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 »

Renewable energy beats ‘clean coal’ on cost in Australia

A part of the extension of the Snowtown Wind Farm in South Australia that added 90 new 3 megawatt turbines. In South Australia wind farms contribute 27% of annual electricity, notes University of New South Wales' Mark Diesendorf. Photo by David Clarke, used via Flickr Creative Commons license.

A part of the extension of the Snowtown Wind Farm in South Australia that added 90 new 3 megawatt turbines. In South Australia wind farms contribute 27% of annual electricity, notes University of New South Wales’ Mark Diesendorf. Photo by David Clarke, used via Flickr Creative Commons license.

It’s unlikely that fossil fuel power stations that capture and store their CO2 emissions could supply eastern Australia’s electricity more cheaply than renewable energy technologies like solar and wind power. That’s according to a study based on hour-by-hour analysis of electricity demand by Ben Elliston, Iain MacGill and Mark Diesendorf from the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Although renewables are often seen as expensive, these findings highlight that they can be competitive after accounting for the impact of burning coal and gas on our climate. “Our studies, and those conducted by other research groups around the world, find that it is possible to operate reliable national and subnational electricity systems on predominantly renewable energy generated by commercially available technologies and that these systems are affordable,” Mark told me.

Ben is a PhD student, supervised by Iain and Mark, and together the three have sought to answer key questions about renewable energy. Is it possible to supply a whole electricity grid’s needs with these technologies, or are some ‘base-load’ coal or gas power stations needed to fall back on? And if it is possible, would it be affordable?

To answer these questions, Ben designed a computer programme to simulate running an electricity supply system. His program can go through a year’s hourly data on electricity demands, wind and sunshine over the region in a fraction of a second. “Everything else follows from this, provided of course one asks the right questions,” Mark noted.

Over the last two years they have published work exploiting that programme, first showing that it’s possible to reliably supply 100% of eastern Australia’s electricity using renewable energy. Wind and solar power supplied most of the electricity, but output from these technologies varies due to changes in weather. But rather than filling gaps with fossil fuels, they showed existing hydroelectric power stations and gas turbines burning biofuels could be used to meet the grid’s reliability standard. Read the rest of this entry »

Give those we love the climate they deserve

Residents in Azaz, Syria on 16 August 2012 clear up after their buildings were bombed during the country's civil war, for which one of the many causes was a drought that has been linked to climate change.

Residents in Azaz, Syria on 16 August 2012 clear up after their buildings were bombed during the country’s civil war, for which one of the many causes was a drought that has been linked to climate change.

Over the next week I hope to be spending time with those I love the most. But this week I’ve been reading the latest newsletter from Medecins Sans Frontiers/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) about the horrible situation in Syria. The country’s civil war has been ongoing since 2011, with a toll that puts the good fortune me and my family enjoy into chilling context.

It’s estimated that there have been 120,000 deaths with over 4.5 million – in a country of just 22.5 million – having to leave their homes. Though that’s a lot of people, I am increasingly numb to the numbers, like many of you might be. But the stories from MSF really hit home. Yes, Syria had serious problems before the war, but it had a comparatively good health system. Now, if you have asthma, diabetes, or appendicitis, it can be life threatening. Ever more children are being born with severe defects, possibly due to the mothers not getting enough folic acid in their diet.

Though there are many factors behind the conflict, an important one is a drought that hit the country’s poorest areas in early 2011. Commentators have highlighted that droughts in Syria have become more common in recent years, linking this to climate change. Earlier this month, US scientists reported that a recent three year drought in Syria was too unusual to be a natural event. All of us who use fossil fuel energy likely bear some responsibility.

While it’s always hard to be certain about such links, they’re backed up by what University of California, Berkeley’s Ted Miguel told me in August. “Many global climate models project global temperature increases of at least 2°C over the next half century,” Ted told me. “Our findings suggest that global temperature rise of 2°C could increase the rate of intergroup conflicts, such as civil wars, by over 50% in many parts of the world, especially in tropical regions where such conflicts are most common.”

Earlier this month, Jim Hansen from Columbia University in New York and his team warned that even world average temperatures 1°C above pre-industrial levels would be dangerous. The Earth has already warmed 0.8°C in the past 100 years, meaning that threshold is near. And many other researchers I’ve spoken to this year have found evidence that shows the dangers. Read the rest of this entry »

Does lower home energy use mean England and Wales are keen to be green?

Change in average England and Wales household energy consumption in local areas 2005-11. Darker areas are where household energy consumption has fallen most.

Change in average England and Wales household energy consumption in local areas 2005-11. Darker areas are where household energy consumption has fallen most.

