Tag Archives: Energy/Environment

We Don’t Need a Jetsons Future, Just a Sustainable One

Post Syndicated from Stacey Higginbotham original https://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/environment/we-dont-need-a-jetsons-future-just-a-sustainable-one

For decades, our vision of the future has been stuck in a 1960s-era dream of science fiction embodied by The Jetsons and space travel. But that isn’t what we need right now. In fact, what if our vision of that particular technologically advanced future is all wrong?

What if, instead of self-driving cars, digital assistants whispering in our ears, and virtual-reality glasses, we viewed a technologically advanced society as one where everyone had sustainable housing? Where we could manage and then reduce the amount of carbon in our atmosphere? Where everyone had access to preventative health care that was both personalized and less invasive?

What we need is something called cozy futurism, a concept I first encountered while reading a blog post by software engineer Jose Luis Ricón Fernández de la Puente. In the post, he calls for a vision of technology that looks at human needs and attempts to meet those needs, not only through technologies but also cultural shifts and policy changes.

Take space travel as an example. Much of the motivation behind building new rockets or developing colonies on Mars is wrapped up in the rhetoric of our warming planet being something to escape from. In doing so, we miss opportunities to fix our home rather than flee it.

But we can change our attitudes. What’s more, we are changing. Climate change is a great example. Albeit slowly, entrepreneurs who helped build out the products and services over the tech boom of the past 20 years are now searching for technologies to address the crisis.

Jason Jacobs, the founder of the fitness app Runkeeper, has created an entire media business called My Climate Journey to find and help recruit tech folks to address climate change. Last year, Jeff Bezos created a US $10 billion fund to make investments in organizations fighting climate change. Bill Gates wrote an entire book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need.

Mitigating climate change is an easy way to understand the goals of cozy futurism, but I’m eager to see us all go further. What about reducing pollution in urban and poor communities? Nonprofits are already using cheap sensors to pinpoint heat islands in cities, or neighborhoods where air pollution disproportionately affects communities of color. With this information, policy changes can lighten the unfair distribution of harm.

And perhaps if we see the evidence of harm in data, more people will vote to attack pollution, climate change, and other problems at their sources, rather than looking to tech to put a Band-Aid on them or mitigate the effects—or worse, adding to the problem by producing a never-ending stream of throwaway gadgets. We should instead embrace tech as a tool to help governments hold companies accountable for meeting policy goals.

Cozy futurism is an opportunity to reframe the best use of technology as something actively working to help humanity—not individually, like a smartwatch monitoring your health or self-driving cars easing your commute, but in aggregate. That’s not to say we should do away with VR goggles or smart gadgets, but we should think a bit more about how and why we’re using them, and whether we’re overprioritizing them. After all, what’s better than demonstrating that the existential challenges facing us all are things we can find solutions to, not just for those who can hitch a ride off-world but for everyone.

After all, I’d rather be cozy on Earth than stuck in a bubble on Mars.

This article appears in the August 2021 print issue as “Cozy Futurism.”

This Laser Scans Skies for Air Pollution and Greenhouse Gases

Post Syndicated from Rahul Rao original https://spectrum.ieee.org/energywise/energy/environment/nists-laser-comb-scan-greenhouse-gases

In a world gravely threatened by greenhouse gas emissions, actually measuring those greenhouse gases can be surprisingly tricky. You might need to grab a sample of the air or force it through an analyzer. And many of these techniques can only measure one greenhouse gas or one pollutant at a time.

Lasers, however, provide another way. While laser spectroscopic technology that tracks individual compounds have been around for decades, researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have developed a system that can measure four greenhouse gases at once: methane, carbon dioxide, water vapor, and nitrous oxide.

“It’s a nice, robust, sort of no-moving-parts package, but you still get really high spectral resolution,” says Kevin Cossel, a researcher at NIST who was part of the project.

The technology behind this package is called an optical frequency comb, a development that helped win the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physics. It’s essentially a tool that fires lasers at specific, evenly spaced, frequencies. As depicted on a spectral chart, those frequencies look like a comb, hence the name.

You can take advantage of the fact that frequency combs are very, very precise. In particular, scanning technology based on frequency combs relies on a dual-comb setup: using two combs with different frequencies and watching their interference patterns. It doesn’t have any complex gratings or moving parts.

NIST have been using combs for this purpose for several years now. Initially, the NIST researchers tuned their laser combs to wavelengths in the near-infrared, around 1.6 μm. That allowed the researchers to look at gases like methane, water vapor, and, of course, carbon dioxide.

This system also has another key characteristic: it’s open-pathed. Because the combs are tuned to frequencies that are less absorbed by features of the atmosphere, their lasers can go on for a distancea kilometer, say—and see everything in between. Rather than looking at emissions from a single point, you can set up a grid to look at emissions over a designated area.

It also means that you can compare those measurements to larger-scale atmospheric models of gas emissions. “If you’re measuring over this open path, you’re already matching the grid size of the models,” says Cossel. “So the models might look at dispersion and air quality with grid sizes of hundreds of meters or a kilometer, for the really high-resolution ones. So you’re kind of matching that.”

One of the system’s initial focuses was on measuring methane, which has more potential to cause warming than carbon dioxide. Humans release methane from burning fossil fuels (especially oil and natural gas) and from industrial-scale agriculture (notoriously, burps and flatulence of ruminants like cows and sheep).

So the NIST group took their technology into the field—literally, to gauge the emissions from a field full of cows. It’s now widely used for that purpose. It’s also used to detect gas leaks.

But methane is only one piece of the greenhouse gas puzzle. The NIST researchers thought that, if they could lengthen their combs’ wavelengths—deeper into the infrared realms, closer 5 μm, which also allows for open paths—they could detect a few other gases. They’ve successfully tested the device and published their results in the journal Laser & Photonics Reviews in June.

So, in addition to carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor, NIST’s system can now measure nitrous oxide. And on top of those four key greenhouse gases, the comb can also be used to measure ozone and carbon monoxide, both common air pollutants that are especially prevalent where there are loads of cars.

“We’re working right now on making it a much more compact system,” Cossel says.

He hopes that, now that the technology’s been demonstrated to work, it can therefore be used to study things like urban air quality and the impacts of wildfires. He also wants to use it to study nitrous oxide emissions from traffic and from agriculture, which he says aren’t well-understood.

Reversing Climate Change by Pulling Carbon Out of the Air

Post Syndicated from Steven Cherry original https://spectrum.ieee.org/podcast/energy/environment/reversing-climate-change-by-pulling-carbon-out-of-the-air

Steven Cherry Hi, this is Steven Cherry for Radio Spectrum.

Let’s face it. The United States, and, really, the entire world, has squandered much of the time that has elapsed since climate change first became a concern more than forty years ago.

Increasingly, scientists are warning that taking coal plants off line, building wind and solar farms here and there, and planting trees, even everywhere, aren’t going keep our planet from heating to the point of human misery. Twenty years from now, we’re going to wish we had started thinking about not just carbon-zero technologies, but carbon-negative ones.

Last year we spoke with the founder of Air Company, which makes carbon-negative vodka by starting with liquid CO2 and turning it into ethanol, and then further refining it into a product sold in high-end liquor stores. Was it possible to skip the final refining steps and just use the ethanol as fuel? Yes, we were told, but that would be a waste of what was already close to being a premium product.

Which leads to the question, are there any efforts under way to take carbon out of the atmosphere on an industrial scale? And if so, what would be the entire product chain?

One company already doing that is Global Thermostat, and its CEO is our guest today.

Graciela Chichilnisky is, in addition to the startup, an Argentine-born Professor of Economics and Mathematical Statistics at Columbia University and Director of the school’s Consortium for Risk Management. She’s also co-author of a July 2020 book, Reversing Climate Change.

Welcome to the podcast.

Graciela Chichilnisky Thank you, Steven. Pleasure to be here.

Steven Cherry Graciela, you have to pilot facilities in California, they will each have the capacity to remove 3000 to 4000 metric tons of CO2 per year. How exactly do they operate?

Graciela Chichilnisky The actual capacity varies depending on the equipment, but you are right on the whole, and the facility is at SRI, which used to be the Stanford Research Institute. They work by removing CO2 directly from the air. The technology is called “direct-air-capture” and our firm, Global Thermostat, is the only American firm doing that. And it is the world leader.

The technology, essentially, scrubs air. So you move a lot of air over capture equipment and chemicals that have a natural affinity for CO2, so as the air moves by, the CO2 is absorbed by the solvents and then you separate the combination of the solvent with the CO2 and lo and behold, you got yourself 98 percent pure CO2 coming out at, as a gas, at one atmosphere. That is [at a] very, very, very high, level, how it works.

And the details are, of course, much more complex and very, very interesting. What is most interesting, perhaps, is the chemists who are used to working with constrained capture in limited facilities—hence volumes—find that the natural chemical and physical properties of the process change when you are acting in an unconstrained area (in fact, the whole atmosphere). You are using the air directly from the atmosphere to remove the CO2. And that’s why it is possible to do that in a way that we have patented—we have about 70 patents right now—in a way that actually is economically feasible. It is possible to do it, save the CO2, and make money. And that is, in fact, the business plan for our company, which includes reversing climate change through this process.

Steven Cherry Yes, so let’s take the next step of the process, what happens with the CO2 once it’s at its 98 percent purity?

Graciela Chichilnisky The CO2—what is perhaps a very good secret for most people—you see CO2 is a very valuable gas and even though it’s a nuisance and is dangerous depending on the concentration in your atmosphere, here or earth, it sells for anywhere between a $100/tonne and $1500 to $1800/tonne. So if you think about that, all you need to know is that the cost of obtaining the CO2 from the air should be lower than the cost of selling it.

The question is what markets would satisfy that. And I’m going to give you a case in which we are already working and selling which we are not working yet. We’re already working with the production of synthetic fuels, in particular synthetic gasoline. Gasoline can be produced by combining CO2 and hydrogen, the CO2 from the air, the hydrogen from water—the hydrogen is produced using hydrolysis—and the CO2 comes from here using our technology. Combining those two gives you hydrocarbons and when properly mixed, you obtain a chemical which is molecule by molecule identical to gasoline, except it comes from water and air instead of coming from petroleum. So if you burn it, you still produce CO2, but the CO2 that is emitted came from the atmosphere in the production of the gasoline and therefore you have a closed circle. And in net terms you’re emitting nothing, using the gasoline that is produced from CO2 and hydrogen—from air and water. These markets, the markets currently in our case, in addition to our synthetic gasoline, include the water desalination market. We work with a company that is the largest desalinated of water in the world, in Saudi Arabia.

And they need a lot of CO2 because the process of desalinating water for human consumption requires the use of CO2. In addition to those two examples, applications, commercial uses, synthetic gasoline and disseminated water, there are carbonated beverages, for example, beer and Coca-Cola. Indeed, we work with Coca-Cola and we work with Siemens, and with AME, automobile companies such as. Porsche, to produce clean gasoline—the synthetic gasoline I mentioned.

From the CO2, you can actually produce elements of cement and other building materials. So as a whole, McKinsey has documented that there is a $1 trillion market per year globally for CO2. So CO2 is a very valuable chemical on Earth, even though it’s a nuisance and dangerous in the atmosphere. So the notion is—the notion of Global Thermostat is—bring it down. In other words, take it from the atmosphere where it is dangerous; bring it down to earth, where it is valuable.

Steven Cherry I love that our first carbon negative podcast involved vodka and our second one now involves beer. So that’s the economic case for what you’re doing. There’s also the question of the carbon budget. There’s a certain amount of energy used in the processes of removing CO2 from the air and then using it for some of these applications; what would be a typical net carbon budget?

Graciela Chichilnisky Negative, in other words, what happens is that we don’t use electricity, which is mostly reduced from fossil fuels right now. We use heat and our heat can be produced as a waste heat from other processes; it doesn’t have to be electricity. In fact we use very little electricity.

But think of it this way: In the year 2020, we for the first time in history humans are able to produce electricity directly from the sun less expensively than using fossil fuels. The two-and-a-half cents or less, continually downward, is the going price for solar photovoltaic production of electricity. It’s the lowest cost. Two cents a kilowatt hour is really the lowest possible cost.

Steven Cherry One wonderful thing about this is that you’re an economist and so you’re determined not just to develop technologies, but ensure that they find a home in the marketplace because that’s the most practical way to implement them at scale.

In 2019, Global Thermostat started working with Exxon Mobil. I understand they provided some money and I believe initially 10 employees. I gather the idea is for them to be one organization commercializing this technology further. How would that work?

Graciela Chichilnisky Well, first of all, I do have two Ph.D.s; I started pure mathematics at MIT. That was my first Ph.D. My second Ph.D. was in economics at UC Berkeley. So I do have the mathematics as well as the economics in my background. What we’re doing requires several forms of expertise. You said it; Global Thermostat has made a joint development agreement with Exxon and is working with Coca-Cola and is working now, with Siemens; is working with a company called HIF, which is in Chile.

So, how does that work? As you probably know, Exxon Mobil is a multifaceted company. In addition to fossil fuels, they have a huge expertise in carbon capture technology, the old fashioned, I would say traditional, type. And by that I mean capture of CO2 from the fumes of power plants, for example.

They have the resources and the know-how, and we are a small company and we want to expand our production. So they offered an opportunity for us to go with the high-level technology, the advanced company in the area of carbon capture in a more traditional way that are willing to experiment and they’re willing to advance commercially the removal of CO2 directly from the atmosphere.

So that with them in our contract, we intend to build a one gigaton plant, that’s what we contracted to do, which means that we then we will scale up or technology. So every year it can eventually remove one billion—with a ‘b’ as in boy—tons of CO2 from the atmosphere every year. That’s the scale-up I’m talking about, and that is the main purpose of our partnership with Exxon Mobil.

And if you think about it—you said it yourself—you want to know what the carbon budget really, roughly speaking, don’t forget that I worked in the Kyoto Protocol. And I created the carbon market of the Kyoto Protocols. So I know a lot about carbon budgets and how demanding they are and how far we are from what we need to do. We need to essentially remove 40 gigatons of CO2 every year from the atmosphere in order to reverse climate change. And what I’m telling you is that we these type of partnerships with companies like Exxon, we can do one gigaton—you’re at a shooting distance from that goal. And that’s why I a contract with Exxon is to scale up our technology to remove one gigaton of CO2 per year. And then if we had 40 of those plans, then we would be removing all the CO2 that humans need to remove from the atmosphere right now in order to reverse climate change.

