Tag Archives: Biofuels

Electric vehicles threaten to overtake biofuels

biofuels ethanol pump Brazil

A sharp increase in the predicted global number of EVs prompts Brazil to rev up its promotion of low-carbon biofuels.

SÃO PAULO, 5 January, 2017 By 2040, the number of electric cars in the world could have reached 150 million, or even, if more ambitious targets for emissions reductions are adopted, 715 million. So says the International Energy Agency.

Not only would this mean a drastic reduction in the demand for oil, it could also mean a drastic reduction in the demand for biofuels such as ethanol.

But the biofuel industry is not giving up without a fight. At the recent UN climate talks in Morocco, a consortium of 20 countries launched Biofuture, a platform designed to encourage the use of low-carbon biofuels, including the second generation of sugarcane cellulose-based biofuel. Brazil, the world’s second largest producer of both ethanol and biodiesel (the US is the largest) is leading the initiative.

Biofuels solution

Renato Godinho, head of the Energetic Resources Division at Brazil’s Foreign Ministry, played down the idea of a massive changeover to electric cars before 2050, saying: “Biofuels are an immediate solution. The climate cannot wait.”

Even if there were to be a massive replacement of existing light vehicles by electric models, biofuels advocates believe that the cargo and aviation sectors will be using biofuels for a long time to come.

Artur Milanez, manager of the biofuels department at the BNDES, Brazil’s development bank, says: “Even if electrification seems to make sense today, what will define things is the market.”

Another reason for Brazil’s enthusiasm for biofuels is that giving them a larger share in the economy will enable Brazil to fulfil its Paris Agreement emissions targets, reducing the use of fossil fuels. Petrol sold at the pump already contains 25% ethanol, produced from sugarcane. There are more than 400 sugarcane refineries in Brazil, expected to produce an estimated 26.3 billion litres this year, according to the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association.

Brazil began developing biofuels in the 1970s, when, as an oil importer, it was badly hit by the OPEC oil shock. Cars running on subsidised ethanol took over the internal market, but once the price of oil fell and Brazil began developing its own oilfields, petrol reasserted its dominance. Even so, many of the cars produced in Brazil today are still dual fuel, known as flex.

Brazil is leading the initiative for biofuels,
but it is allowing them to be grown
in areas that should be protected

Ethanol was traditionally produced by fermentation, but years of research in government-sponsored labs has resulted in what is called second-generation ethanol. Enzymes are used to break down the cellulose in the bagasse (the fibrous waste of sugarcane, maize and rice). Productivity has been increased by 50%, producing 10,000 litres per hectare.

This new technology has now left the lab and joined industry, but there are still some problems of scale. Once the technology becomes more widely used, it is claimed that Brazil could produce 45bn litres a year, using the area already planted with sugarcane.

“This is almost the 50bn litres Brazil needs to produce by 2030 if it is to meet its INDC [the intended nationally determined contribution to the emission cuts determined by the Paris Agreement],” says Milanez.

But such expansion can be problematic. Potential consumers, such as Germany, are wary because they are concerned that demand will lead to sugarcane being grown in the Amazon, causing deforestation, or will push out small farmers growing food crops, as has already happened in Africa.

This is a real threat, which could easily be avoided by a change in government policy, offering incentives to use the millions of already deforested and degraded acres that have been used as cattle pasture and then abandoned, and paying farmers for environmental services.

Under the present government, which is dominated by agribusiness interests, anti-environmentalists and climate deniers, it is more likely that deforestation will continue apace.

Vegetation loss

A WWF study forecast the clearing of approximately 10m hectares of the cerrado, the vast tropical savannah region of central Brazil, for agriculture in the next 10 years, unless there is a change in policy. It also projected a loss of 30% in the natural vegetation cover in the states of Maranhão and Piaui in the same period.

The western region of Maranhão contains an area of Amazonian tropical forest, while Piauí is a large state that borders the semi-arid area of the northeast.

Cássio Franco Moreira of WWF blames Brazil’s Forest Code, approved in 2012, which has allowed agricultural expansion in cerrado areas, where many of the country’s principal rivers, including those that flow through the Amazon, have their source, instead of encouraging sustainable agricultural practices.