Thanks to William Blake, an important part of England’s national identity revolves around the idea of the country being ‘a green and pleasant land’. And now, data released by the UK’s Office of National Statistics (ONS) last month hints green outlooks could be helping people in Wales and England cut greenhouse gas emissions. The ONS found that average household energy consumption in the two countries fell by a quarter between 2005 and 2011. And while the possible reasons it suggests for this include people acting to cut their energy bills, it also stresses they could be doing it out of environmental awareness. In full, the ONS puts forward the following five factors as explanations:

• Household improvements such as better loft and cavity wall insulation have improved energy efficiency

• Introduction of energy rating scales for properties and household appliances, allowing consumers to make informed decisions about their purchases

• Improved efficiency of gas boilers and condensing boilers to supply properties with both hot water and central heating

• Generally increasing public awareness of energy consumption and environmental issues

• The price of gas and electricity in the UK overall increased in all years apart from 2010, between 2005 and 2011

As I live in England, the world ‘household’ brought to mind other changes the news often tells me are going on that might also play a role. They are: The number of households in the UK is increasing, and the number of people in each household is decreasing. It could be that the lower energy consumption per household is just because there are fewer people per household to consume the energy. But households are shrinking much more slowly than energy consumption, with average size reducing by just 4% from 2.4 to 2.3 between 2001 and 2011. Or there could be many more households consuming, which would result in an overall increase in emissions. But in 2011 there were 26.3 million households in the UK, a 7% increase since 2001.

Read the rest of this entry »

Fossil fuels are more than just a bad habit

The benefits fossil fuels bring make them probably the hardest addiction ever to kick. Credit: Don Hankins, via Flickr Creative Commons licence

The benefits fossil fuels bring make them probably the hardest addiction ever to kick. Credit: Don Hankins, via Flickr Creative Commons licence

I’m increasingly realising how much of a creature of habit I am. I have the same bizarre sticky brown yeast extract goo on toast for breakfast each morning. I watch films in my lounge most evenings. And I wonder: How much of my personality is just a collection of habits? What about yours, and all of ours? Could our whole society just be a giant collage of habits? And most relevant to this blog: how much of the human greenhouse gas emissions that are driving global warming come from our habits?

Recently, I’ve been keeping track of how long I spend doing things, which has been helping me swap what I think are bad habits for better ones. It’s tempting to suggest fighting climate change in a similar way. Many people talk about how we burn fossil fuels to propel our cars or run our gadgets as a bad habit, and even an addiction. But it’s more complicated than other addictions. Fossil fuels have been to our society more like food and a salary are to us individually – they’ve helped produce many of the healthiest aspects of the modern world. They’ve powered more than a century of rapid social and technological progress, and given many countries their current rich, well-fed figures.

For an article I’m writing about employment prospects in the UK’s chemical industry, I recently spotted the table below. It shows ‘gross value added’ (GVA), a measure of the money contributed to the economy, per person across the country’s different industries. It was striking to me that while bankers may get all the headlines for their wealth, the energy industry has the greatest earning power per head in the UK.

Oil and gas extraction help the "Mining and Quarry; Energy & water" sector make the largest contribution per head to the UK economy, as they employ relatively few people relative to their large economic output . Credit: Office for National Statistics

Oil and gas extraction help the “Mining and Quarry; Energy & water” sector make the largest contribution per head to the UK economy, as they employ relatively few people relative to their large economic output. The ‘total’ figure is the overall GVA for the UK, averaged across all industries. Credit: Office for National Statistics

Much like I’d quickly struggle without food or money, today sharply taking fossil fuel energy away from our societies would immediately threaten our existence. In fact, some think even the small changes already happening taste bad. Again in the UK chemical industry, there are worries that higher costs from clean energy are making it less competitive with other countries. Part of the way it would like to avoid this issue is through unconventional natural gas supplies, presumably extracted through controversial ‘fracking’ methods. Read the rest of this entry »

Delays raise emission halt urgency

The inventors of the idea of using wedges to represent efforts that will grow to prevent a billion tonnes of CO2 emissions per year over 50 years made a game out of it. However, University of California, Irvine's Steve Davis underlines that  our ongoing failure to properly put the idea into action is very serious. Credit: Carbon Mitigation Initiative/Princeton University

The inventors of the idea of using wedges to represent efforts that will grow to prevent a billion tonnes of CO2 emissions per year over 50 years made a game out of it. However, University of California, Irvine’s Steve Davis underlines that our ongoing failure to properly put the idea into action is very serious. Credit: Carbon Mitigation Initiative/Princeton University

We need to work towards completely cutting greenhouse gas emissions from energy generation for the goal of keeping global warming below 2°C to be realistic. So says Steve Davis at University of California, Irvine, who has updated a powerful method to make it easier to see what emission cuts are needed. That method originally just worked towards stopping emissions increasing, but Davis says that’s not enough today. “If you’ve been gaining weight and want to lose it, you don’t set a goal of eating just enough sweets to hold your weight constant for a few years, you set a goal of no sweets and set about losing weight right away,” Steve told me. “Why shouldn’t the same thing be true for carbon emissions?”

It’s hard to imagine how we can slow and stop emissions. In 2004, that drove scientists Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow at Princeton University in New Jersey to come up with the idea of breaking the cuts needed into wedges. Each wedge is a unit of effort in stopping CO2 production, starting from a small beginning and becoming a massive impact. Over 50 years, each wedge of effort grows steadily from zero to a billion tons, or gigaton, of carbon emissions avoided per year. We can use the idea to decide how to cut out each wedge, assigning them to particular reduction efforts and technologies. Since their invention, wedges have been used to teach and make decisions about fighting climate change.

In their original study, the Princeton scientists just used the wedges  to bring our emissions to a stable level. At the time they found this would stop levels of the greenhouse gas in the air going above 500 parts per million (ppm). Reducing emissions from that level to zero would then have put a limit on climate change. However, accelerating emissions since their study have changed the starting point. Read the rest of this entry »