Steven Cherry It seems paradoxical that it would make more sense to take carbon directly out of the air, the direct air capture, rather than focusing on concentrated sources of carbon and carbon dioxide, such as a power plant smokestack. How is that paradox resolved? How is it more sensible to take it directly out of the atmosphere?

Graciela Chichilnisky First of all, it is not sensible, it’s very creative, very unique, and he has never been done not what we’re doing—it has never been done. And there is a good reason why wasn’t done, because as you’re point out, it’s more difficult, actually, and it’s more expensive to remove CO2 from the air than to remove it from a concentrated source. So why would we be doing that? The answer is, if you remove CO2 from the chimneys or any natural facility, the best you can do—the best best best possible—is to make that facility carbon neutral; to remove all the CO2 that it is emitting.

That’s the best. If you’re really lucky, right? Okay, that’s not enough anymore. When I used to be the lead author of the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, working on this topic, I found—and it is well-known now—that going carbon neutral does not suffice. I think you say that in your introduction. Now we have to go carbon negative, which means we have to remove in net terms more CO2 than what is emitted. And that CO2 that we remove should be stabilized on Earth. I’m not saying sequester on the ground, but I’m saying stabilized. You know, it could be in materials or instruments or whatever, stabilizing nerves after it’s removed.

If you need to remove more CO2 than what you emit and we need to remove 40 gigatons more than what we emit right now, you cannot do it from industrial facilities, the best that you can achieve is carbon neutrality. You need to go carbon negative. For that you have to go and remove CO2 from air.

Steven Cherry I said that 20 years from now, we’ll wish we had started all this 20 years earlier, but you actually started this process a decade ago, you already foresaw that we would need carbon negative processes. But at the same time, as you mentioned, you were also working to develop the Kyoto Protocols, specifically creating carbon markets. Was that just a stopgap before getting to this point that you’re at now?

Graciela Chichilnisky No. No, no. The carbon market solution was the solution, an easy solution. Let me explain. The problem is that our prices are all wrong, and when we try to maximize economic performance, we maximize our GDP, in which we don’t take into account the enormous damage that excessive CO2 emissions are causing to humans to our economy, to our world, and even to our survival as a species. So the invention of the carbon market—I invented and I designed it and I rolled it into the Kyoto Protocol in 1997—was done with a purpose of changing the system of values.

In other words, introducing prices and values that make it more desirable to be clean rather than to over-emit. Right now if we were to cut all the trees in the United States and produce toilet paper, our would economic system of economic performance, how we measure it, we say that we are much better off. After all, more trees are being cut off and used to produce toilet paper than before.

So I decided that this had to change. And in fact, when I designed and created the carbon market, in the Kyoto Protocol, it became international law in 2005. And it is now what’s called the European Union Emission Trading System, which encompasses 27 nations, and is also used in China, in 14 states in the United States, and essentially 25 percent of humankind is using now the carbon market, that I designed and wrote into the protocol originally in 1997. But the most important statistic for me is, in December 2019 Physics Today, there is an article on the carbon market, which says the carbon market has succeeded by decreasing the emissions from the nations that use the carbon market in those years since 2005, when it became international law, decreasing the emission, those nations that use the carbon market by 30 percent from the base year.

Another way of saying is that if the whole world was using, not just the 25 percent that I mentioned, the carbon markets, we would be 30 percent below the level of emissions of 2005. And you know what? We really wouldn’t have the climate disaster, the catastrophe, that we fear. We would not have it because we would be containing the emissions of CO2 through the use of the carbon market, as was done in all the nations that adopted carbon market when it became international law in 2005.

So that’s a solution, but we haven’t adopted it, only 25 percent of the work succeeded. The rest of the world went south. We emitted even more. So now in relation to decreasing emissions because you cannot avoid increasing emissions—that’s critical—you now have to remove the CO2, the legacy CO2, that we put into the atmosphere and which is still in the atmosphere after all these years. So from the physical point of view, you have to know CO2 doesn’t decay, doesn’t decay as fast as other gases, and it remains in the atmosphere once emitted for decades, even hundreds of years in some cases. As a result of that, we do have a lot of legacy CO2 that doesn’t decay.

Steven Cherry The title of your book is Reversing Climate Change. The subtitle is How Carbon Removals Can Resolve Climate Change and Fix the Economy. Perhaps you want to say another word about the fix the economy part.

Graciela Chichilnisky Yeah, I will do it with two sentences. Sentence #1, I just want to quote new President Biden, who said, “When I think about climate change,” he said, “I think jobs, jobs, jobs.” So a technological evolution of this nature, that could be even a revolution, it’s creating a lot of jobs and it is creating the infrastructure that will allow us to solve the problem and grow the economy at the same time, because every time you remove CO2, you make money now. It doesn’t cost money. You have to invest initially, but you make money.

 The second issue—[Biden] doesn’t address because he doesn’t know the level of detail or this type of focus—is the problem of the environment and the resources is very closely tied with the problem of inequity. And you must be aware, because there have been a number of books that were really prominently published and reviewed about the increase in the inequity in the global economy, not just internationally that we know is huge, it has increased 20 times since 1945, but also within nations, like in the United States. Well, what’s interesting is that these new technologies not only solve the problem at the technological level and not only can bring jobs, as I mentioned and I quoted Biden saying so, but in addition, these technologies sponsor equity. And I will give you two examples very quickly. As I mentioned already, the solar photovoltaic revolution in which 80 percent of the cost of the production of electricity for photovoltaic energy has decreased in the last 20 years.

That revolution has created the most accessible form of energy than ever before, because while fossil fuels were the main raw material for the production of electricity in the $60 trillion power plant economy, those are really not very equitable at all. And fossil fuels come from a few regions in the world. They have to be extracted from under the earth, etc. And the result is that our whole energy production system lies at the foundation of the inequity of the modern economy, the industrial revolution. If you replace fossil fuels, natural gas, petroleum, and coal, by the sun, as an input, you have a major equalizer because everybody in the world has access to the sun in the same amount. So the input now is no longer fossil fuels that come from a few places that make a lot of money. The input now is the sun that comes from everywhere and everybody has access to that. They import. That creates energy. Now, that’s more equitable is a huge difference, huge difference.

And the other difference is that with new technology that transforms CO2 into materials for construction or even into clean forms of energy like synthetic gasoline as I explained before. That is based on air, as an input, and the air has a property, it has the same concentration of CO2 all over the planet and this means an equalizer again. So we now can reduce cement, let’s say, beverages, food. You can even reduce protein from CO2 of course, because of the carbon molecules; you can actually produce all the materials that we need and even food and drinks, beverages, from air. And the air is equitably distributed—it’s one of the last few public goods that everybody has access to, as is the sun. So we are now going into a new economy. Powered by sun and with resources coming from air and, you know, what? That solves the problem of equity in a big way. I would say inequity, which is so paralyzing to economies and to the world as a whole. So I wanted to say not only this is an environmental change, some may say a revolution, but this is in addition a social and economic change and some would say revolution.

Steven Cherry Yeah, we could do we could do an entire show on things like the resource paradox, countries that are rich in oil, for example, end up being poorer through the extraction processes than when they started. Well, Graciela, it’s going to take economists, businesspeople, scientists and politicians to lead us out of this crisis. And we’re fortunate to have a news, someone who is several of those things. Thank you for your research, your book, your company, your teaching, and for joining us today.

Graciela Chichilnisky Great. Thank you very, very much for your time and for your insightful questions.

Steven Cherry Well Graciela, it’s going to take economists, businesspeople, scientists, and politicians to lead us out of this crisis, and we’re fortunate to have in you someone who is two of those things working with the other two. Thanks for your research, your book, your company, and your teaching—and for joining us today.

We’ve been speaking with Graciela Chichilnisky: Columbia University economist, co-author of the 2020 book, Reversing Climate Change, and CEO of Global Thermostat, a startup devoted to pulling carbon out of the air cost-effectively.

Radio Spectrum is brought to you by IEEE Spectrum, the member magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, a professional organization dedicated to advancing technology for the benefit of humanity.

This interview was recorded February 2, 2021 via Zoom and AdobeAudition. Our theme music is by Chad Crouch.

You can subscribe to Radio Spectrum on Spotify, Apple Podcast, and wherever else you get your podcasts, or listen on the Spectrum website, where you can also sign up for alerts of new episodes. We welcome your feedback on the web or in social media.

For Radio Spectrum, I’m Steven Cherry.

Note: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.


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The Uneconomics of Coal, Fracking, and Developing ANWR

Post Syndicated from Steven Cherry original https://spectrum.ieee.org/podcast/energy/environment/the-uneconomics-of-coal-fracking-and-developing-anwr

Steven Cherry Hi this is Steven Cherry for Radio Spectrum.

Many things have changed in 2020, and it’s an open question which are altered permanently and which are transitory. Work-from-home may be here to stay; as might the shift from movie theatres and cable tv networks to streaming services; pet adoption rates are so high that some animal shelters are empty and global greenhouse gas emissions declined in record numbers.

That last fact has several causes—the lockdowns and voluntary confinements of the pandemic; an oil glut that preceded the pandemic and continued through it; the ways renewable energy—especially solar energy—is successfully competing with fossil-fuels. According to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, an Ohio-based non-profit that studies the energy economy, more than 100 banks and insurers have divested or are divesting from coal mining and coal power plants. Their analysis also shows that natural gas power plant projects—for example one that’s been proposed for central Virginia—are a poor investment, due to a combination of clean-energy regulations and the difficulty of amortizing big power-plant construction in the face of a growing clean-energy pipeline, expected to grow dramatically over the next four years.

Such continued growth in clean-energy projects is particularly notable, as it comes despite high job losses for the renewable energy industry, slowing construction activity, and difficulty in finding capital financing. Those same headwinds brought about a record number of bankruptcies in the fracking industry.

My guest today is eminently qualified to answer the question, are the changes we’re seeing in the U.S. energy-generation profile temporary or permanent? And what are the consequences for climate change? Kathy Hipple was formerly an analyst at the aforementioned Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis and is a professor in Bard College’s Managing for Sustainability MBA program.

Kathy, welcome to the podcast.

Kathy Hipple Thank you, Steven. It’s great to be here.

Steven Cherry Kathy, your background is broader than most. You did a long stint on Wall Street at Merrill Lynch, but you’re also on the board of Meals on Wheels in Bennington, Vermont. There are issues of environmental justice in our decisions about what kind of energy generation to finance and where, and we’ll get to that. But first, it seems like the economics behind our energy sources are shifting almost faster than we can keep up. Where are we at currently with the economics of fossil fuels—coal, petroleum, natural gas?

Kathy Hipple Well, you’re right. It has seemed that 2020 saw an acceleration of trends. But this is not new. This has been going on for at least a decade, that fossil fuels have been in decline from a financial standpoint. And the energy sector—which currently only includes oil and gas companies, that does not include renewable energy—finished last place in the market for the decade between 2010 and 2020. It also finished last place in 2020, 2019, and 2018. So this is a sector in financial decline, long-term financial decline. And as we know and because I’m a finance professor, finance is all about the future. So the market is telling us that the future is not fossil fuels. Which is why the energy sector is now only 2 percent—a little over 2 percent—of the S&P 500. And in the 1980w it was 28+ percent. So we now have a world economy that is much less dependent on fossil fuels financially than it has ever been.

Steven Cherry Wall Street firms have promised to lead the charge toward sustainable energy use, but the world’s largest asset manager, BlackRock, a year after it said it would divest its portfolio from fossil fuels, still has something like $85 billion invested in coal companies, the worst of the fossil fuels in terms of pollution and greenhouse gases.

Kathy Hipple Yes, BlackRock has been a disappointment in many respects. They are not walking their talk. Their talk is impressive, but their follow-through, as you say, they’re still heavily invested in coal, still heavily invested in financing gas and oil projects around the world. And they are also moving into clean energy. But they have not yet done the divestment that many activists have called on them to do and that the Larry Fink letter suggests that they will do.

They have not been as transparent as they probably should be in terms of how they are working with management of companies to see if they are actually promoting the energy transition or if they are reporting on Taskforce for Climate-related Financial Disclosures, TCFD. So I do think that they grew their asset base tremendously in 2020, but they have a long way to go before they will become a climate leader on the investment side.

Steven Cherry It’s impossible to talk about new drilling without talking about fracking. A 2019 study of 40 dedicated U.S. shale oil companies found that only four of them had a positive cash flow balance. Much of the easiest drilling has already been done. Investors haven’t been getting good returns even on them. And the price of oil generally is pretty low. The thing that has puzzled some observers is that besides the economic damage wrought by fracking financially, it seems to be driven more by enthusiasm than results. Does fracking make sense financially?

Kathy Hipple Fracking does not make sense financially and it never has. That is the big dirty secret—even when oil prices were well above $100/barrel and natural gas prices were much higher than they are now. These companies, year in and year out since 2010, had been cash flow negative in aggregate. Occasionally you’ll get one or two companies that will outperform their peers. But in aggregate, the oil—the frackers that are going after oil, largely in the Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico—have been cash flow negative each and every year; and in even worse shape than the oil price fractures, are the fossil gas (sometimes called natural gas) producers, largely in the Marcellus-Utica basins in Appalachia.

They have been in extremis and they have produced negative cash flows again, even when gas prices were much higher than they are now. So the business case for fracking has never been proved; it’s a poor business model—as you mentioned, the decline rate is very high, which means you have to continue to put money into drill new wells. And the industry has never found a way to be profitable and to be cash flow positive.

In fact, one of the former CEOs of the largest gas frackers, EQT, said he had never seen an industry, in a sense, commit suicide the way the fracking industry has done. So you’re right, it’s been a terrible investment. It’s been driven by enthusiasm and a lot of investors saying wait until next year. But largely the investor base has moved away from this sector. The sector has no access to the public markets for either equity or for debt. Many banks have walked away from them. They’ve closed their loan portfolios. One prominent bank sold their entire energy portfolio for roughly 50, 60 cents on the dollar. So the sector probably can only go forward if it has access to higher-risk capital or higher-cost capital. And these will be investors who are willing to gamble on a sector that has never yet shown a financial success.

