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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Will anyone follow this route to low emission, low cost farming?

Ammonia fertiliser plays a crucial role in producing the food we need. Image credit: Allen (roadsidepictures) used via Flickr Creative Commons licence.

Ammonia fertiliser plays a crucial role in producing the food we need. Image credit: Allen (roadsidepictures) used via Flickr Creative Commons licence.

Can we make sure we make the most of the promising ideas people come up with to restrain and adapt to the changes we’re making to the climate? I’ve been considering this question thanks to a recent invention seeking to help cut increasing greenhouse gas emissions that arise from feeding the world’s growing population. Stuart Licht’s team at George Washington University in Washington, DC, has worked out how to make a key component of fertiliser – ammonia – that could eliminate emissions and minimise cost. In fact it’s an extension of a method that Stuart told me can also produce zero carbon cement, iron, bleach, magnesium, and capture CO2 directly from the atmosphere. So when will we see this amazing approach in use? I can’t tell you that – because Stuart has no plans to commercialise it.

I became aware of the new ammonia production system when Chemistry World asked me to cover it for them. Ammonia is a simple molecule, comprising only two elements, hydrogen and nitrogen. Humans have been using it in fertiliser since at least the early 19th century, when it was mined, both in mineral form and as bird guano, for delivery to farmers. That was necessary because although nitrogen is hugely abundant – it makes up four-fifths of Earth’s atmosphere – it’s equally as unreactive. Chemists often replace the air above the reactions in their flasks with pure nitrogen when they’re worried that oxygen will affect their results. That stability meant synthetic ammonia was at first elusive.

But in the early 20th century Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch found a way to overcome nitrogen’s reluctance to react. They could take nitrogen from the air, and bring it together with hydrogen gas in the presence of an osmium catalyst at very high pressures and temperatures. During the First World War ammonia’s other main application – as a basis for explosives – saw that ramped up to industrial scale. The Haber-Bosch process has provided fertilisers that have been crucial in feeding Earth’s growing population since then. But it comes with a downside: it requires huge amounts of energy – 2% of the entire world’s consumption – whose generation usually releases the greenhouse gas CO2. Read the rest of this entry »

Information Aversion

People will actually pay to avoid learning unpleasant facts: is this linked to why some people reject global warming? John Baez thinks so.

Azimuth

Why do ostriches stick their heads under the sand when they’re scared?

They don’t. So why do people say they do? A Roman named Pliny the Elder might be partially to blame. He wrote that ostriches “imagine, when they have thrust their head and neck into a bush, that the whole of their body is concealed.”

That would be silly—birds aren’t that dumb. But people will actually pay to avoid learning unpleasant facts. It seems irrational to avoid information that could be useful. But people do it. It’s called information aversion.

Here’s a new experiment on information aversion:

In order to gauge how information aversion affects health care, one group of researchers decided to look at how college students react to being tested for a sexually transmitted disease.

That’s a subject a lot of students worry about, according to Josh Tasoff, an economist at Claremont Graduate University who…

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Temperatures make our global warming opinions change like the weather

The 2010 blizzards in the northeastern US they called the 'Snowpocalypse' buried this Maryland street, drove senators to deride the idea of global warming, and Columbia University researchers to look at how temperature influences our outlook on climate change. Image credit: BKL, used via Flickr Creative Commons license.

The 2010 blizzards in the northeastern US they called the ‘Snowpocalypse’ buried this Maryland street, drove senators to deride the idea of global warming, and Columbia University researchers to look at how temperature influences our outlook on climate change. Image credit: BKL, used via Flickr Creative Commons license.

On June 23, 1988, record 38°C temperatures in Washington DC provided a persuasive backdrop for NASA’s Jim Hansen to force the greenhouse effect into our consciousness. At least one of the senators hearing his landmark congressional testimony was well aware that the heat would help sear the message into people’s minds. Tim Wirth has since admitted turning off the air conditioning and opening the windows the night before, so Jim’s sweat would be obvious for the TV cameras.

That baking hearing likely played on how we think in a way psychologists had just started to untangle in the previous decade. That is, how we judge things is often dominated by a simple sense of our personal experience, rather than a deeper analysis of evidence available to us. “Numerical judgments are hard, so we grasp at whatever more tangible we can find,” Elke Weber, from Columbia University in New York, explained.