Once again, Brazil presents a paradox. It is leading the initiative for biofuels, which could reduce carbon emissions. But it is allowing them to be grown in areas that should be protected. Climate News Network

A sharp increase in the predicted global number of EVs prompts Brazil to rev up its promotion of low-carbon biofuels.

SÃO PAULO, 5 January, 2017 By 2040, the number of electric cars in the world could have reached 150 million, or even, if more ambitious targets for emissions reductions are adopted, 715 million. So says the International Energy Agency.

Not only would this mean a drastic reduction in the demand for oil, it could also mean a drastic reduction in the demand for biofuels such as ethanol.

But the biofuel industry is not giving up without a fight. At the recent UN climate talks in Morocco, a consortium of 20 countries launched Biofuture, a platform designed to encourage the use of low-carbon biofuels, including the second generation of sugarcane cellulose-based biofuel. Brazil, the world’s second largest producer of both ethanol and biodiesel (the US is the largest) is leading the initiative.

Biofuels solution

Renato Godinho, head of the Energetic Resources Division at Brazil’s Foreign Ministry, played down the idea of a massive changeover to electric cars before 2050, saying: “Biofuels are an immediate solution. The climate cannot wait.”

Even if there were to be a massive replacement of existing light vehicles by electric models, biofuels advocates believe that the cargo and aviation sectors will be using biofuels for a long time to come.

Artur Milanez, manager of the biofuels department at the BNDES, Brazil’s development bank, says: “Even if electrification seems to make sense today, what will define things is the market.”

Another reason for Brazil’s enthusiasm for biofuels is that giving them a larger share in the economy will enable Brazil to fulfil its Paris Agreement emissions targets, reducing the use of fossil fuels. Petrol sold at the pump already contains 25% ethanol, produced from sugarcane. There are more than 400 sugarcane refineries in Brazil, expected to produce an estimated 26.3 billion litres this year, according to the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association.

Brazil began developing biofuels in the 1970s, when, as an oil importer, it was badly hit by the OPEC oil shock. Cars running on subsidised ethanol took over the internal market, but once the price of oil fell and Brazil began developing its own oilfields, petrol reasserted its dominance. Even so, many of the cars produced in Brazil today are still dual fuel, known as flex.

Brazil is leading the initiative for biofuels,
but it is allowing them to be grown
in areas that should be protected

Ethanol was traditionally produced by fermentation, but years of research in government-sponsored labs has resulted in what is called second-generation ethanol. Enzymes are used to break down the cellulose in the bagasse (the fibrous waste of sugarcane, maize and rice). Productivity has been increased by 50%, producing 10,000 litres per hectare.

This new technology has now left the lab and joined industry, but there are still some problems of scale. Once the technology becomes more widely used, it is claimed that Brazil could produce 45bn litres a year, using the area already planted with sugarcane.

“This is almost the 50bn litres Brazil needs to produce by 2030 if it is to meet its INDC [the intended nationally determined contribution to the emission cuts determined by the Paris Agreement],” says Milanez.

But such expansion can be problematic. Potential consumers, such as Germany, are wary because they are concerned that demand will lead to sugarcane being grown in the Amazon, causing deforestation, or will push out small farmers growing food crops, as has already happened in Africa.

This is a real threat, which could easily be avoided by a change in government policy, offering incentives to use the millions of already deforested and degraded acres that have been used as cattle pasture and then abandoned, and paying farmers for environmental services.

Under the present government, which is dominated by agribusiness interests, anti-environmentalists and climate deniers, it is more likely that deforestation will continue apace.

Vegetation loss

A WWF study forecast the clearing of approximately 10m hectares of the cerrado, the vast tropical savannah region of central Brazil, for agriculture in the next 10 years, unless there is a change in policy. It also projected a loss of 30% in the natural vegetation cover in the states of Maranhão and Piaui in the same period.

The western region of Maranhão contains an area of Amazonian tropical forest, while Piauí is a large state that borders the semi-arid area of the northeast.

Cássio Franco Moreira of WWF blames Brazil’s Forest Code, approved in 2012, which has allowed agricultural expansion in cerrado areas, where many of the country’s principal rivers, including those that flow through the Amazon, have their source, instead of encouraging sustainable agricultural practices.

Once again, Brazil presents a paradox. It is leading the initiative for biofuels, which could reduce carbon emissions. But it is allowing them to be grown in areas that should be protected. Climate News Network

Geo-engineering unlikely to ease climate fears

Attempts to limit climate change by using the novel technologies known as geo-engineering are very unlikely to work, leading biologists say.