Steven Cherry There’s a lot of political momentum behind fracking, especially in western Pennsylvania and places like that, North Dakota. What is one to do when there’s such a disconnect between the politics and the finances?

Kathy Hipple That’s a great question, Steven. The industry has lost a tremendous amount of its economic and financial power, but it retains a lot of political power. And that is particularly true in places like Texas and in Pennsylvania, as you mentioned. However, I think that the public view about fracking has started to change. In fact, there was an interesting study that the counties in Pennsylvania that had more fracking, in fact, did not vote for Trump at the same level they had four years earlier, and that the public is starting to really question whether they want to have pipelines under their land, whether they want to have orphan wells or wells for gas and for oil that have just been abandoned. And they’re really questioning whether the number of jobs the industry promises will ever materialize.

Often the industry comes to a state and says we will produce this many jobs. And in fact, most of the jobs are in construction and they’re short-term jobs. And they are reasonably high-paying jobs, but often the jobs are imported from construction workers outside the state. And once these wells are drilled, they don’t require people to man them. So these are not good long term sources of revenue for these local counties, communities, or states.

Some of my students, interestingly enough, did a study on a wind farm in a small county, Paulding County, in Ohio, and they showed that the long term revenue produced from the wind farm was actually very stable income and that the county could make use of these—they were called payment in lieu of taxes—PILOT funds to finance their school district, to finance special ed, to finance DARE officers (stay off drug officers), and that a lot of counties throughout Texas, for example, are really very dependent now on income and revenue streams coming from wind. So I think as more municipalities are looking at the long-term stable income that comes in from a wind farm, for example, versus the boom-bust cycle of the oil and gas industry, clean energy will begin to be much, much more appealing—even more so than it is now.

Steven Cherry Historically, a lot of that revenue to communities are really … there’s sort of no better example of that than Alaska and in fact, in mid-November 2020, in other words, in the lame duck period between election and inauguration, the Trump administration opened up ANWAR, the Alaska Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In fact, this was our impetus for first contacting you for this show. It’s now mid-January as we record this. Where are we at with ANWAR?

Kathy Hipple Well, it’s a beautiful, pristine part of the world and it’s very high cost to produce oil from that part of the world. And since there’s a glut of oil and a glut of gas on the market worldwide, one questions whether there’s any rational reason for drilling there. But it was one of the final moves by the Trump administration to rush through the process of allowing bidding on these lands.

And it will be interesting to see. Very few bids came in. And it doesn’t mean anybody will go forward because this is not economically producible oil, given current prices of oil. Any firm that puts money into this is likely at the end of the day to lose money.

Steven Cherry You know, back in the mid 2010s, Shell ended up abandoning a $7 billion drilling project in the Arctic, are the oil companies really enthusiastic about drilling there?

Kathy Hipple No, it doesn’t appear that they are. In fact, if you look at most of 2020, there were massive historic write-downs among the big oil companies around the world. The large oil companies did not participate in bidding for the land and water. They … A couple of smaller companies did. But the larger companies have largely stayed away.

Steven Cherry So is unwarned more of a symbol of a conflict between business and environmentalism?

Kathy Hipple I wouldn’t have put it in those terms, but I think that’s an excellent way to put that.

Steven Cherry The Biden administration promised an enormous infrastructure program oriented toward environmental concerns and shifting to a clean energy economy. Leaving aside the political difficulties in getting any such legislation through Congress, how big a program could we have and still remain within the bounds of good economic sense?

Kathy Hipple I don’t know the exact dollar amount to answer that question, but there’s still a tremendous amount of low hanging fruit with infrastructure spending and energy-efficiency spending. We always talk about moving to clean energy and renewable energy, which is fantastic. There’s an enormous need to build that out in this country. But there’s also a lot of low-hanging fruit about just energy efficiency, which ends up getting kind of short shrift when we talk about the energy transition. That could be billions and billions building out an electric-vehicle-charging system around the country. We need to move very quickly to decarbonize. Many of the countries’ plans are 2030, 2040, 2050. The urgency is to act immediately, to act now. And I’m extraordinarily happy that the Biden administration is moving as quickly as they are—just a few days into their administration.

Steven Cherry I was going to ask you about electric vehicles. It looks like Detroit is finally getting serious about them. How does that change the energy generation situation and the grid distribution system five years from now, 10 years from now?

Kathy Hipple Well, it’s essential to decarbonize the economy and much of the use of oil is for vehicle travel. The more vehicles can be electrified, the less need there will be for oil in this country. The United States has fallen behind Europe in terms of EVs and China is coming along very, very quickly and very aggressively. So the United States has a long way to go.

And part of it is that people do have a concern about range anxiety. There are not enough high-speed chargers. Many people live in apartments, and if they live in apartments, they can’t charge their vehicle overnight. They may not be going to an office, which you alluded to in your opening statement. So they can’t charge there. So if you live, for example, in New York City, where I split my time between Vermont and New York City, if you live in an apartment building, it’s very difficult in New York City to reliably have an EV. And that has to change and it has to change very, very quickly.

Steven Cherry Perhaps we could say a word about nuclear power. We’ve had three really bad accidents and almost three-quarters of a century, four, if you count Three Mile Island. That’s either a lot or a little, depending on how you look at these things. France still gets a steady 63 percent of its energy from nuclear. In fact, it only gets 10 percent from fossil fuels. Now, there are a number of new designs, including one that puts small nuclear plants on barges in the ocean. Is there a future for nuclear construction, new nuclear construction outside of China, which has been continuing to move that way?

Kathy Hipple I am not the world’s expert on nuclear power, but what I see, the cost of solar dropping 90 percent and wind dropping 70 percent and battery storage dropping quickly. I keep seeing estimates for new nuclear power and it is surprisingly continuing to increase. So it is very difficult for a new energy plant, whether it’s gas or whether it’s nuclear, to compete with the dropping cost or the declining costs of solar, wind, and battery storage.

So I don’t see in the United States that there’s a future for certainly not large nuclear. The question would be is how long do the existing nuclear plants continue to operate in the United States? And most of the energy forecasts to get to net-zero by 2030, 2040, 2050, do assume that the currently existing nuclear plants continue to operate, but they do not generally call for new nuclear.

Steven Cherry Finally, there are issues of environmental justice that are economic, for example, the air pollution caused by fossil fuel extraction and consumption falls disproportionately on minorities and the poor. This is something that you’ve studied as well.

I think that the issue of environmental justice has always been there, but it has gained a tremendous amount of traction in the past couple of years, I think, especially in 2020, when it became increasingly clear how disproportionate the poor communities were being affected by fossil fuels, which includes also petrochemical plants.

If you look at Cancer Alley in Louisiana and the number of refineries and petrochemical plants that are in a very small area of Louisiana, it’s very difficult not to be very, very concerned about environmental justice issues and the concept of a just transition. It’s a very interesting one that really needs to be top of mind as we are very thoughtful about accelerating the energy transition. It’s simply as a matter of basic decency and fairness that we cannot have the pollution caused by fossil fuels to fall disproportionately on poor communities and especially black and community communities of color. Terribly unfair.

Steven Cherry In some ways this is a part of a broader question about externalities and how they get paid for either financially or in terms of things like cancer that have tilted our economy toward fossil fuel consumption for a century now. Is there anything that can be done about that?

Kathy Hipple Well, it depends on who you ask. If you asked, for example, Bob Litterman, he chaired the Climate Leadership Committee, and he has pushed hard for a … essentially a carbon tax, but that if carbon was taxed and if the proceeds of the revenues generated by that was treated like a dividend in his view and that of, I think, his fellow Climate Leadership committee board members, that would go a long way toward addressing some of the social costs of carbon pollution. That’s one possible solution. Other countries are figuring out how to do it with cap-and-trade. But I think it’s only a question of time in this country before we have some kind of a reckoning. And one of the things the Biden administration is doing is trying to actually calculate the social cost of carbon pollution.

Steven Cherry Kathy, we’ve been speaking about oil companies as a sort of hegemony, but are there distinctions you want to make among them?

Kathy Hipple I think that’s a very interesting question, Steven. In the last few years, some of the oil—especially the large oil—companies, we call them oil majors or the integrated oil companies, have started to diverge. So the European oil companies, Shell, BP, Total, in particular, have taken a more forward-looking view toward the energy transition than have their American counterparts, Exxon and Chevron. Exxon and Chevron have largely continued along the path of doubling down on oil and gas production and petrochemicals, whereas Total, for example, has been very forward-thinking for about a decade. Now, are they doing enough? No. Still, a very small percentage of their capital expenditures are directed toward clean energy, but they are at least moving in the right direction. And Shell and BP are very involved as well, at least moving in that direction again—not quickly enough, not aggressively enough, to meet the Paris … To be aligned with Paris. But at least we’re seeing that they are aware of the energy transition and they are not staking their entire future on oil and gas, but trying to move beyond that.

Steven Cherry Companies like BP have even set a date to be out of fossil fuels 2040 or 2050. How painful is that going to be for them? Are there loopholes that make this more of a PR commitment than a serious one?

Kathy Hipple That’s a great question. BP did actually say they would reduce their fossil fuel production and that the loophole is some of their joint ventures have been carved out of that. But that was one of the most significant because it said they will, along with Repsol another European oil company, did say that they would reduce production. And we need more of that. This industry is mature. It’s declining. We need a managed decline for that industry. And that will not happen if they are just making empty statements.

Steven Cherry Well, Kathy, it seems like we’re not really going to get to where we need to on climate change until we restructure the economy around it. So thank you for your work toward that and for joining us today to talk about it.

Kathy Hipple Thank you very much for having me, Steven. And congratulations on the work that you’re doing with your students at NYU.

Steven Cherry We’ve been speaking with Kathy Hipple, of Bard College’s Managing for Sustainability MBA program, about the clean-energy economy.

Radio Spectrum is brought to you by IEEE Spectrum, the member magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, a professional organization dedicated to advancing technology for the benefit of humanity.

This interview was recorded January 25, 2021 via Zoom. Our theme music is by Chad Crouch.

You can subscribe to Radio Spectrum on Spotify, Apple Podcast, and wherever else you get your podcasts, or listen on the Spectrum website, where you can also sign up for alerts of new episodes. We welcome your feedback on the web or in social media.

For Radio Spectrum, I’m Steven Cherry.

Note: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.

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Going Carbon-Negative—Starting with Vodka

Post Syndicated from Steven Cherry original https://spectrum.ieee.org/podcast/energy/environment/going-carbonnegativestarting-with-vodka

Steven Cherry Hi this is Steven Cherry for Radio Spectrum.

In 2014, two Google engineers, writing in the pages of IEEE Spectrum, noted that “if all power plants and industrial facilities switch over to zero-carbon energy sources right now, we’ll still be left with a ruinous amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. It would take centuries for atmospheric levels to return to normal, which means centuries of warming and instability.” Citing the work of climatologist James Hansen, they continued: “To bring levels down below the safety threshold, Hansen’s models show that we must not only cease emitting CO2 as soon as possible but also actively remove the gas from the air and store the carbon in a stable form.”

One alternative is to grab carbon dioxide as it’s produced, and stuff it underground or elsewhere. People have been talking about CSS, which alternatively stands for carbon capture and storage, or carbon capture and sequestration, for well over a decade. But you can look around, for example at Exxon-Mobil’s website, and see how much progress hasn’t been made.

In fact, in 2015, a bunch of mostly Canadian energy producers decided on a different route. They went to the XPRIZE people and funded what came to be called the Carbon XPRIZE to, as a Spectrum article at the time said, turn “CO2 molecules into products with higher added value.”

In 2018, the XPRIZE announced 10 finalists, who divvied up a $5 million incremental prize. The prize timeline called for five teams each to begin an operational phase in two locations, one in Wyoming and the other in Alberta, culminating in a $20 million grand prize. And then the coronavirus hit, rebooting the prize timeline.

One of the more unlikely finalists emerged from the hipsterish Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. Their solution to climate change: vodka. Yes, vodka. The finalist, which calls itself the Air Company, takes carbon dioxide that has been liquified and distills it into ethanol, and then fine-tunes it into vodka. The resulting product is, the company claims, not only carbon-neutral but carbon negative.

The scientific half of founding duo of the Air Company is Stafford Sheehan—Staff, as he’s known. He had two startups under his belt by the time he graduated from Boston College. He started his next venture while in graduate school at Yale. He’s a prolific researcher but he’s determined to find commercially viable ways to reduce the carbon in the air, and he’s my guest today, via Skype.

Staff, welcome to the podcast.

Stafford Sheehan Thanks very much for having me. Steven.

Steven Cherry Staff, I’m sure people have been teasing you that maybe vodka doesn’t solve the problem of climate change entirely, but it can make us forget it for a while. But in serious engineering terms, the Air Company process seems a remarkable advance. Talk us through it. It starts with liquefied carbon dioxide.

Stafford Sheehan Yeah, happy to. So, we use liquefied carbon dioxide because we source it offsite in in Bushwick. But really, we can just feed any sort of carbon dioxide into our system. We combine the carbon dioxide with water by first splitting the water into hydrogen and oxygen. Water is H2O, so we use what’s called an electrolyzer to split water into hydrogen gas and oxygen gas and then combine the hydrogen together with carbon dioxide in a reactor over proprietary catalysts that I and my coworkers developed over the course of the last several years. And that produces a mixture of ethanol and water that we then distill to make a very, very clean and very, very pure vodka.

Steven Cherry Your claim that the product is carbon-negative is based on a life-cycle analysis. The calculation starts with an initial minus of the amount of carbon you take out of the atmosphere. And then we start adding back the carbon and carbon equivalents needed to get it into a bottle and onto the shelf of a hipster bar. That first step where your supplier takes carbon out of the atmosphere, puts it into liquefied form and then delivers it to your distillery. That puts about 10 percent of that that carbon back into the atmosphere.

