Becoming more than an old gasbag: Climate chemistry on YouTube, cryogenic energy storage, and community renewable energy

All gas and bulls**t. That’s me – or so some of my critics think. And this time they’re right, although not in the way they think they are.

Over recent months I’ve been delighted to work with the enormously talented Adam Levy, better known as ClimateAdam, on a couple of videos. They deal with just why greenhouse gases trap energy in the atmosphere, a subject that has come up when I’m discussing climate with friends. It’s hard to understand how gases that are present in the atmosphere in such tiny amounts compared to oxygen and nitrogen can be so powerful. But it’s all to do with molecules absorbing light energy in a way that makes their atoms vibrate, which is also how substances get their colours.

I know this because it came up in my first year undergraduate chemistry course at the University of Southampton. My amazing lecturer, Martin Grossel, demonstrated the principles by standing on a stool with balloons in each hand, representing atoms. He then wiggled his arms to represent the vibrations in question. This is the kind of thing that just doesn’t come across in writing. So when I bumped into Adam at the Association of British Science Writers’ annual award ceremony last year, I suggested he put something like this into some of his videos. He then used the opportunity to apply for some science communication funding from the Royal Society of Chemistry. Having secured that cash, through the course of 2018 we’ve been working together on the script, and here are the final products:

These videos also show why carbon emissions are not the same as carbon dioxide emissions – the difference is two oxygen atoms – a common confusion that jangles my chemical sensibility. Apologies in advance if I ever annoyingly pull you up on this.

That’s the gas, but it’s definitely not the bulls**t. That comes in an article I recently had published on Physics World that talks about the exciting prospects for gases in energy storage. Cryogenically cooling and condensing gases – such as the air around us – when renewable energy is abundant is a potential means for storage. What’s more, you can use the cooling for refrigeration, and the liquid gases are portable.

But the bulls**t is what excites me the most. As our second video above shows, methane is a potent greenhouse gas and its emissions from farming – including from cows belching and pooing – are hard to reduce. So one of the companies I wrote about is looking to store the manure, collect the methane and cryogenically store it. Then,  farmers can burn it when energy is needed and feed electricity into the grid, displacing natural gas, for example. But like the other gases, the liquid methane is portable and could be used to run trucks that currently use diesel, and eliminate the horrible pollution that brings. Or it could be used to supply the many people in rural areas that – surprisingly to many urbanites – have no access to the gas grid.

It’s been months and months since I last posted here, but I hope that some of you have been following my climate writings elsewhere. I’ve used the time I used to put into blogging for lots of other things, including becoming a director of Exeter Community Energy this year, supporting renewable electricity generation and energy efficiency.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the climate issue is more pressing than ever. I’ve valued how Simple Climate enabled me to see how true that is. But having learned more about science writing, I appreciate that those reading this are mostly going to be those who likewise care about the climate. You guys know this stuff is important already – and so I’ve mainly decided it’s time to stop faffing around with blog posts and go do something practical. If you feel the same way, seeking out your local community renewable energy group is one excellent way to make a difference.

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How does carbon dioxide cause global warming?

Some important basic science that explains how just a few hundred molecules of CO2 among every million molecules in the atmosphere can have a powerful warming effect.

A tang of science

Every sixth grader today knows that carbon dioxide causes global warming. Or at least every sixth grader outside the United States knows this. But why is carbon dioxide a green house gas? I tried to answer this question with the help of an infographic (see above).

From a chemical point of view, heat is motion of molecules and atoms. The more movement is happening on a molecular level, the more heat we feel on a human level (also called macroscopic level). Carbon dioxide is a molecule that is very good at this kind of movement, you could say it is a very athletic molecule. All molecules and atoms in any gas are able to move in all directions in space, but carbon dioxide can even carry out certain movements inside the molecule. These movements are called vibrations. Carbon dioxide can carry out three different vibrations, the symmetric stretch, the asymmetric…

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Australian rodent first mammalian victim of climate change

Good Night Earth

Bramble-cay-melomy

Tucked away on a small island off the coast of Queensland, Australia, the rat-like animal would have stared up at you with dark, beady eyes from the safety of some scattered shrubs.  No more than 15 centimeters long, the rodent would have been covered with light red fur, its tiny ears tucked tightly against its head, its pale underbelly barely visible.  You would have probably noticed the odd tail, as long as its body and lumpy with scales.