LONDON, 1 November, 2016 – The global watchdog responsible for protecting the worlds wealth of species, the UNs  Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), has looked at the hopes for reining in climate change through geo-engineering. Its bleak conclusion, echoing that reached by many independent scientists, is that the chances are “highly uncertain”.

“Novel means”, in this context, describes trying to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by removing them from the atmosphere, and altering the amount of heat from the Sun that reaches the Earth.  

Some scientists and policymakers say geo-engineering, as these strategies are collectively known, is essential if the world is to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. This is because current attempts to reduce emissions cannot make big enough cuts fast enough to keep global average temperatures from rising more than 2°C above their pre-industrial levels, the Agreement’s basic goal.

But the CBD says in a report that geo-engineering, while it could possibly help to prevent the world overheating, might endanger global biodiversity and have other unpredictable effects.

Many independent analysts have raised similar concerns.Attempts to increase the amount of carbon in the oceans, in order to remove GHGs, have so far shown disappointing results. One report doubted that geo-engineering could slow sea-level rise. Another said it could not arrest the melting of Arctic ice. A third study found that geo-engineering would make things little better and might even make global warming worse.  

Transboundary impacts

The lead author of the CBD geo-engineering report is a British scientist, Dr Phillip Williamson, of the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council. He is an associate fellow in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia, UK.

The CBD originally became involved in climate geo-engineering in 2008, because member governments were concerned that experiments to fertilise the oceans could pose unknown risks to the environment (they were then unregulated when carried out in international waters).

The CBD’s concern expanded to include other geo-engineering techniques, especially atmospheric methods which could have uncertain transboundary impacts. Some scientists argue that “geo-engineering” is a hazily-defined term and prefer to speak instead simply of “greenhouse gas removal”.

Dr Williamson and his colleagues say assessment of the impacts of geo-engineering on biodiversity “is not straightforward and is subject to many uncertainties”.

On greenhouse gas removal they warn that removing a given quantity of a greenhouse gas would not fully compensate for an earlier ‘overshoot’ of emissions.

New risks

In some cases, they say, the cure may be worse than the disease: “The large-scale deployment of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) seems likely to have significant negative impacts on biodiversity through land use change.”

When it comes to attempts to reflect sunlight back out into space or to manage solar radiation, a familiar theme recurs: “There are high levels of uncertainty about the impacts of SRM [solar radiation management] techniques, which could present significant new risks to biodiversity.”

Time and again, it seems, a potential advance is liable to be cancelled by an equally likely reverse: if SRM benefits coral reefs by decreasing temperature-induced bleaching (as it may), in certain conditions “it may also increase, indirectly, the impacts of ocean acidification.” There could even be a risk in some circumstances of loss to the Earth’s protective ozone layer.

Dr Williamson and his colleagues believe that geo-engineering is essential – if it can be made to work – because of the diminishing chances that anything else will.

“I’m sceptical. That’s not to say bio-energy with carbon capture and storage is impossible, but it seems extremely unlikely to be feasible”

They write: “It may still be possible that deep and very rapid decarbonisation by all countries might allow climate change to be kept within a 2°C limit by emission reduction alone. However, any such window of opportunity is rapidly closing.”

Repeatedly, those two words recur: a suggested technique or development will be “highly uncertain”. Most of the report amounts to a very cautious call for more research, coupled with an implicit acceptance that in the end geo-engineering is unlikely to prove capable of contributing much to climate mitigation.

Dr Williamson told the Climate News Network: “I’m sceptical. That’s not to say bio-energy with carbon capture and storage is impossible, but it seems extremely unlikely to be feasible (for all sorts of reasons)” at the scale needed.

When the CBD member governments meet in December they are expected to call for more research: a safe option in most circumstances, but far from a ringing endorsement of a technology once seen as very promising. – Climate News Network

Attempts to limit climate change by using the novel technologies known as geo-engineering are very unlikely to work, leading biologists say.

LONDON, 1 November, 2016 – The global watchdog responsible for protecting the worlds wealth of species, the UNs  Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), has looked at the hopes for reining in climate change through geo-engineering. Its bleak conclusion, echoing that reached by many independent scientists, is that the chances are “highly uncertain”.