Stafford Sheehan Yeah, 10 to 20 percent. When a tonne of carbon dioxide arrives in liquid form at our Bushwick facility, we assume that it took 200 kilograms of CO2 emitted—not only for the capture of the carbon dioxide; most of the carbon dioxide that we get actually comes from fuel ethanol fermentation. So we take the carbon dioxide emissions of the existing ethanol industry and we’re turning that into a higher purity ethanol. But it’s captured from those facilities and then it’s liquefied and transported to our Bushwick facility. And if you integrate the lifecycle carbon emissions of all of the equipment, all the steel, all of the transportation, every part of that process, then you you get about a maximum life-cycle CO2 emissions for the carbon dioxide of 200 kilograms per ton. So we still have eight hundred kilograms to play with at our facility.

Steven Cherry So another 10 percent gets eaten up by that electrolysis process.

Stafford Sheehan Yeah. The electrolysis process is highly dependent on what sort of electricity you use to power it with. We use a company called Clean Choice. And we’re we work very closely with a number of solar and wind deployers in New York State to make sure that all the electricity that’s used at our facility is solar or wind. And if you use wind energy, that’s the most carbon-friendly energy source that we have available there. Right now, the mix that we have, which is certified through Con Edison, is actually very heavily wind and a little bit of solar. But that was the lowest lifecycle-intensity electricity that we could get. So we get … it’s actually a little bit less than 10 percent of that is consumed by electrolysis. So the electrolysis is actually quite green as long as you power it with a very low-carbon source of electricity.

Steven Cherry And the distilling process, even though it’s solar-based, takes maybe another 13 percent or so?

Stafford Sheehan It’s in that ballpark. The distilling process is powered by an electric steam boiler. So we use the same electricity that we use to split water, to heat our water for the distillation system. So we have a fully electric distillery process. You could say that we’ve electrified vodka distilling.

Steven Cherry There’s presumably a bit more by way of carbon equivalents when it comes to the bottles the vodka comes in, shipping it to customers, and so on, but that’s true of any vodka that ends up on that shelf of any bar, and those also have a carbon-emitting farming process—whether it’s potatoes or sugar beets or wheat or whatever—that your process sidesteps.

Stafford Sheehan Yes. And I think one thing that’s really important is, this electrification act aspect by electrifying or all of our distillery processes, for example, if you’re boiling water using a natural gas boiler, your carbon emissions are going to be much, much higher as compared to boiling water using an electric steam boiler that’s powered with wind energy.

Steven Cherry It seems like if you just poured the vodka down the drain or into the East River, you would be benefiting the environment. I mean, would it be possible to do that on an industrial scale as a form of carbon capture and storage that really works?

Stafford Sheehan Yeah. I don’t think you’d want to pour good alcohol down the drain in any capacity just because the alcohol that we make can offset the use of fossil fuel alcohol.

So by putting the alcohol that we make—this carbon negative alcohol that we make—into the market, that means you have to make less fossil alcohol. And I’m including corn ethanol in that because so many fossil fuels go into its production. But that makes it so that our indirect CO2, our indirect CO2 utilization is very, very high because we’re offsetting a very carbon-intensive product.

Steven Cherry That’s interesting. I was thinking that maybe you could earn carbon credits and sell them for more than you might make with having a, you know, another pricey competitor to Grey Goose and Ketel One.

Stafford Sheehan The carbon credit, the carbon credit system is still very young, especially in the US.

We also … our technology still has a ways to scale between our Bushwick facility—which is, I would say, a micro distillery—and a real bona industrial process, which … we’re working on that right now.

Steven Cherry Speaking of which, though, it is rather pricey stuff at this point, isn’t it? Did I read $65 or $70 a bottle?

Stafford Sheehan Yeah, it’s pricey not only because you pay a premium for our electricity, for renewable electricity, but we also pay a premium for carbon dioxide that, you know, has that that only emits 10 to 20 percent of the carbon intensity of its actual weight, so we pay a lot more for the inputs than is typical—sustainability costs money—and also we’re building these systems, they’re R&D systems, and so they’re  more costly to operate on a R&D scale, on kind of our pilot plant scale. As we scale up, the cost will go down. But at the scales we’re at right now, we need to be able to sell a premium product to be able to have a viable business. Now, on top of that, the product is also won a lot of awards that put it in that price category. It’s won three gold medals in the three most prestigious blind taste test competitions. And it’s won a lot of other spirits and design industry awards that enable us to get that sort of cost for it.

Steven Cherry I’m eager to do my own blind taste testing. Vodka is typically 80 proof, meaning it’s 60 percent water. You and your co-founder went on an epic search for just the right water.

Stafford Sheehan That we did. We tested over … probably over one hundred and thirty different types of water. We tried to find which one was best to make vodka with using the very, very highly pure ethanol that comes out of our process. And it’s a very nuanced thing. Water, by changing things like the mineral content, the pH, by changing the very, very small trace impurities in the water—that in many cases are good for you—can really change the way the water feels in your mouth and the way that it tastes. And adding alcohol to water just really amplifies that. It lowers the boiling point and it makes it more volatile so that it feels different in your mouth. And so different types of water have a different mouth feel; they have a different taste. We did a lot of research on water to be able to find the right one to mix with our vodka.

Steven Cherry Did you end up where you started with New York water?

Stafford Sheehan Yes. In in a in a sense, we are we’re very, very close to where we started.

Steven Cherry I guess we have to add your vodka to the list that New Yorkers would claim includes New York’s bagels and New York’s pizza as uniquely good, because if their water.

Stafford Sheehan Bagels, pizza, vodka … hand sanitizer …

Steven Cherry It’s a well-balanced diet. So where do things stand with the XPRIZE? I gather you finally made it to Canada for this operational round, but take us through the journey getting there.

Stafford Sheehan So I initially entered the XPRIZE when it was soliciting for very first submissions—I believe it was 2016—and going through the different stages, we had at the end of 2017, we had very rigorous due diligence on our prototype scale. And we passed through that and got good marks and continuously progressed through to the finals where we are now. Now, of course, coronavirus kind of threw both our team and many other teams for a loop, delaying deployment, especially for us: We’re the only American team deploying in Canada. The other four teams that are deploying at the ACCTC [Alberta Carbon Conversion Technology Centre] are all Canadian teams. So being the only international team in a time of a global pandemic that, you know, essentially halted all international travel—and a lot of international commerce—put some substantial barriers in our way. But over the course of the last seven months or so, we’ve been able to get back on our feet. And I’m currently sitting in quarantine in Mississauga, Ontario, getting ready for a factory-acceptance test. That’s scheduled to happen right at the same time as quarantine ends. So we’re gonna be at the end of this month landing our skid in Alberta for the finals and then in November, going through diligence and everything else to prove out its operation and then operating it through the rest of the year.

Steven Cherry I understand that you weren’t one of the original 10 finalists named in 2018.

Stafford Sheehan No, we were not. We were the runner-up. There was a runner-up for each track—the Wyoming track and the Alberta track. And ultimately, there were teams that dropped out or merged for reasons within their own businesses. We were given the opportunity to rejoin the competition. We decided to take it because it was a good proving ground for our next step of scale, and it provided a lot of infrastructure that allowed us to do that at a reasonable cost—at a reasonable cost for us and at a reasonable cost in terms of our time.

Steven Cherry Staff, you were previously a co-founder of a startup called Catalytic Innovations. In fact, you were a 2016 Forbes magazine, 30-under-30 because of it. What was it? And is it? And how did it lead to Air Company and vodka?

Stafford Sheehan For sure. That was a company that I spun out of Yale University, along with a professor at Yale, Paul Anastas. We initially targeted making new catalysts for fuel cell and electrolysis industries, focusing around the water oxidation reaction. So to turn carbon dioxide—or to produce fuel in general using renewable electricity—there are three major things that need to happen. You need to have a very efficient renewable energy source. Trees, for example, use the sun. That’s photosynthesis. You have to be able to oxidize water into oxygen gas. And that’s why trees breathe out oxygen. And you have to be able to use the protons and electrons that come out of water oxidation to either reduce carbon dioxide or through some other method, produce a fuel. So I studied all three of those when I was in graduate school, and upon graduating, I spun out Catalytic Innovations that focused on the water oxidation reaction and commercializing materials that more efficiently produced oxygen for all of The man-made processes such as metal refining that do that chemistry. And that company found its niche in corrosion—anti-corrosion and corrosion protection—because one of the big challenges, whenever you’re producing oxygen, be it for renewable fuels or be it to produce zinc or to do a handful of different electrorefining and electrowinning processes in the metal industry. You always have a very serious corrosion problem. Did a lot of work in that industry in Catalytic Innovations, and they still continue to do work there, to this day.

Steven Cherry You and your current co-founder, Greg Constantine, are a classic match—a technologist, in this case an electrochemist and a marketer. If this were a movie, you would have met in a bar drinking vodka. And I understand you actually did meet at a bar. Were you drinking vodka?

Stafford Sheehan No, we were actually drinking whiskey. So I didn’t … I actually I’m not a big fan of vodka pre-Air Company, but it was the product that really gave us the best value proposition where really, really clean, highly pure ethanol is most important. So I’ve always been more of a whiskey man myself, and Greg and I met over whiskey in Israel when we were on a trip that was for Forbes. You know, they sent us out there because we were both part of their 30-Under-30 list and we became really good friends out there. And then several months later, fast forward, we started Air Company.

Steven Cherry Air Company’s charter makes it look like you would like to go far beyond vodka when it comes to finding useful things to do with CO2. In the very near term, you turned to using your alcohol in a way that contributes to our safety.

Stafford Sheehan Yeah. So we we had always planned the air company, not the air vodka company. We had always planned to go into several different verticals with ultra-high-purity ethanol that we create. And spirits is one of the places where you can realize the value proposition of a very clean and highly pure alcohol, very readily—spirits, fragrance is another one. But down the list a little bit is sanitizer, specifically hand sanitizer. And when coronavirus hit, we actually pivoted all of our technology because there was a really, really major shortage of sanitizer in New York City. A lot of my friends from graduate school that had kind of gone more on the medical track were telling me that the hospitals that they worked in, in New York didn’t have any hand sanitizer. And when the hospitals—for the nurses and doctors—ran out of hand sanitizer, that means you really have a shortage. And so we pivoted all of our technology to produce sanitizer in March. And for three months after that, we gave it away. We donated it to these hospitals, to the fire department, to NYPD and to other organizations in the city that needed it most.

Yeah, the hand sanitizer, I like to think, is also a very premium product. You can’t realize the benefits of the very, very clean and pure ethanol that we use for it as readily as you can with the bad guys since you’re not tasting it. But we did have to go through all of the facility registrations and that sort of thing to make the sanitizer because it is classified as a drug. So our pilot plant in and in Bushwick, which was a converted warehouse, I used to tell people in March that I always knew my future was going to be sitting in a dark warehouse in Bushwick making drugs. But, you know, never thought that it was actually going to become a reality.

Steven Cherry That was in the short term. By now, you can get sanitizer in every supermarket and Home Depot. What are the longer-term prospects for going beyond vodka?

Stafford Sheehan Longer term, we’re looking at commodity chemicals, even going on to fuel. So longer term, we’re looking at the other verticals where we can take advantage of the high-purity value proposition of our ethanol—like pharmaceuticals, as a chemical feedstock, things like that. But then as we scale, we want to be able to make renewable fuel as well from this and renewable chemicals. Ultimately, we want to we want to get to world scale with this technology, but we need to take the appropriate steps to get there. And what we’re doing now are the stepping-stones to scaling it.

Steven Cherry It seems like if you could locate the distilling operation right at the ethanol plant, you would just be making more ethanol for them with their waste product, avoid a lot of shipping and so forth. It, you would just become of value add to their industry.

Stafford Sheehan That is something that we hope to do in the long term. You know what, our current skids are fairly small scale where we couldn’t take a massive amount of CO2 with them. But as we scale, we do hope to get there gradually when we get to larger scales, like talking about several barrels per day rather than liters per hour, which is the scale we’re at now.

A lot of stuff you can turn CO2 into. One of the prime examples is calcium carbonate. C03-[[minus]] CO2 is CO2. You can very easily convert carbon dioxide into things like that for building materials. So pour concrete for different parts of bricks and things like that. There are a lot of different ways to mineralized CO2 as well. Like you can inject it into the ground. That will also turn it into carbon-based minerals. Beyond that, as far as more complex chemical conversion goes, the list is almost endless. You can make plastics. You can make pharmaceutical materials. You can make all sorts of crazy stuff from CO2. Almost any of the base chemicals that have carbon in them can come from CO2. And in a way, they do come from CO2 because all the petrochemicals that we mine from the ground, that they’re from photosynthesis that happened over the course of the last two billion years.

Have you ever seen the movie Forest Gump? There’s a part in that where Bubba, Gump’s buddy in the Vietnam War, talks about all the things you can do with shrimp. And it kind of goes on and on and on. But I could say the same about CO2. You can make plastic. You can make clothes. You can make sneakers. You can make alcohol. You can make any sort of chemical carbon-based ethylene, carbon monoxide, formic acid, methanol, ethanol. And there … The list goes on. Just about any carbon-based chemical you can think of. You can make from CO2.

Steven Cherry Would it be possible to pull carbon dioxide out of a plastic itself and thereby solve two problems at once?

Yeah, you could you could take plastic and capture the CO2 that’s emitted when you either incinerate it or where you gasify it. That is a strategy that’s used in certain places, gasification of waste, municipal waste. It doesn’t give you CO2, but it actually gives you something that you can do chemistry with a little more easily. It gives you a syngas—a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. So, there are a lot of different strategies that you can use to convert CO2 into things better for the planet than global warming.

Steven Cherry If hydrogen is a byproduct of that, you have a ready use for it.

Stafford Sheehan Yeah, exactly, that is one of the many places where we could source feedstock materials for our process. Our process is versatile and that’s one of the big advantages to it.

If we get hydrogen, as a byproduct of chloralkali production, for example, we can use that instead of having to source the electrolyzer. If our CO2 comes from direct air capture, we can use that. And that means we can place our plants pretty much wherever there’s literally air, water and sunlight. As far as the products that come out, liquid products that are made from CO2 have a big advantage in that they can be transported and they’re not as volatile, obviously, as the gases.

