks. This is basically the same operating principle as step four: concentrate available warming materials. If you're cold under a blanket or two, add more. If you've nailed all your extra blankets to the walls in accordance with tip one or constructed them into a fort as in tip four, put a few clean towels in between layers. Sure, you may not be able to put your arms at your sides wearing all your flannel and sweaters at the same time, but you won't be cold.
  6. Company. The most efficient, least costly, and most fun way to stay warm in the face of winter's chill is to hang out with friends and family. Besides distracting you from the cold, people produce their own heat. Crowd everyone into a small room or a fort in accordance with step four and feel the literal and figurative warmth. A concentrated crowd can turn an icebox into a party sauna, and everyone can bring their own sweaters and blankets, increasing the collection of warmth beyond your physical into your social network. Without my housemates and the extra handful of guests who always seemed to be around, I'm not sure I would have survived last winter. All the hot water bottles in the world don't hold a candle to sharing the cold with others.
Solar on the march PDF Print E-mail
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Wall Street has developed an aversion to solar-company stocks. Yet in the USA, solar jobs now outnumber steel jobs and in Germany solar jobs outnumber nuclear jobs.

Most big energy companies and half of Whitehall profess that solar can never be a serious player in national energy plans. Yet the UN and others have recently concluded that solar could play a major role in a world mostly run on renewable energy.

Who to believe?

“Follow the money” is a useful guide. The global average cost of manufacturing solar photovoltaic (PV) panels has been falling 18% for every doubling of capacity in factories for many years now. As a consequence the average price for a solar PV power plant in the US was $7 per watt in 2007 and $3 per watt this year. In the 6 years it would take to build a new coal plant in America starting today, solar PV will be the cheaper option.

This inexorable fall of 18% in cost means that solar electricity ever nears costing the same as conventional electricity: "grid parity", as energy pundits call it. Grid parity is coming in every country. The timing varies with domestic electricity pricing, but there can be little doubt that solar electricity is going to be cheaper than conventional energy almost everywhere within the decade. Those who say “solar is more expensive than gas and coal” take a misleading snapshot in time: they make a one dimensional statement about a two dimensional phenomenon.

A nuclear plant takes more than ten years to install, a solar PV plant of similar output one year. As for rooftop solar, zero-emission solar homes can be built in a matter of months, as SSE and Solarcentury have shown in practice in the UK.

A revolution is unfolding. At least some investors appreciate this. A record $211 billion flowed into clean energy in 2010, driven in the main by Chinese wind power and European solar roofs.

British industry must not miss out on this revolution. Neither must our increasingly hard-pressed citizenry, few of whom will want to be paying ever rising Big 6 electricity prices based on coal, gas and nuclear, beyond the UK’s solar grid-parity crossing point.

It is no longer credible to say that solar can’t play a major role in a sustainable energy mix. Deutsche Bahn intends to run the entire German railway system on wind, solar and hydropower. The German economics ministry has collaborated with German companies to run a scaled model of the national economy on a real mix of renewables, including solar, and concluded that a healthy modern economy could be run on renewables, including baseload electricity. In a report due out later this year, the International Energy Agency will admit that solar can provide 60% of global electricity by 2060.

It is not good enough to say, as some do, that if a global mass market is inevitable, the UK should sit back and partake come the day, not before. This is a strategic miscalculation. We do not want to be importing every aspect of our energy infrastructure ad infinitum. National security considerations such as peak oil increasingly demand that we have domestic industries that are as stand-alone as humanly possible.

In this respect there should be many opportunities for the government. The prime minister has emphasised the Big Society idea as a flagship programme of his tenure, and he envisions many of the jobs that must countervail the austerity measures will come from British participation in the green industrial revolution that he says is unfoldling around the world. Solar is an important part of that. Ask the Chinese. In 2000 they had little solar. Now every second solar cell is made in China. The government would not have to do much to fashion a Big Society/green industrial revolution case-history worth boasting about.

Around the nation, as things stand, thousands of jobs are being created in the embryonic British solar industry. Tens of thousands of citizens are in the process of being empowered in community projects. The cause of this is a solar-energy feed-in tariff: a market-enablement process used by over 40 countries around the world that entails premium pricing for solar photovoltaic (PV) electricity funded by a small levy on all energy bills. With its feed-in tariff introduced in April last year, the UK has belatedly joining the party in one of the fastest growing markets of any kind globally.

The opportunities extend well beyond solar. Solar generation would soon be marriable at scale with the energy efficiency measures due to be stimulated by the government’s Green Deal. Innovative integrated energy-services financing would become possible, unleashing substantial net energy cost savings.

Feed-in tariffs are supposed to decrease annually, as solar prices fall. That is part of their inate attraction. Unlike nuclear, solar does not need subsidising forever. But the staged reductions in tariff, down to zero within the decade, have to match the market. It is no good introducing sudden deep cuts. That stalls a market, as a number of governments have discovered this year.

The first reductions for UK rooftop solar PV tariffs will begin in April 2012, and are under review right now. The government has to get this just right. Reductions in tariff have to be deep enough to fairly reflect falling solar prices, and not too deep to stall the development of a domestic UK solar industry.

Ministers like Greg Barker and Chris Huhne understand. Others do not. They listen to the calls of the nuclear and gas industries, who among others lobby to slow or kill the solar rollout in multiple countries by cutting feed-in tariffs to the bone. In France, for example, the nuclear industry has all but emasculated the French solar feed in tariff, and hence market.

Creating a Big Society/green-industrial-revolution case-history worth bragging about will involve the government creating a smooth glide path to solar grid parity in electricity markets. This in turn will involve not listening to many of the lobbyists working for the big energy companies, and many civil servants too. They are too wedded to the past, and cannot see what Silicon Valley investors, and the Chinese, see.

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