“Novel means”, in this context, describes trying to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by removing them from the atmosphere, and altering the amount of heat from the Sun that reaches the Earth.  

Some scientists and policymakers say geo-engineering, as these strategies are collectively known, is essential if the world is to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. This is because current attempts to reduce emissions cannot make big enough cuts fast enough to keep global average temperatures from rising more than 2°C above their pre-industrial levels, the Agreement’s basic goal.

But the CBD says in a report that geo-engineering, while it could possibly help to prevent the world overheating, might endanger global biodiversity and have other unpredictable effects.

Many independent analysts have raised similar concerns.Attempts to increase the amount of carbon in the oceans, in order to remove GHGs, have so far shown disappointing results. One report doubted that geo-engineering could slow sea-level rise. Another said it could not arrest the melting of Arctic ice. A third study found that geo-engineering would make things little better and might even make global warming worse.  

Transboundary impacts

The lead author of the CBD geo-engineering report is a British scientist, Dr Phillip Williamson, of the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council. He is an associate fellow in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia, UK.

The CBD originally became involved in climate geo-engineering in 2008, because member governments were concerned that experiments to fertilise the oceans could pose unknown risks to the environment (they were then unregulated when carried out in international waters).

The CBD’s concern expanded to include other geo-engineering techniques, especially atmospheric methods which could have uncertain transboundary impacts. Some scientists argue that “geo-engineering” is a hazily-defined term and prefer to speak instead simply of “greenhouse gas removal”.

Dr Williamson and his colleagues say assessment of the impacts of geo-engineering on biodiversity “is not straightforward and is subject to many uncertainties”.

On greenhouse gas removal they warn that removing a given quantity of a greenhouse gas would not fully compensate for an earlier ‘overshoot’ of emissions.

New risks

In some cases, they say, the cure may be worse than the disease: “The large-scale deployment of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) seems likely to have significant negative impacts on biodiversity through land use change.”

When it comes to attempts to reflect sunlight back out into space or to manage solar radiation, a familiar theme recurs: “There are high levels of uncertainty about the impacts of SRM [solar radiation management] techniques, which could present significant new risks to biodiversity.”

Time and again, it seems, a potential advance is liable to be cancelled by an equally likely reverse: if SRM benefits coral reefs by decreasing temperature-induced bleaching (as it may), in certain conditions “it may also increase, indirectly, the impacts of ocean acidification.” There could even be a risk in some circumstances of loss to the Earth’s protective ozone layer.

Dr Williamson and his colleagues believe that geo-engineering is essential – if it can be made to work – because of the diminishing chances that anything else will.

“I’m sceptical. That’s not to say bio-energy with carbon capture and storage is impossible, but it seems extremely unlikely to be feasible”

They write: “It may still be possible that deep and very rapid decarbonisation by all countries might allow climate change to be kept within a 2°C limit by emission reduction alone. However, any such window of opportunity is rapidly closing.”

Repeatedly, those two words recur: a suggested technique or development will be “highly uncertain”. Most of the report amounts to a very cautious call for more research, coupled with an implicit acceptance that in the end geo-engineering is unlikely to prove capable of contributing much to climate mitigation.

Dr Williamson told the Climate News Network: “I’m sceptical. That’s not to say bio-energy with carbon capture and storage is impossible, but it seems extremely unlikely to be feasible (for all sorts of reasons)” at the scale needed.

When the CBD member governments meet in December they are expected to call for more research: a safe option in most circumstances, but far from a ringing endorsement of a technology once seen as very promising. – Climate News Network

Renewables fuel optimism in Nepal

Cattle dung and kitchen waste used in biogas plants are helping to save 400,000 trees a year and reduce fossil fuel imports in Nepal.

RAMPUR, 24 June, 2016 – More than a million extra small biogas plants in Nepal could stop forest destruction and reduce the country’s large import bill for fossil fuels − but much more investment is needed to help the impoverished country reach its goals.

The government’s 2016 Renewable Energy Subsidy Policy is seeking to ramp up investments in power sources such as small-scale hydro, solar, wind and biomass,

One of the habits it is trying to break is the use of wood for cooking. Currently, 64% of the population, particularly the rural poor, rely on supplies of firewood to prepare their daily meal, causing the destruction of the country’s forests.