Steven Cherry Well, Staff, it’s a remarkable story, one that certainly earns you that XPRIZE finalist berth. We wish you great luck with it. But it seems like your good fortune is self-made and assured, in any event to the benefit of the planet. Thank you for joining us today.

Stafford Sheehan Thanks very much for having me, Steven.

Steven Cherry We’ve been speaking with Staff Sheehan, co-founder of the Air Company, a Brooklyn startup working to actively undo the toxic effects of global warming.

This interview was recorded October 2, 2020. Our thanks to Miles of Gotham Podcast Studio for our audio engineering; our music is by Chad Crouch.

Radio Spectrum is brought to you by IEEE Spectrum, the member magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.

For Radio Spectrum, I’m Steven Cherry.


Note: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.

We welcome your comments on Twitter (@RadioSpectrum1 and @IEEESpectrum) and Facebook.


Airbus Plans Hydrogen-Powered Carbon-Neutral Planes by 2035. Can They Work?

Post Syndicated from Ned Potter original https://spectrum.ieee.org/energywise/energy/environment/airbus-plans-hydrogenpowered-carbonneutral-planes-by-2035-can-they-work

Imagine that it is December 2035 – about 15 years from now – and you are taking an international flight in order to be at home with family for the holidays. Airports and planes have not changed much since your childhood: Your flight is late as usual. But the Airbus jet at your gate is different. It is a giant V-shaped blended-wing aircraft, vaguely reminiscent of a boomerang. The taper of the wings is so gentle that one cannot really say where the fuselage ends and the wings begin. The plane is a big lifting body, with room for you and 200 fellow passengers.

One other important thing you notice before you board: The plane is venting vapor, a lot of it, even on a crisp morning. That, you know, is because the plane is fueled by liquid hydrogen, cooled to -253 degrees C, which boils off despite the plane’s extensive insulation. This is part of the vision Airbus, the French-based aviation giant, presents as part of its effort against global climate change.

Airbus is now betting heavily on hydrogen as a fuel of the future. It has just unveiled early plans for three “ZEROe” airliners, each using liquid hydrogen to take the place of today’s hydrocarbon-based jet-fuel compounds.

“It is really our intent in 15 years to have an entry into service of a hydrogen-powered airliner,” says Amanda Simpson, vice president for research and technology at Airbus Americas. Hydrogen, she says, “has the most energy per unit mass of…well, anything. And because it burns with oxygen to [yield] water, it is entirely environmentally friendly.”

But is a hydrogen future realistic for commercial aviation? Is it practical from an engineering, environmental, or economic standpoint? Certainly, people at Airbus say they need to decarbonize, and research on battery technology for electric planes has been disappointing. Meanwhile, China, currently the world’s largest producer of carbon dioxide, pledged last month to become carbon neutral by 2060. And 175 countries have signed on to the 2015 Paris agreement to fight global warming.

According to the European Commission, aviation alone accounts for between 2 and 3 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions – about as much as entire countries like Japan or Germany.

Two of the planes Airbus has shown in artist renditions would barely get a second glance at today’s airports. One—with a capacity of 120-200 passengers, a cruising speed of about 830 kilometers per hour (kph), and a range of more than 3,500 km—looks like a conventional twin-engine jet. The second looks like almost any other turboprop you’ve ever seen; it’s a short-haul plane that can carry up to 100 passengers with a range of at least 1,800 km and a cruising speed of 612 kph. Each plane would get electric power from fuel cells. The company said it won’t have most other specifications for several years; it said to think of the images as “concepts,” meant to generate ideas for future planes.

The third rendering, an illustration of that blended-wing aircraft, showed some of the potential—and potential challenges—of hydrogen as a fuel. Airbus said the plane might have a cruising speed of 830 kph and a range of 3,500 km, without releasing carbon into the air. Liquid hydrogen contains about three times as much energy in each kilogram as today’s jet fuel. On the other hand, a kilogram of liquid hydrogen takes up three times the space. So, a plane would need either to give up cabin space or have more inside volume. A blended wing, with its bulbous shape, Airbus says, may solve the problem. And as a bonus, blended wings have shown they can be 20 percent more fuel-efficient than today’s tube-and-wing aircraft.

“My first reaction is: Let’s do it. Let’s make it happen,” says Daniel Esposito, a chemical engineer at Columbia University whose research covers hydrogen production. He says hydrogen can be handled safely and has a minimal carbon footprint if it’s made by electrolysis (splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen) using renewable electricity. Most industrial hydrogen today is extracted from natural gas, which negates some of the carbon benefit, but the International Energy Agency says that with renewable electricity capacity quickly growing (it passed coal as a power source in 2019), the cost of carbon-free hydrogen could drop.

“It can be done,” he says. “It’s just a matter of the political will and the will of companies like Airbus and Boeing to take the lead on this.”

Others have their doubts. “A lot of these things, you can; the question is, should you?” says Richard Pat Anderson, a professor of aerospace engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “When we say, ‘Should you?’ and you get into economics, then it becomes a much more difficult conversation.” Anderson says battery-powered aircraft are likely to become practical later in this century, and it is a dubious proposition to build the massive – and costly – infrastructure for hydrogen power in the meantime.

But in a warming world, Airbus says, the aviation sector needs to get going. McKinsey & Company, the consulting firm, surveyed airline customers last year and found 62 percent of younger fliers (under age 35) “really worried about climate change” and agreed that “aviation should definitely become carbon neutral.”

So, you’re on that jetway 15 years from now, on the way home. What will power the plane you’re boarding?

“Hydrogen is coming,” says Simpson at Airbus. “It’s already here.”

The Electric Weed-Zapper Renaissance

Post Syndicated from David Schneider original https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/energy/environment/the-electric-weed-zapper-renaissance

In the 1890s, U.S. railroad companies struggled with what remains a problem for railroads across the world: weeds. The solution that 19th-century railroad engineers devised made use of a then-new technology—high-voltage electricity, which they discovered could zap troublesome vegetation overgrowing their tracks. Somewhat later, the people in charge of maintaining tracks turned using fire instead. But the approach to weed control that they and countless others ultimately adopted was applying chemical herbicides, which were easier to manage and more effective.

The use of herbicides, whether on railroad rights of way, agricultural fields, or suburban gardens, later raised health concerns, though. More than 100,000 people in the United States, for example, have claimed that Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer caused them to get cancer—claims that Bayer, which now owns Monsanto, is trying hard of late to settle.

Meanwhile, more and more places are banning the use of Roundup and similar glyphosate herbicides. Currently, half of all U.S. states have legal restrictions in place that limit the use of such chemical weed killers. Such restrictions are also in place in 19 other countries, including Austria, which banned the chemical in 2019, and Germany, which will be phasing it out by 2023. So, it’s no wonder that the concept of using electricity to kill weeds is undergoing a renaissance.

Actually, the idea never really died. A U.S. company called Lasco has been selling electric weed-killing equipment for decades. More recently, another U.S. company has been marketing this technology under the name “The Weed Zapper.” But the most interesting developments along these lines are in Europe, where electric weed control seems to be gaining real traction.

One company trying to replace herbicides with electricity is RootWave, based in the U.K. Andrew Diprose, RootWave’s CEO, is the son of Michael Diprose, who spent much of his career as a researcher at the University of Sheffield studying ways to control weeds with electricity.

Electricity, the younger Diprose explains, boasts some key benefits over other non-chemical forms of weed control, which include using hot water, steam, and mechanical extraction. In particular, electric weed control doesn’t require any water. It’s also considerably more energy efficient than using steam, which requires an order of magnitude more fuel. And unlike mechanical means, electric weed killing is also consistent with modern “no till” agricultural practices. What’s more, Diprose asserts, the cost is now comparable with chemical herbicides.

Unlike the electric weed-killing gear that’s long been sold in the United States, RootWave’s equipment runs at tens of kilohertz—a much higher frequency than the power mains. This brings two advantages. For one, it makes the equipment lighter, because the transformers required to raise the voltage to weed-zapping levels (thousands of volts) can be much smaller. It also makes the equipment safer, because higher frequencies pose less of a threat of electrocution. Should you accidentally touch a live electrode “you will get a burn,” says Diprose, but there is much less of a threat of causing cardiac arrest than there would be with a system that operated at 50 or 60 hertz.

RootWave has two systems, a hand-carried one operating at 5 kilowatts and a 20-kilowatt version carried by a tractor. The company is currently collaborating with various industrial partners, including another U.K. startup called Small Robot Company, which plans to outfit an agricultural robot for automated weed killing with electricity. 

And RootWave isn’t the only European company trying to revive this old idea. Netherlands-based CNH Industrial is also promoting electric weed control with a tractor-mounted system it has dubbed “XPower.” Like RootWave’s tractor-mounted system, the electrodes are swept over a field at a prescribed height, killing the weeds that poke up higher than the crop to be preserved.

Of the many advantages CNH touts for its weed-electrocution system (which presumably applies to all such systems, ever since the 1890s) is “No specific resistance expectable.” I should certainly hope not. But I do think that a more apropos wording here, for something that destroys weeds by placing them in a high-voltage electrical circuit, might be a phrase that both Star Trek fans and electrical engineers could better appreciate: “Resistance is futile.

Zimbabwe Hopes Rural Electrification Can Stop Deforestation. Here’s Why It Might Not Work

Post Syndicated from Maria Gallucci original https://spectrum.ieee.org/energywise/energy/environment/zimbabwe-hopes-rural-electrification-stop-deforestation-it-might-not-work

In Zimbabwe, where access to the electrical grid is sparse and unreliable, millions of people still burn wood to cook food and heat their homes. The practice is partly to blame for worsening deforestation in the landlocked country. In recent years, government officials have proposed a seemingly straightforward solution: Extend the electric grid into rural villages, and reduce the use of wood for fuel.

But Ellen Fungisai Chipango, a Zimbabwe-born researcher, says that rural electrification isn’t likely to provide any quick fixes. That’s because adding poles, wires, and even off-grid solar systems will do little to alleviate the crushing poverty that leads people to cut large swaths of trees. In her field work, she found that initiatives to expand energy access in Zimbabwe often overlook the larger political and economic forces at play.

Chipango is among researchers worldwide who are closely examining long-held assumptions that electrifying rural homes can boost family incomes, help children study, reduce indoor air pollution, or protect the environment. Stakeholders including scrappy solar startups, major oil and gas companies, and the United Nations have all pledged to work toward improving energy access for one or more of those reasons. But recent studies suggest that, in order to deliver real benefits, programs must be more comprehensive.

“Without addressing these underlying factors, just extending the grid to rural people will be tantamount to an empty gesture of goodwill,” Chipango said by Skype.

Chipango is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. She recently discussed her findings in an article in The Conversation. Her piece, published in July, updates a case study she conducted in late 2016 and early 2017 in a district of Zimbabwe’s southeastern Manicaland province. 

Over two-thirds of Zimbabwe’s 16.2 million people live in rural areas, and roughly 80 percent of those residents can’t access electricity. In 2002, Zimbabwe created the Rural Electrification Agency to rapidly electrify the countryside. So far, the agency has connected thousands of schools and rural health centers. Yet few power lines extend beyond institutional buildings, and only about 10 percent of villages are electrified.

In Chipango’s study, most participants said they burned wood for cooking and heating. But personal energy needs were only part of the reason why they chopped down trees. Many people are clear-cutting forests out of sheer desperation. Zimbabwe’s economy is on the brink of collapse, and a prolonged drought—made worse by climate change—has brought about the worst hunger crisis in a decade. Rural residents stave off grinding poverty by selling wood. Their customers include city dwellers, who, because they can’t afford diesel generators or battery backup systems, burn the fuel during frequent and prolonged power outages.

When Chipango interviewed participants again earlier this year, she found their economic situations had worsened since 2017. Meanwhile, urban demand for wood has surged. Interviewees said they’d still keep cutting trees even if power lines finally arrived in their villages. One resident, when asked if off-grid solar would help instead, told Chipango: “It will give us light, but light does not put food on the table.”

Poverty also limits the potential of rural energy initiatives in other ways. If residents can’t afford to buy electric stoves, heaters, or other appliances, they can’t take full advantage of the electrons flowing into their homes. Certainly, enterprising people with a little cash on hand can grow their income by setting up neighborhood phone-charging shops or converting their yards into makeshift movie theaters. But many people won’t likely see their living conditions improve so easily.

“For almost all the traditional outcomes that people talk about when expanding energy access, there are two or three other things that people need for that outcome to actually be realized,” said Ken Lee, who leads the India division of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC). “You can’t eat electricity,” he added.

Lee and colleagues led an experiment in Western Kenya comparing the experiences of rural “under grid” households, meaning homes that are located next to, but not connected to, utility infrastructure. Kenya’s Rural Electrification Authority connected randomly selected households, at a cost of more than US $1,000 each; the rest remained disconnected. After 18 months, researchers found no obvious differences between the socioeconomic living standards of both groups. (Aspects of the Kenya experiment are ongoing.)

The initial results, published in March, surprised the team, which expected to see more tangible gains among the electrified households. Not only did budget constraints keep many participants from buying appliances and using the new electricity supply, researchers also found little improvement in children’s test scores. Even if kids could study under a lightbulb at night, they still attended underfunded schools in the morning. 

Utility mismanagement further undermined electrification efforts. During the rural grid expansion, nearly one-fourth of all utility poles were apparently stolen, possibly leaving the connected residents with a less reliable power supply in the long-run.

Globally, the problem of faulty equipment and lack of maintenance plagues many rural initiatives, including efforts to replace polluting indoor cookstoves with cleaner or electric models. In northern India, studies found that households revert to traditional stoves when new stoves break down. Sometimes, they use both at once, in a process known as “stacking” that undermines the health benefits of alternative models.

Lee and fellow researchers Catherine Wolfram and Edward Miguel, both of the University of California at Berkeley, also reviewed studies from other locations globally and reached a similar conclusion: Access to electricity alone isn’t enough to improve economic and noneconomic outcomes in a meaningful way. 