Identifying this tendency to answer an easier question, known as substitution, helped psychologist Daniel Kahneman win a Nobel Prize for Economics. And when it comes to our opinion on climate change, recent temperatures are especially important, Elke and her colleagues have shown over the last three years.

In 2010, a rather different extreme in the US capital drew Elke’s husband Eric Johnson to study this effect. Then, two massive snowstorms struck in one week in February, an event that was dubbed the ‘Snowpocalypse’, leading senators to deride the possibility of climate change. His team therefore looked at whether local weather information gets falsely substituted for global climate in three studies in the US and Australia.

Across three studies they asked people their opinions on global warming and whether the temperature on the day of the study was warmer or cooler than normal. Those who thought that day was warmer than usual believed more in and had greater concern about global warming than people who thought that day was colder than usual. They would also donate more money to a global-warming charity if they thought that day seemed warmer than usual. Read the rest of this entry »

Who can afford to hold back rising seas?

UK Prime Minister David Cameron visiting Dawlish a week after the storms that demolished the sea wall that supported the train line. Image copyright Number 10, used via Flickr Creative Commons license.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron visiting Dawlish a week after the storms that demolished the sea wall that supported the train line. Image copyright Number 10, used via Flickr Creative Commons license.

Taking the train along the Devon, UK, coast earlier this week I was hypnotised by the lapping waves I saw through the window, and their concealed power. On such a sunny day, the rail journey through Dawlish is perhaps the most beautiful I’ve been on. But in February its ocean-hugging route became its downfall, when storms demolished the sea wall it rests on. Now, thanks to 300 fluorescent-jacket clad workers who performed £35 million worth of repairs, the dangling tracks I saw on TV news are a fading memory. It’s an impressive achievement, but could we afford it if – due to climate change, for example – such ‘orange armies’ had to do battle more often?

The significance of that question was emphasised by Chris Field from Stanford University in California, when I saw him talk recently. Highlighting that all parts of the world are vulnerable to climate change, Chris showed the below image of New York City in 2011, during Hurricane Sandy. “The existing climate created a situation that caused over $50 billion in economic damage for a region of the world that had a vast amount of economic resources and had a response plan in place,” he underlined. “It just wasn’t a plan that was up to the challenges that they faced.” If climate change causes more $50 billion-damage events, can we afford that?

If New York can be taken unaware by Hurricane Sandy, what happens elsewhere, when sea level's higher? Image credit: Chris Field/IPCC

If New York can be taken unaware by Hurricane Sandy, what happens elsewhere, when sea level’s higher? Image credit: Chris Field/IPCC

Just before the ocean crippled the south-west UK’s rail services, Jochen Hinkel from the Global Climate Forum in Berlin, Germany, and his team were answering a similar question. In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA in February, Jochen looked at coastal flood damages from projected sea level rise. When I therefore asked him about his work, he was quick to put climate change-driven sea level rise’s role in Hurricane Sandy and this year’s UK storms into context. Read the rest of this entry »

Shrinking dairy’s carbon hoofprint

After 10,500 years of farming them, does climate change mean we humans must limit our reliance on cows, or just change how we treat them? Image copyright fishhawk, used via Flickr Creative Commons licence.

After 10,500 years of farming them, does climate change mean we humans must limit our reliance on cows, or just change how we treat them? Image copyright fishhawk, used via Flickr Creative Commons licence.

Whenever I come across cows here in the southwest of the UK, usually placidly munching on a mouthful of grass, they always seem too lovable to be villains. But as we face growing twin challenges of feeding the world and fighting climate change, they’re increasingly getting a bad reputation.

Some scientists highlight reducing how much beef we eat, in particular, as an important step towards future sustainability. They say only about three or four parts in 100 of the energy in livestock feed becomes our food, while the rest is lost as manure, heat, digestive gases and slaughter by-products. Switching to more intensively farmed chicken or pork and plant-based food would be more efficient, the argument goes. It also gives a greater chance to trap carbon from waste material, which might otherwise become planet-warming greenhouse gases, as biochar that can help improve soil fertility.

A couple of years back I put this to Peter and Henri Greig who run my favourite local butchers, Pipers Farm. As they showed us round their farm Peter explained how their Red Ruby cattle can graze Devon moorland that can’t be used for crops, before moving on to pasture. While I still don’t eat a lot of beef for both environmental and health reasons, that seems a good reason for not demonising cows entirely. In fact, a paper in the June 2014 issue of the Journal of Dairy Science highlights previous research that found more grazing land exists, unusable for human food, than cropping land.