The whole programme has a significant way to go, because in 2012/13 renewables accounted for only 1.66% of the country’s total energy supply, according to the government’s Alternative Energy Promotion Centre (AEPC).

Major waste

The largest established form of renewables in this mountainous country is micro-hydropower, with 36 MW of electricity, but biogas also has great potential.

This is because the availability of dung − the major waste used for biogas production in rural areas − is calculated at 12 million tonnes a year, enough to fuel 1.49 million household biogas plants in Nepal. And the methane produced by each micro-plant is calculated to save 1.25 trees a year.

The use of readily-available materials – cattle dung and kitchen waste in rural areas, and sewage and kitchen waste in towns – could fuel a biogas boom to head off a looming energy crisis caused by the ever-increasing import of fossil fuels.

Lack of investment in larger-scale biogas plants
in urban areas has led to a surge in imports
of liquefied petroleum gas

The AEPC says that Nepal, through the use of the existing 320,000 biogas plants and the avoidance of cutting tree cover, is already reducing its overall greenhouse emissions by more than one million tons a year. This is saving 400,000 trees annually, and reducing natural gas imports from India.

A second study by the Biogas Sector Programme says that the biogas replaces 800,000 litres of kerosene.

Known potential

Unfortunately, despite its known potential, the lack of investment in larger-scale biogas plants in urban areas has led to a surge in imports of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). This has now reached 21% of households.

Despite 670 tonnes of biodegradable waste being generated every day in 58 municipalities across the country, the total number of large-scale biogas plants is only 350. Lack of regular maintenance has led to some of these breaking down

The recently-announced government incentive to subsidise and provide loans to boost renewable energy should reduce this decline. The declared aim is to resuscitate and expand the renewable energy source that has already proved to be a realistic way of reining in the need for fossil fuels. – Climate News Network

  • Santosh Koirala is an agriculture student at the Agriculture and Forestry University (AFU), Rampur, Nepal.
    Email: Mezereonsantosh@gmail.com; Twitter: @mezereonsantos
  • Additional reporting by Sameer Pokhrel, also a student at AFU.
    Email: pokhrelsameer60@gmail.com; Twitter: @sameerpokhrel5

Cattle dung and kitchen waste used in biogas plants are helping to save 400,000 trees a year and reduce fossil fuel imports in Nepal.

RAMPUR, 24 June, 2016 – More than a million extra small biogas plants in Nepal could stop forest destruction and reduce the country’s large import bill for fossil fuels − but much more investment is needed to help the impoverished country reach its goals.

The government’s 2016 Renewable Energy Subsidy Policy is seeking to ramp up investments in power sources such as small-scale hydro, solar, wind and biomass,

One of the habits it is trying to break is the use of wood for cooking. Currently, 64% of the population, particularly the rural poor, rely on supplies of firewood to prepare their daily meal, causing the destruction of the country’s forests.

The whole programme has a significant way to go, because in 2012/13 renewables accounted for only 1.66% of the country’s total energy supply, according to the government’s Alternative Energy Promotion Centre (AEPC).

Major waste

The largest established form of renewables in this mountainous country is micro-hydropower, with 36 MW of electricity, but biogas also has great potential.

This is because the availability of dung − the major waste used for biogas production in rural areas − is calculated at 12 million tonnes a year, enough to fuel 1.49 million household biogas plants in Nepal. And the methane produced by each micro-plant is calculated to save 1.25 trees a year.

The use of readily-available materials – cattle dung and kitchen waste in rural areas, and sewage and kitchen waste in towns – could fuel a biogas boom to head off a looming energy crisis caused by the ever-increasing import of fossil fuels.

Lack of investment in larger-scale biogas plants
in urban areas has led to a surge in imports
of liquefied petroleum gas

The AEPC says that Nepal, through the use of the existing 320,000 biogas plants and the avoidance of cutting tree cover, is already reducing its overall greenhouse emissions by more than one million tons a year. This is saving 400,000 trees annually, and reducing natural gas imports from India.

A second study by the Biogas Sector Programme says that the biogas replaces 800,000 litres of kerosene.

Known potential

Unfortunately, despite its known potential, the lack of investment in larger-scale biogas plants in urban areas has led to a surge in imports of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). This has now reached 21% of households.