Still, Lee stressed, that doesn’t mean utilities, philanthropists, and companies should stop pursuing programs to bring grid power or off-grid technologies into rural and impoverished places. But it does clarify the need to design initiatives that do more than simply install infrastructure and assume the rest—rising incomes, better education—will naturally follow.

Chipango, reflecting on her Zimbabwe study, put it this way: “Energy access is not the mere presence of a grid. It’s the ability to use that energy.”


Coronavirus vs. Climate Change

Post Syndicated from Thor Benson original https://spectrum.ieee.org/energywise/energy/environment/covid19-pandemic-reduce-greenhouse-gas-emissions

IEEE COVID-19 coverage logo, link to landing page

Whether their state is opening up or locking down again, Americans are generally staying home more during the COVID-19 pandemic. One result has been a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, which could be as much as 7 percent lower in 2020 than they were in 2019. What remains to be seen is if we’ll be able to keep emissions at this level once the pandemic is over and people return to a more regular lifestyle.

In addition to the fact many Americans are telecommuting instead of driving to an office, more people are ordering groceries from home. Online grocery sales in the U.S. went up from $4 billion in March to a record-setting $7.2 billion in June.

Because we tend to assume the lazy option is the less eco-friendly option, you might think people ordering groceries online is worse for the environment. But research has shown that having vehicles delivery orders to multiple households, which is how Amazon Fresh and other vendors operate, is significantly better for the environment than having many people in cars going to the store individually. Not only do these service vehicles delivery to several homes on one round trip, they also follow the fastest route to each home, which makes the whole system pretty efficient and can reduce the carbon emissions associated with grocery shopping by 25 to 75 percent.

(Bad news if you use services like Instacart, which has one driver collect groceries for one person at a time: Because they’re not delivering multiple orders during one trip, they don’t really benefit the environment.)

Jesse Keenan, an associate professor of architecture and a social scientist at Tulane University who has studied sustainability extensively, tells Spectrum that getting groceries delivered is also not more eco-friendly if you’re getting groceries delivered but driving to do other errands in the same day. In that case, you’re just having someone do one of your multiple errands.

As for telecommuting, it’s not necessarily the case that everyone will be going back to work in an office once the pandemic abates. Now that some people have gotten used to working from home and have proven to their employers that they can be just as productive there as they were in the office, many companies may choose to continue having employees work remotely part or all of the time once the pandemic ends.

That would be good news for the environment and for corporate bottomlines.

Mikhail Chester, an associate professor of civil, environmental and sustainable engineering at Arizona State University, tells Spectrum that he can imagine some businesses seeing employees continuing to work remotely as a great way to save money.

“Right now, there are companies out there that were renting office space—they had a lease, and the lease expired and all of their employees have been working from home—and they probably made the decision that they’re getting the job done as effectively with a remote workforce and leasing a physical space is not really that necessary,” Chester says.

He adds that work and shopping are just two of many activities that people might continue to do virtually even when they don’t have to. Chester noted that pre-pandemic he used to fly a lot to attend conferences and meet with research partners but has now switched to doing these things virtually, which might be something that outlasts the pandemic.

Keenan says that the effect of more people working from home instead of traveling to an office or another brick-and-mortar business might depend on the city they live in, as many people use public transportation to get to work in some cities, which is better than driving to work.

“The problem is that service-based employment that is able to work from home is disproportionately in cities where many people take mass transit,” Keenan says. “But, small reductions—even in cities—could add up to reduce emissions on the margins. I think less business travel is more likely to have an aggregate impact. With Zoom, there could be fewer conferences and business travel—hence reducing air miles that are carbon-intensive.”

Michael Mann, a professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University and a leading expert on climate change, tells Spectrum that he expects that after the pandemic ends, there will be some long-term changes in how people approach work and other activities. But he doesn’t think these long-term changes are going to be nearly enough to beat climate change.

“In the end, personal lifestyle changes won’t yield substantial carbon reductions. Even with the massive reduction in travel and reduced economic activity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ll only see at most about 5 percent reduction in carbon emissions [this] year,” Mann says. “We will need to reduce carbon emissions at least that much (more like 7%), year-after-year for the next decade and beyond if we’re too stay within our ‘carbon budget’ for avoiding dangerous >1.5°C planetary warming.”

People living more sustainably is important, and we should encourage it in any way possible, but if we’re going to beat climate change, Mann says we need major changes to how society operates. He says we need to “decarbonize” all forms of transportation and generally transition away from fossil fuel use across the board.

The fact we’ve seen such a significant reduction in carbon emissions this year is one good thing that’s come out of this terrible pandemic we’re facing, and overall, this reduction will likely be sustained as long as the pandemic remains a major issue. Perhaps that will buy us some time to get our climate change plans together. However, as Mann says, if we’re going to really beat climate change, it’s going to take a lot more than people making changes in how they live their daily lives. It’s going to take major changes to the economy and how we power the things we use.

“The main lesson is that personal behavioral change alone won’t get us the reductions we need,” Mann says. “We need fundamental systemic change, and that means policy incentives. We won’t get that unless we vote in politicians who will work in our interest rather than the polluting interests.”

Team Sonnenwagen Prep for Race Across the Outback

Post Syndicated from Harwin original https://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/environment/team_sonnenwage_prep_for_race_across_the_outback

Harwin’s Interconnect Guru caught up with the team from RWTH Aachen University as they prepared to embark on a journey across the globe, travelling from North West Germany to Darwin Australia for the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge.

What is their motivation and what lessons they’ve learnt from last year that will help them to gain a pole position?

 “Climate change and resource depletion are threatening our civilization and emphasize the importance of developing renewable energy alternatives. Our intention with Sonnenwagen is not only to bring these two issues to light, but also show the potential of efficient solar technology. If you speak to any team member, they’ll say they want to be a part of a real-world application that promotes an environmentally-friendly renewable approach.

All of us are looking to make the most of our time in university and being involved in a project combating climate change and helping protect the planet is very rewarding.”

“The aerodynamics are vital. We spent 18 months performing computational fluid dynamics simulations and carried out multiple wind tunnel tests to determine the optimal design, while still considering chassis structure. Simulations were also done on various carbon fiber-reinforced composites and geometries. Data from all of these activities was then compiled to create a final digital prototype.”

The Coronavirus Outbreak Is Curbing China’s CO2 Emissions

Post Syndicated from Maria Gallucci original https://spectrum.ieee.org/energywise/energy/environment/coronavirus-outbreak-curbing-china-co2-emissions

The coronavirus outbreak has sent the global economy reeling as businesses shutter and billions of people hunker down. Air travel, vehicle traffic, and industrial production have swiftly declined in recent weeks, with much of the world frozen in place until the virus—which has killed more than 39,000 people globally—can be safely contained. One consequence of the crisis may be a sizable, if temporary, decline in heat-trapping emissions this year.

Global carbon dioxide emissions could fall by 0.3 percent to 1.2 percent in 2020, says Glen Peters, research director of the Center for International Climate Research in Norway. He based his estimates on new projections for slower economic growth in 2020. In Europe, CO2 emissions from large sources could plunge by more than 24 percent this year. That’s according to an early assessment of the Emissions Trading Scheme, which sets a cap on the European Union’s emissions. In Italy, France, and other nations under quarantine, power demand has dropped considerably since early March.

As experts look to the future, Lauri Myllyvirta is tracking how the new coronavirus is already affecting China—the world’s largest carbon emitter, where more than a dozen cities were on lockdown for nearly two months. Myllyvirta is an analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, an independent organization. Previously based in Beijing, he now lives in Helsinki, where I recently reached him by phone. Our conversation is edited and condensed for clarity.

It’s Still Early, but Potassium Batteries Are Showing Promise for Grid Storage

Post Syndicated from Prachi Patel original https://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/environment/its-still-early-but-potassium-batteries-are-showing-promise-for-grid-storage

Renewables are poised to expand by 50 percent in the next five years, according to the International Energy Agency. Much of that wind and solar power will need to be stored. But a growing electric-vehicle market might not leave enough lithium and cobalt for lithium-ion grid batteries.

Some battery researchers are taking a fresh look at lithium’s long-ignored cousin, potassium, for grid storage. Potassium is abundant, inexpensive, and could in ­theory enable a higher-power battery. However, efforts have lagged behind research on lithium and sodium batteries.

But potassium could catch up quickly, says Shinichi Komaba, who leads potassium-ion battery research at the Tokyo University of Science: “Although ­potassium-battery development has just been going on for five years, I believe that it is already competitive with sodium-ion batteries and expect it to be comparable and superior to lithium-ion.”

People have historically shied away from potassium because the metal is highly reactive and dangerous to handle. What’s more, finding electrode materials to hold the much heftier potassium ions is difficult.

Yet a flurry of reports in the past five years detail promising candidates for the cathode. Among the leaders are iron-based compounds with a crystalline structure similar to Prussian blue particles, which have wide open spaces for potassium ions to fill. A group from the University of Texas at Austin led by John Goodenough, coinventor of the lithium-ion battery and a winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, has reported Prussian blue cathodes with an exceptionally high energy density of 510 watt-hours per kilogram, comparable to that of today’s lithium batteries.

But Prussian blue isn’t perfect. “The problem is, we don’t know how water content in the material affects energy density,” says Haegyeom Kim, a materials scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “Another issue is that it’s difficult to control its chemical composition.”

Kim is placing bets on polyanionic compounds, which are made by combining potassium with any number of elements plucked from the periodic table. Potassium vanadium fluorophosphate seems to hold special promise. Kim and his colleagues have developed a cathode with the compounds that has an energy density of 450 Wh/kg.

Other researchers are looking at organic compounds for cathodes. These cost less than inorganic compounds, and their chemical bonds can stretch to take up potassium ions more easily.

While Goodenough is giving potassium a chance, his fellow ­lithium-battery inventor and Nobel Prize winner ­M. ­Stanley Whittingham, professor of chemistry at Binghamton University, in New York, isn’t sold. “It’s a scientific curiosity,” he says. “There’s no startup looking at potassium batteries.”

Potassium, says Whittingham, is not a practical technology because of its heft and volatility. Potassium also melts at a lower temperature than lithium or sodium, which can trigger reactions that lead to thermal runaway.

Those are valid concerns, says Vilas Pol, a professor of chemical engineering at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Ind. But he points out that in a battery, potassium ions shuttle back and forth, not reactive potassium metal. Special binders on the electrode can tame the heat-producing reactions.

Developing the right electrolyte will be key to battery life and safety, says Komaba, of the Tokyo University of Science. Conventional electrolytes contain flammable solvents that, when combined with potassium’s reactivity, could be dangerous. Selecting the right solvents, potassium salts, salt concentration, and additives can prevent fires.

Komaba’s group has made electrolytes using potassium-fluoride salts, superconcentrated electrolytes that have fewer solvents than traditional mixes, and ionic liquid electrolytes that don’t use solvents. In January, materials scientist Zaiping Guo and her team from the University of Wollongong, Australia, reported a nonflammable electrolyte for potassium batteries. They added a flame retardant to the solvent.

Potassium enthusiasts point out that the technology is still at an early stage. It’s never going to match the high energy density of lithium, or be suitable for electric cars. Yet for immense grid batteries, cheap potassium might have an upper hand. “Potassium-ion [batteries] could have worked earlier, but there was no need for [them],” says Pol. “Lithium isn’t enough now.”

In the end, the sum will have to be as good as its parts. Most research has focused on the materials that go into the electrodes and the electrolyte. Put it all together in a battery cell and the energy density drops after just 100 charging cycles or so; practical batteries will need to withstand several hundred.

“It will take time to figure out the exact combination of electrolyte, cathode, and anode,” Pol says. “It might take another 15 years from now to get to the market.”

This article appears in the March 2020 print issue as “Potassium Batteries Show Promise.”

Puerto Rico Goes Dark (Again) as Earthquakes Rattle Island

Post Syndicated from Maria Gallucci original https://spectrum.ieee.org/energywise/energy/environment/puerto-rico-earthquake-power-outages-prepa-news

A series of earthquakes left Puerto Rico in the dark this week as power outages swept nearly the entire island. About 80 percent of utility customers had power restored by Friday afternoon, yet authorities warned it could take weeks to stabilize the overall system. 

A 6.4-magnitude earthquake rocked the U.S. territory on 7 January following days of seismic activity. Temblors and aftershocks leveled buildings, split streets, and severely damaged the island’s largest power plant, Costa Sur. The blackouts hit a system still reeling from 2017’s Hurricane Maria—which knocked out the entire grid and required $3.2 billion in repairs.

U.S. Consumers Might Get Their First Taste of Transgenic Salmon This Year

Post Syndicated from Amy Nordrum original https://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/environment/us-consumers-might-get-their-first-taste-of-transgenic-salmon-this-year

graphic link to special report landing page

Inside a row of nondescript buildings in the small town of Albany, in northeast Indiana—approximately 1,000 kilometers from the nearest coast—Atlantic salmon are sloshing around in fiberglass tanks.

Only in the past five years has it become possible to raise thousands of healthy fish so far from the shoreline without contaminating millions of gallons of fresh water. A technology called recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) now allows indoor aquaculture farms to recycle up to 99 percent of the water they use. And the newest generation of these systems will help one biotech company bring its unusual fish to U.S. customers for the first time this year.

For AquaBounty Technologies, which owns and operates the Indiana facility, this technology couldn’t have come at a better time. The company has for decades tried to introduce a transgenic salmon it sells under the brand name AquAdvantage to the U.S. market. In this quest, AquaBounty has lost between US $100 million and $115 million (so far).

In June, the company will harvest its first salmon raised in the United States and intended for sale there. Thanks to modifications that involved splicing genetic material into its salmon from two other species of fish, these salmon grow twice as fast and need 25 percent less food to reach the same weight as salmon raised on other fish farms.

Since AquAdvantage salmon are genetically modified, the company has taken special precautions to reduce the odds that these fish could reproduce in the wild. Raising all the salmon indoors, far away from wild populations, is key to that equation. And that strategy wouldn’t be possible without modern recirculating systems.

But it’s not yet clear whether U.S. consumers will buy AquaBounty’s salmon, or even if stores will sell it. Already Costco, Target, Trader Joe’s, Walmart, Whole Foods, and roughly 80 other North American grocery store chains have said they don’t plan to carry it. As of December, AquaBounty was unable to name any restaurants or stores where customers would be able to buy its salmon.