You may have seen this mosaic-tailed rat, melomys rubicola, had you traveled once upon a time to Bramble Cay, a small island built upon a the Great Barrier Reef.  But no longer.  After a fairly exhaustive search using traps, cameras, and searches on foot, Australian scientists have pronounced with confidence that the melomys is likely extinct [1].  The probable cause?  Evidence suggests dramatic weather conditions in the region combined with rising sea levels due to…

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Modern mussel shells much thinner than 50 years ago

The increasing vulnerabilities is another striking impact of our CO2 emissions. Anyone who likes moules frites would be well advised to push for action to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels to keep them on the menu.

Science Life

Mussel cross-section Cross section of a mussel shell showing thickness. The holes show were samples were drilled to analyze its composition.

Shells from the Pacific Northwest are nearly a third thinner now than specimens collected in the 1970s

As humans burn fossils fuels, the oceans absorb a large portion of the additional carbon released into the atmosphere. This in turn causes pH levels of ocean water to drop, making it more acidic. Mussels, oysters, and certain species of algae have difficulty producing their calcium carbonate shells and skeletons in such an environment, and can provide an early indicator of how increasing ocean acidification affects marine life.

A new study by University of Chicago biologists shows how those effects are coming to pass. They compared shells of California mussels collected from the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Washington in the 1970s to modern specimens, and saw that the older shells are on…

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A very beautiful and unusual animal in danger

The sad effects of our burning of fossil fuels are already hitting home

Good Night Earth

Amazing_Great_Barrier_Reef_1

“We are tied to the ocean.  And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch – we are going back from whence we came.” — John F. Kennedy

Coral reefs across the world could vanish within this century.  This is a warning from scientists, not attention-seeking alarmists.  This is a warning from men and women who spend their lives diving along the 2300-km Great Barrier Reef, who know the reef-supported marine communities like beekeepers might know their hives.  In the words of Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, “this is not in the future, it’s happening right now.”

On a day when we celebrate Earth’s suppleness, its diversity, its numerous gifts wrapped in blue and green, as one of its stewards we must also face the threats to its stability that were created by us and can…

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Eyes on Environment: the many stories of climate change

An interesting close-up on some of the many threads of climate change impacts that weave together to make the case for action.

Good Night Earth

Over 40,000 delegates from 195 countries meet in Paris this week to legally commit to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prevent global temperature increases above 2 degrees Celsius. Although the prevention of 2 degree warming may not be possible, such emissions reduction agreements are a crucial step to stop global warming above 3-5 degrees that could lead to massive displacement of coastal populations, droughts, and severe natural disasters. In the words of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, this meeting is both a “test” and a “great opportunity” for all nations to work together towards a globally unifying goal.

In honor of these talks, I hope to emphasize a few stories about how climate change impacts lives around the world and how each of us can contribute to the cause of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. From global leaders to individual citizens of the world, we all play a role.

1)…

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Equity or inertia: how emissions sharing philosophies shape climate policy success

Some timely research in advance of the key upcoming climate talks

Good Night Earth

What is the best way for the global community to set greenhouse gas emission goals to stave off global temperature increases over the dreaded 2 degrees Celsius? This question framed the heart of negotiations between 190 countries during a UN-sponsored meeting in Lima earlier this year.1 As a result, countries agreed to create ‘fair and ambitious’ post-2020 emission standards tailored to each country’s economic, environmental, and social circumstances.

Next, countries will declare their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) at the Paris Climate Conference next month. Each INDC is a national pledge made by a country to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a certain amount by a particular date, with the entirety of INDCs summed to meet UN reduction goals. The expectations for the conference are high: the declared goals will set the stage for post-2020 reductions and dictate the course of human civilization’s combat against global warming.

This…

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