We can’t ignore what that promises for feeding the world in the future, but we can’t ignore cows’ greenhouse gas emissions either. However, rather than beef cattle, the new paper’s authors focussed on reducing levels of the potent greenhouse gas methane coming out of the digestive systems of dairy cattle. Joanne Knapp, a consultant who has researched nutrition in ruminant animals like cattle, told me her team’s interest comes in part thanks to its backers: Innovation Center for US Dairy.

Read the rest of this entry »

Unique and unnatural: modern warming from an historical viewpoint

A Roman altar with the Sun in its chariot on the left, and Vulcan, the god of fire and volcanoes on the right. The climate gods long favoured the Roman Empire, with wobbles in Earth's orbit credited for increasing the amount of solar energy falling on Earth at the time. Image copyright: Nick Thompson, used via Flickr Creative Commons License.

A Roman altar with the Sun in its chariot on the left, and Vulcan, the god of fire and volcanoes on the right. The climate gods long favoured the Roman Empire, with Earth’s orbital dance credited for increasing the amount of solar energy falling on Earth at the time. Image copyright: Nick Thompson, used via Flickr Creative Commons License.

Our climate has changed before. It’s something most of us realise and can agree on and, according to Skeptical Science, it’s currently the most used argument against human-caused warming. If such changes have happened naturally before, the argument goes, then surely today’s warming must also be natural. It’s an appealing idea, with an instinctively ‘right’ feel. Nature is so huge compared to us puny humans, how can we alter its course? The warming we’re measuring today must just be a natural fluctuation.

It’s such an appealing argument that at the beginning of the 20th century that’s just what many scientists thought – that humans couldn’t alter Earth’s climate. In the time since, our knowledge has come a long way. We’ve explored space, become able to build the electronics that are letting you read this, and climate science has likewise advanced and benefited from these advances.

So what do we know today that might convince the sceptical scientists of 115 years ago that we’re warming the planet? Recently, Richard Mallett, one of my Twitter friends who describes himself as sceptical about mainstream climate science, made a point that serves as an excellent test of our current knowledge:

Of the historical warmings he’s referring to, perhaps the least familiar is the Holocene, which is ironic, as the Holocene is now. It’s the current period of geological time that started at the end of the last ice age, 11,700 years ago. By 1900 scientists would have known the term, but they couldn’t explain why it wasn’t as icey as before.

Three variables of the Earth’s orbit—eccentricity, obliquity, and precession—affect global climate. Changes in eccentricity (the amount the orbit diverges from a perfect circle) vary the distance of Earth from the Sun. Changes in obliquity (tilt of Earth’s axis) vary the strength of the seasons. Precession (wobble in Earth’s axis) varies the timing of the seasons. For more complete descriptions, read Milutin Milankovitch: Orbital Variations Image credit: NASA/Robert Simmon.

Three variables of the Earth’s orbit—eccentricity, obliquity, and precession—affect global climate. Changes in eccentricity (the amount the orbit diverges from a perfect circle) vary the distance of Earth from the Sun. Changes in obliquity (tilt of Earth’s axis) vary the strength of the seasons. Precession (wobble in Earth’s axis) varies the timing of the seasons. For more complete descriptions, read Milutin Milankovitch: Orbital Variations. Image credit: NASA/Robert Simmon.

The explanation we have today comes thanks to the calculations Milutin Milanković worked out by hand between 1909 and 1941. Milutin showed that thanks to the gravitational pull of the Moon, Jupiter and Saturn, Earth’s orbit around the Sun varies in three ways. Over a cycle of roughly 96,000 years our path varies between more circular and more oval shapes. The other two ways come because Earth’s poles are slightly tilted relative to the Sun’s axis, which is why we have seasons. The angle of that tilt shifts over a roughly 41,000 year cycle. Earth also revolves around that tilted axis, like a spinning top does when it slows down, every 23,000 years.

Together these three cycles change how much of the Sun’s energy falls on and warms the Earth, in regular repeating patterns. Though that idea would be the subject of much controversy, by the 1960s data measured from cylinders of ancient ice and mud would resolve any doubt. The slow descent into ice ages and more abrupt warmings out of them – like the one that ushered in the Holocene – come from Earth’s shimmies in space. Read the rest of this entry »