A 2018 report by Diamond Equity Research, paid for by AquaBounty, estimated potential annual sales of $10 million in the United States. Meanwhile, sales in Canada—where AquAdvantage salmon has been sold since 2017—brought in just $140,371 in the first nine months of 2019.

In late October, the biotech firm Intrexon Corp., which held 38.1 percent of AquaBounty’s shares, sold its entire stake to Virginia-based TS AquaCulture for $21.6 million. Both firms are owned by billionaire biotech investor Randal Kirk.

Eric Hallerman, a fisheries scientist at Virginia Tech who served on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration panel that reviewed AquAdvantage salmon, thinks it deserves a place on the table. “People want to eat more meat. We have to do it efficiently,” Hallerman says. “So, I think this has to be part of that.”

The first generation of recirculating systems, which rolled out in the 1980s and 1990s, largely failed. The filters involved couldn’t remove enough waste to maintain water quality at the indoor aquaculture farms that installed them. “Few [of these systems], if any, are still around,” says Brian Vinci, director of the Freshwater Institute, a program sponsored by a nonprofit called the Conservation Fund that has developed recirculation technology. “The ones that [still exist] grow tilapia—a very hardy species that’s able to handle ‘just okay’ water quality.”

Since then, scientists and engineers at the Freshwater Institute, Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and companies including Veolia have improved the technology for the next generation of systems—such as the one installed at AquaBounty’s Indiana facility.

These systems use a series of mechanical and biological filters to remove solid waste, ammonia, and carbon dioxide—all produced by the fish—from the water used on the farm. Sensors monitor temperature, pH, and water levels in every tank and track the oxygen content of the water, which must be replenished before it cycles back through. Alarms alert staff to potential problems.

Like all salmon, AquAdvantage fish begin life as fertilized eggs. In AquaBounty’s case, salmon start out at a hatchery on Prince Edward Island, in Canada, where the company keeps a small breeding stock. Technicians there gently massage female fish to extract eggs and prompt males to expel milt, or semen, which the staff mix together to produce fertilized eggs. Aside from the fish used in breeding, all the other salmon the company produces are sterile females, which cannot reproduce with one another or with wild salmon.

When these eggs become “eyed eggs”—so named because two little black eyes suddenly become visible inside each gelatinous orange blob—the eggs are considered stable enough to transport. At this point, they’re moved from the Prince Edward hatchery to AquaBounty’s Indiana farm, where the company had about 150,000 eyed eggs on site in November.

When the eyed eggs arrive, they’re put onto large trays that hold as many as 10,000 at a time. Then they’re placed into one of two incubation units until they hatch (typically within two weeks) and absorb their yolk sac—at which point the fry are said to be “buttoned up.”

The buttoned-up fry then slide into one of 12 small tanks in a nursery, where they begin eating commercial feed (the same kind used on other fish farms) until they weigh about 5 grams. Then they’re transferred into one of 24 tanks—still in the nursery—until they hit 40 to 50 grams.

At that point, the fish are moved from the nursery to a set of “pre–grow out” tanks, which can hold up to 20,000 fish at a time. Once they reach 300 grams, they’re switched over to a set of six tanks where they grow to about 4.5 kilograms.

Right before harvest, the fish must spend about six days being purged in specially-designed tanks that pump in fresh water. Here the fish are rinsed of any compounds that may have built up in the recirculation system and could spoil the salmon’s flavor.

Then, it’s harvest time. Common methods include electrocution or percussive stunning; AquaBounty isn’t yet sure which technique it will use. AquaBounty’s salmon are ready to harvest just 18 months after they hatch. It can take up to three years for wild salmon to reach market weight of 4.5 kg.

AquaBounty’s recirculating system cleans and recycles water and monitors conditions throughout every stage of a salmon’s life. Mechanical filters, such as the Hydrotech drum filters, capture fish waste. Biological filters containing bacteria convert ammonia to nitrite, and then change nitrite into nitrate. Water temperature is kept to between 13 and 15 °C.

One advance developed at Cornell, adopted by the Freshwater Institute and installed at AquaBounty’s facility, is a “self-cleaning” circular fish tank fitted with strategically placed nozzles, which create a whirlpool effect to mechanically separate waste such as uneaten food. “We get the tank to operate like a teacup or coffee cup, so when you swirl the water, the grounds go to the bottom,” Vinci says.

With its recirculating tech, AquaBounty aims to recycle 95 percent of the water used at its Indiana facility. Any water that can’t be recycled will pass through an on-site water treatment plant and then go into wetlands, according to Dave Conley, AquaBounty’s director of communications.

Even with the newest recirculating tech, Vinci at the Freshwater Institute says there’s still room for improvement. “We do use a lot of sensors, and that is one of the weakest parts of the RAS industry, in my opinion,” Vinci says. “I can’t tell you how many different probes we’ve tried.”

He hopes that the machine-vision technology developed by Aquabyte to count sea lice in coastal fish farms will someday be able to recognize individual fish in indoor aquaculture facilities and monitor their health and well-being. Compared with traditional fish farms, AquaBounty’s salmon live in close quarters—there are more than three times as many fish per cubic meter of water at the Indiana facility as there are in traditional fish farms.

Even so, the AquaBounty farm uses no vaccines, antibiotics, or chemical treatments, Conley says. Eyed eggs are disinfected with iodine upon arrival, and technicians clean and disinfect the tanks and incubator trays between each batch (about every three months). Before a fish leaves the nursery, it’s screened for eight different bacterial, parasitic, and viral diseases.

Rosalind Leggatt, a postdoctoral researcher at Fisheries and Oceans Canada who contributed to the agency’s environmental assessment of AquAdvantage salmon, says the development of recirculating technology has dovetailed nicely with AquaBounty’s plans. “The recirculating systems are advancing every six months,” she says. “They might go hand in hand together.”

Now, AquaBounty must try to win over retailers, restaurateurs, and consumers who have plenty of wild-caught and farm-raised salmon from which to choose. AquaBounty plans to produce about 1,200 metric tons of salmon a year. That’s a tiny fraction of the 351,136 metric tons of salmon imported in 2018 to the United States.

To entice customers, AquaBounty is touting the environmental benefits of its salmon. The company’s website even declares it to be “The World’s Most Sustainable Salmon.” The fact that this fish consumes far less feed to reach market weight is part of that story, as is the notion that eating farm-raised salmon preserves wild stocks. Decades of overfishing have landed U.S. wild Atlantic salmon populations on the endangered species list, making it illegal to catch them.

AquaBounty also points out that, for U.S. customers, the carbon emissions generated by the transportation of its salmon will be a fraction (1/25, according to the company) of the emissions produced by transporting Atlantic salmon raised on farms in Norway and Chile to the United States. All wild Atlantic salmon and the vast majority of farm-raised Atlantic salmon consumed in the United States are imported—a condition AquaBounty refers to as the “national salmon deficit.”

However, there’s a smattering of U.S. and Canadian fish farms that raise Atlantic salmon either indoors or along the coasts, and it’s not clear how AquaBounty’s sustainability claims would stack up against these homegrown options—or against wild Alaskan stocks that are sustainably caught, says Bruce Bugbee, a crop physiologist at Utah State University. “The question here is not whether it’s good to eat, and not whether it’s profitable. It’s [whether] they should be using the word ‘sustainable’ on their website.” he says. “And that’s a key question.”

Some North American fish farms even tout their products as not genetically modified—possibly to differentiate themselves from AquaBounty’s offering. Scientific reviews have repeatedly found that genetically modified (GM) crops are as safe to eat as non-GM crops. And reviews by the FDA and Environment and Climate Change Canada concluded that the environmental risks of AquAdvantage salmon were extremely low or negligible thanks to the containment measures that AquaBounty has put in place.

Starting this month, companies that produce bioengineered food—defined as food containing genetic material that does not occur naturally and which could not have resulted from conventional breeding—are required by the United States Department of Agriculture to apply a new label to their products. At press time, AquaBounty could not confirm whether its fish would carry the labels or not.

Undeterred, AquaBounty is already moving forward with its second product—gene-edited tilapia cleared for sale in Argentina. These fish grow faster, consume less food, and produce bigger fillets than conventional tilapia do.

With its progress in Argentina, Canada, and the United States, AquaBounty is finally nearing the end of its protracted push to bring bioengineered fish to consumers. But being first brings no guarantees—and for AquaBounty, it’s time to sink or swim.

This article appears in the January 2020 print issue as “Transgenic Salmon Hits U.S. Shelves.”

IBM Reveals “Staggering” New Battery Tech, Withholds Technical Details

Post Syndicated from Mark Anderson original https://spectrum.ieee.org/energywise/energy/environment/ibm-new-seawater-battery-technology

IBM lifted the veil this week on a new battery for EVs, consumer devices, and electric grid storage that it says could be built from minerals and compounds found in seawater. (By contrast, many present-day batteries must source precious minerals like cobalt from dangerous and exploitative political regimes.) The battery is also touted as being non-flammable and able to recharge 80 percent of its capacity in five minutes.

The battery’s specs are, says Donald Sadoway, MIT professor of materials chemistry, “staggering.” Some details are available in a Dec. 18 blog posted to IBM’s website. Yet, Sadoway adds, lacking any substantive data on the device, he has “no basis with which to be able to confirm or deny” the company’s claims. 

Mix Mountains and Gravity for Long-Term Energy Storage

Post Syndicated from Sandy Ong original https://spectrum.ieee.org/energywise/energy/environment/mix-mountains-and-gravity-for-longterm-energy-storage

A team of European scientists proposes using mountains to build a new type of battery for long-term energy storage.

The intermittent nature of energy sources such as solar and wind has made it difficult to incorporate them into grids, which require a steady power supply. To provide uninterrupted power, grid operators must store extra energy harnessed when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, so that power can be distributed when there’s no sun or wind.

“One of the big challenges of making 100 percent renewable energy a reality is long-term storage,” says Julian Hunt, an engineering scientist at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria.

Lithium-ion batteries currently dominate the energy storage market, but these are better suited for short-term storage, says Hunt, because the charge they hold dissipates over time. To store sufficient energy for months or years would require many batteries, which is too expensive to be a feasible option.

A Retired JPL Engineer’s Journey: From Space Probes to Carbon-Neutral Farming

Post Syndicated from Jay Schmuecker original https://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/environment/a-retired-jpl-engineers-journey-from-space-probes-to-carbonneutral-farming

You could say that farming is in my blood: My grandparents on both sides ran large, prosperous farms in Iowa. One of my fondest childhood memories is of visiting my maternal grandparents’ farm and watching the intricate moving mechanisms of the threshing machine. I guess it’s not surprising that I eventually decided to study mechanical engineering at MIT. I never really considered a career in farming.

Shortly after I graduated in 1957 and took a job with the California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Lab, the Soviets launched Sputnik. I was at the right place at the right time. JPL was soon transferred to the newly formed NASA. And for more than 50 years, I worked with some of the brightest engineers in the world to send unmanned spacecraft—including Mariner, Viking, and Voyager—to all the other planets in the solar system.

But my love of farms and farming never went away, and in 1999, I purchased my paternal grandfather’s 130-hectare (320-acre) property, Pinehurst Farm, which had been out of the family for 55 years. I wasn’t exactly sure what I’d do with the place, but by the time I retired in 2007, there was more and more talk about climate change due to human-caused carbon emissions. I knew that agriculture has a large carbon footprint, and I wondered if there was a way to make farming more sustainable. After all, the most recent numbers are alarming: The World Meteorological Organization reports that the planet is on course for a rise in temperature of 3 to 5 °C by 2100. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that agriculture and forestry accounted for almost 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in 2016. While a significant share of those are livestock emissions (that is, belches and flatulence), much of it comes from burning fuel to grow, harvest, and transport food, as well as fertilizer production.

I recalled a conversation I’d had with my dad and his friend, Roy McAlister, right after I acquired the farm. Roy was the president of the American Hydrogen Association, and he owned a hydrogen-powered Nissan pickup truck. Both men were vocal advocates for replacing fossil fuels with hydrogen to reduce the United States’ dependence on oil imports. The same transition would also have a big impact on carbon emissions.

And so, in 2008, I decided to create a solar-hydrogen system for Pinehurst Farm as a memorial to my father. I’d use solar power to run the equipment that would generate fuel for a hydrogen-burning tractor. Several years into the project, I decided to also make ammonia (nitrogen trihydride, or NH3) to use as tractor fuel and crop fertilizer.

My aim is to make the public—especially farmers—aware that we will need to develop such alternative fuels and fertilizers as fossil fuels become depleted and more expensive, and as climate change worsens. Developing local manufacturing processes to generate carbon-free fuel and fertilizer and powering those processes with renewable energy sources like solar and wind will eliminate farmers’ reliance on fossil fuels. And doing this all locally will remove much of the cost of transporting large amounts of fuel and fertilizers as well. At our demonstration project at Pinehurst, my colleague David Toyne, an engineer based in Tujunga, Calif., and I have shown that sustainable farming is possible. But much like designing spacecraft, the effort has taken a little longer and presented many more challenges than we initially expected.

The system that we now have in place includes several main components: a retrofitted tractor that can use either hydrogen or ammonia as fuel; generators to create pure hydrogen and pure nitrogen, plus a reactor to combine the two into ammonia; tanks to store the various gases; and a grid-tied solar array to power the equipment. When I started, there were no other solar-hydrogen farms on which I could model my farm, so every aspect had to be painstakingly engineered from scratch, with plenty of revisions, mishaps, and discoveries along the way.

The work began in earnest in 2009. Before actually starting to build anything, I crunched the numbers to see what would be needed to pull off the project. I found that a 112-kilowatt (150-horsepower) tractor burns about 47 liters per hectare (5 gallons per acre) if you’re raising corn and about two-thirds that amount for soybeans. The same area would require 5 kilograms of hydrogen fuel. That meant we needed roughly 1,400 kg of hydrogen to fuel the tractor and other farm vehicles from planting to harvest. Dennis Crow, who farms the Pinehurst land, told me about half the fuel would go toward spring planting and half for fall harvesting. The growing season in Iowa is about 150 days, so we’d need to make about 4.5 kg of hydrogen per day to have 700 kg of hydrogen for the harvest. Spring planting would be easier—we would have 215 days of the year to make the remaining fuel.

To generate the hydrogen, we would split water into hydrogen and oxygen. By my calculations, running the hydrogen generator and related equipment would require about 80 kW of solar power. I decided to use two-axis solar arrays, which track the sun to boost the collection capacity by 30 percent. Based on the efficiency of commodity photovoltaic panels in 2008, we’d need 30 solar arrays, with each array holding 12 solar panels.

That’s a lot of solar panels to install, operate, and maintain, and a lot of hydrogen to generate and store. I soon realized I could not afford to build a complete operational system. Instead, I focused on creating a demonstration system at one-tenth scale, with three solar arrays instead of 30. While the tractor would be full size, we would make only 10 percent of the hydrogen needed to fuel it. I decided that even a limited demonstration would be a worthwhile proof of concept. Now we had to figure out how to make it happen, starting with the tractor.

As it turns out, I wasn’t the first to think of using hydrogen as a tractor fuel. Back in 1959, machinery manufacturer Allis-Chalmers demonstrated a tractor powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Fifty-two years later, New Holland Agriculture did the same. Unfortunately, neither company produced a commercial model. After some further research, I decided that fuel cells were (and still are) far too expensive. Instead, I would have to buy a regular diesel tractor and convert it to run on hydrogen.

Tom Hurd, an architect in Mason City, Iowa, who specializes in renewable-energy installations, assisted with the farm’s overall design. At his suggestion, I contacted the Hydrogen Engine Center in nearby Algona, Iowa. The company’s specialty was modifying internal combustion engines to burn hydrogen, natural gas, or propane. Ted Hollinger, the center’s president, agreed to provide a hydrogen-fueled engine for the tractor.

Hollinger’s design started with a gasoline-fueled Ford 460 V-8 engine block. He suggested that we include a small propane tank as backup in case the tractor ran out of hydrogen out in the field. Several months later, though, he recommended that we use ammonia instead of propane, to avoid fossil fuels completely. Since the idea was to reduce the farm’s carbon footprint, I liked the ammonia idea.

Scott McMains, who looks after the old cars that I store on the farm, located a used 7810 John Deere tractor as well as a Ford 460 engine. The work of installing the Ford engine into the tractor was done by Russ Hughes, who lives in Monticello, Iowa, and was already restoring my 1947 Buick Roadmaster sedan.

The tractor would need to carry several large, heavy fuel tanks for the hydrogen and ammonia. Bob Bamford, a retired JPL structural-design analyst, took a look at my plans for the fuel tanks’ support structure and redesigned it. In my original design, the support structure was bolted together, but Bamford’s design used welds for increased strength. I had the new and improved design fabricated in California.

The completed tractor was delivered to the farm in late 2014. With the flick of a switch in the cab, our tractor can toggle between burning pure hydrogen and burning a mixture of hydrogen and ammonia gas. Pure ammonia won’t burn in an internal combustion engine; you first need to mix it with about 10 percent hydrogen. The energy content of a gallon of ammonia is about 35 percent that of diesel. The fuel is then mixed with the intake air and injected into the tractor’s computer-controlled, spark-ignited engine cylinders. The tractor can run for 6 hours at full power before it needs to be refueled.

While work on the tractor proceeded, we were also figuring out how to generate the hydrogen and ammonia it would burn.

Ramsey Creek Woodworks of Kalona, Iowa, modified the farm’s old hog shed to house the hydrogen generators, control equipment, and the tractor itself. The company also installed the solar trackers and the solar arrays.

We constructed a smaller building to house the pumps that would compress the hydrogen for high-pressure storage. Hydrogen is of course incredibly flammable. For safety, I designed low slots in the walls on two sides so that air could enter and vent out the top, taking with it any leaked hydrogen.

So how does the system actually produce hydrogen? The generator I purchased, from a Connecticut company called Proton OnSite, creates hydrogen and oxygen by splitting water that we pipe in from an on-site well. It is rated to make 90 grams (3 ounces) of hydrogen per hour. With the amount of sunlight Iowa receives, I can make an average of 450 grams of hydrogen per day. We can make more on a summer day, when we have more daylight, than we can in winter.

The generator was designed to operate continuously. But we’d be relying on solar power, which is intermittent, so David Toyne, who specializes in factory automation and customized systems, worked with Proton to modify it. Now the generator makes less hydrogen on overcast days and enters standby when the solar arrays’ output is too low. At the end of each day, the generator automatically turns off after being on standby for 20 minutes.

Generating ammonia posed some other challenges. I wanted to make the ammonia on-site, so that I could show it was possible for a farm to produce its fuel and fertilizer with no carbon emissions.

A substantial percentage of the world’s population depends on food grown using nitrogen-based fertilizers, including ammonia. It’s hard to beat for boosting crop yields. For example, Adam Sylvester, Pinehurst’s farm manager, told me that if we did not use nitrogen-based fertilizers on our cornfields, the yield would be about 250 bushels per hectare (100 bushels per acre), instead of the 500 bushels we get now. Clearly, the advantages to producing ammonia on location extend beyond just fuel.

But ammonia production also accounts for about 1 percent of all greenhouse emissions, largely from the fossil fuels powering most reactors. And just like hydrogen, ammonia comes with safety concerns. Ammonia is an irritant to the eyes, respiratory tract, mucus membranes, and skin.

Even so, ammonia has been used for years in refrigeration as well as fertilizer. It’s also an attractive carbon-free fuel. A ruptured ammonia tank won’t explode or catch fire as a propane tank will, and the liquid is stored at a much lower pressure than is hydrogen gas (1 megapascal for ammonia versus 70 MPa for hydrogen).

While attending the NH3 Fuel Conference in Sacramento in 2013, I had dinner with Bill Ayres, a director for the NH3 Fuel Association, and we discussed my interest in making ammonia in a self-contained system. Ayres pointed me to Doug Carpenter, who had developed a way to make ammonia on a small scale—provided you already have the hydrogen. Which I did. Carpenter delivered the reactor in 2016, several months before his untimely passing.

We turned again to Ramsey Creek to construct the ammonia-generation building. The 9-square-meter building, similar in design to the hydrogen shed, houses the pumps, valves, controls, ammonia reactor, collector tanks, and 10 high-pressure storage tanks. We make nitrogen by flowing compressed air through a nitrogen generator and removing the atmospheric oxygen. Before entering the reactor, the hydrogen and nitrogen are compressed to 24 MPa (3,500 pounds per square inch).

It’s been a process of trial and error to get the system right. When we first started making ammonia, we found it took too long for the reactor’s preheater to heat the hydrogen and nitrogen, so we added electrical band heaters around the outside of the unit. Unfortunately, the additional heat weakened the outer steel shell, and the next time we attempted to make ammonia, the outer shell split open. The mixed gases, which were under pressure at 24 MPa, caught fire. Toyne was in the equipment room at the time and noticed the pressure dropping. He made it out to the ammonia building in time to take pictures of the flames. After a few minutes, the gas had all vented through the top of the building. Luckily, only the reactor was damaged, and no one was hurt.

After that incident, we redesigned the ammonia reactor to add internal electrical heaters, which warm the apparatus before the gases are introduced. We also insulated the outer pressure shell from the heated inside components. Once started, the reaction forming the ammonia needs no additional heat.

Our ammonia system, like our hydrogen and nitrogen systems, is hooked up to the solar panels, so we cannot run it round the clock. Also, because of the limited amount of solar power we have, we can make either hydrogen or nitrogen on any given day. Once we have enough of both, we can produce a batch of ammonia. At first, we had difficulty producing nitrogen pure enough for ammonia production, but we solved that problem by mixing in a bit of hydrogen. The hydrogen bonds with the oxygen to create water vapor, which is far easier to remove than atmospheric oxygen.

We’ve estimated that our system uses a total of 14 kilowatt-hours to make a liter of ammonia, which contains 3.8 kWh of energy. This may seem inefficient, but it’s comparable to the amount of usable energy we could get from a diesel-powered tractor. About two-thirds of the electrical energy is used to make the hydrogen, one-quarter is used to make the nitrogen, and the remainder is for the ammonia.

Each batch of ammonia is about 38 liters (10 gallons). It takes 10 batches to make enough ammonia to fertilize 1.2 hectares of the farm’s nearly 61 hectares (3 of 150 acres) of corn. Thankfully, we can use the same ammonia for either application—it has to be liquid regardless of whether we’re using it for fertilizer or fuel.

We now have the basis of an on-site carbon-emission-free system for fueling a tractor and generating fertilizer, but there’s still plenty to improve. The solar arrays were sized to generate only hydrogen. We need additional solar panels or perhaps wind turbines to make more hydrogen, nitrogen, and ammonia. In order to make these improvements, we’ve created the Schmuecker Renewable Energy System, a nonprofit organization that accepts donations.

Toyne compares our system to the Wright brothers’ airplane: It is the initial demonstration of what is possible. Hydrogen and ammonia fuels will become more viable as the equipment costs decrease and more people gain experience working with them. I’ve spent more than US $2 million of my retirement savings on the effort. But much of the expense was due to the custom nature of the work: We estimate that to replicate the farm’s current setup would cost a third to half as much and would be more efficient with today’s improved equipment.

We’ve gotten a lot of interest about what we’ve installed so far. Our tractor has drawn attention from other farmers in Iowa. We’ve received inquiries from Europe, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and Australia about making ammonia with no carbon emissions. In May 2018, we were showing our system to two employees of the U.S. Department of Energy, and they were so intrigued they invited us to present at an Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E) program on renewable, carbon-free energy generation that July.

Humankind needs to develop renewable, carbon-emission-free systems like the one we’ve demonstrated. If we do not harness other energy sources to address climate change and replace fossil fuels, future farmers will find it harder and harder to feed everyone. Our warming world will become one in which famine is an everyday occurrence.

This article appears in the November 2019 print issue as “The Carbon-Free Farm.”

About the Author

Jay Schmuecker worked for more than 50 years building planetary spacecraft at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Since retiring, he has been developing a solar-powered hydrogen fueling and fertilization system at Pinehurst Farm in eastern Iowa.

The Ultimate Optimization Problem: How to Best Use Every Square Meter of the Earth’s Surface

Post Syndicated from Eliza Strickland original https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/energy/environment/the-ultimate-optimization-problem-how-to-best-use-every-square-meter-of-the-earths-surface

Lucas Joppa thinks big. Even while gazing down into his cup of tea in his modest office on Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, Washington, he seems to see the entire planet bobbing in there like a spherical tea bag. 

As Microsoft’s first chief environmental officer, Joppa came up with the company’s AI for Earth program, a five-year effort that’s spending US $50 million on AI-powered solutions to global environmental challenges.

The program is not just about specific deliverables, though. It’s also about mindset, Joppa told IEEE Spectrum in an interview in July. “It’s a plea for people to think about the Earth in the same way they think about the technologies they’re developing,” he says. “You start with an objective. So what’s our objective function for Earth?” (In computer science, an objective function describes the parameter or parameters you are trying to maximize or minimize for optimal results.)

AI for Earth launched in December 2017, and Joppa’s team has since given grants to more than 400 organizations around the world. In addition to receiving funding, some grantees get help from Microsoft’s data scientists and access to the company’s computing resources. 

In a wide-ranging interview about the program, Joppa described his vision of the “ultimate optimization problem”—figuring out which parts of the planet should be used for farming, cities, wilderness reserves, energy production, and so on. 

Every square meter of land and water on Earth has an infinite number of possible utility functions. It’s the job of Homo sapiens to describe our overall objective for the Earth. Then it’s the job of computers to produce optimization results that are aligned with the human-defined objective.

I don’t think we’re close at all to being able to do this. I think we’re closer from a technology perspective—being able to run the model—than we are from a social perspective—being able to make decisions about what the objective should be. What do we want to do with the Earth’s surface?

Heat Pumps Could Shrink the Carbon Footprint of Buildings

Post Syndicated from Prachi Patel original https://spectrum.ieee.org/energywise/energy/environment/heat-pumps-could-shrink-the-carbon-footprint-of-buildings

Buildings use more than one-third of the world’s energy, most of it for heating spaces and water. Most of this heat is generated by burning natural gas, oil, or propane. And where these fossil fuels are consumed, greenhouse gas emissions are a given.

Electric heat pumps, first widely used in the 1970s in Europe, could be the best solution to cut that fossil fuel use. They could slash the carbon emissions of buildings by half. And if powered by renewables, emissions can potentially go down to zero.

Cutting carbon emissions from heating and cooling will be critical to keep global average temperatures from rising by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. Already, anthropogenic climate change has caused average global temperatures to rise by approximately 1 degree C, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. At the United Nations Climate Action Summit next week in New York, world leaders will discuss concrete steps to meet climate targets.

Green Data: The Next Step to Zero-Emissions Data Centers

Post Syndicated from Mark Anderson original https://spectrum.ieee.org/energywise/energy/environment/green-data-the-next-step-to-zeroemissions-data-centers

Data centers consume just two to three percent of the planet’s total electricity usage. So reducing data centers’ climate footprint may not seem, at first blush, to be a high priority as world leaders gather in New York next week to consider practical climate change solutions at the UN Climate Action Summit.

However there are at least two reasons why data centers will likely play a key role in any attempt to curb global emissions. First, as cloud computing becomes more energy-efficient and increasingly relies on renewable sources, other sectors such as manufacturing, transportation, and buildings could turn to green data centers to reduce their own emissions. For example—a car manufacturer might outsource all of its in-house computing to zero-emission data centers.

Even without such partnerships, though, data centers will likely play an important part in the climate’s future. The rise of AI, machine learning, big data, and the Internet of Things mean that data centers’ global electricity consumption will continue to increase. By one estimate, consumption could jump to as much as 13 percent of the world’s total electricity demand by 2030.

For these reasons, says Johan Falk, senior innovation fellow at the Stockholm Resilience Center in Sweden, data centers will have outsized importance in climate change mitigation efforts. And the more progress society makes in the near term, the sooner the benefits will begin to multiply.