Despite 670 tonnes of biodegradable waste being generated every day in 58 municipalities across the country, the total number of large-scale biogas plants is only 350. Lack of regular maintenance has led to some of these breaking down

The recently-announced government incentive to subsidise and provide loans to boost renewable energy should reduce this decline. The declared aim is to resuscitate and expand the renewable energy source that has already proved to be a realistic way of reining in the need for fossil fuels. – Climate News Network

  • Santosh Koirala is an agriculture student at the Agriculture and Forestry University (AFU), Rampur, Nepal.
    Email: Mezereonsantosh@gmail.com; Twitter: @mezereonsantos
  • Additional reporting by Sameer Pokhrel, also a student at AFU.
    Email: pokhrelsameer60@gmail.com; Twitter: @sameerpokhrel5

Bionic leaf can fuel energy revolution

Renewable energy experts and microbiologists have teamed up to create a super-efficient artificial leaf that uses photosynthesis to produce carbon-neutral liquid fuels.

LONDON, 10 June, 2016 − Scientists in the US claim to have beaten nature at its own game. They have created a “bionic leaf” that exploits sunlight to create biomass − and they say their invention is now 10 times more effective than an oak or maple leaf.

Two separate laboratories at Harvard University have co-operated to devise, enhance and test a system that uses sunlight to split water molecules and feed the hydrogen to bacteria that then produce liquid fuels. The next task is to scale up the experiment to produce carbon neutral fuels to combat climate change.

“This is a true artificial photosynthesis system,” says Daniel Nocera, a leading researcher in renewable energy who is professor of energy at Harvard. “Before, people were using photosynthesis for water-splitting, but this is a true A-to-Z system, and we’ve gone well over the efficiency of photosynthesis in nature.”

Photosynthesis was perfected by the plant world over more than 3 billion years of evolution. It drives the entire living world and it is the primary source of all fossil fuels.

Ancient sunshine

Climate change became a problem only when humans started to extract ancient sunshine in the form of coal, oil and natural gas, stored in the Carboniferous rocks, and put it back in the atmosphere.

Just as wood fires from felled timber make no difference to the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide levels – because the same forest that shelters the fallen tree will absorb it again – so biofuels converted from surplus maize or sugarcane should, in theory, make no difference to global warming.

So the idea of what the Harvard team call “bionic leaf 2.0” is an attractive one. It could deliver liquid fuels in convenient form that would make no difference to the planet’s overall carbon budget. In effect, it could bypass the vegetation stage.

“It’s an important discovery. It says we can
do better than photosynthesis”

Chemists and engineers the world over are racing to exploit human ingenuity and deliver brilliant solutions, including artificial leaves that can capture carbon dioxide. The challenge is to do so effectively, cheaply and on a massive scale.

Which is why Professor Nocera’s lab teamed up with microbiologists led by biochemist and systems biologist Pamela Silver, of Harvard Medical School.

The scientists report in Science journal that they have devised a hybrid system based on cobalt-phosphorus alloy catalyst partnered with bacteria called Ralstonia eutropha, which splits water into oxygen and hydrogen at low voltages.

Organic chemistry

The microbes consume the free hydrogen and, in the presence of oxygen and carbon dioxide, begin some organic chemistry. So far, the system has made isobutanol and isopentanol, and even a bio-plastic precursor product.

The Harvard scientists say their bionic leaf converts solar energy to biomass with an efficiency of 10%. The fastest-growing plants do the same with an efficiency of 1%.

What works in a laboratory may be tricky to translate into large-scale production, but the researchers are confident they have something that works.

Professor Nocera says: “It’s an important discovery. It says we can do better than photosynthesis. But I also want to bring this technology to the developing world as well.

“If you think about it, photosynthesis is amazing. It takes sunlight, water and air – and then look at a tree. That’s exactly what we did, but we can do it significantly better, because we turn all that energy into a fuel.” – Climate News Network

Renewable energy experts and microbiologists have teamed up to create a super-efficient artificial leaf that uses photosynthesis to produce carbon-neutral liquid fuels.

LONDON, 10 June, 2016 − Scientists in the US claim to have beaten nature at its own game. They have created a “bionic leaf” that exploits sunlight to create biomass − and they say their invention is now 10 times more effective than an oak or maple leaf.

Two separate laboratories at Harvard University have co-operated to devise, enhance and test a system that uses sunlight to split water molecules and feed the hydrogen to bacteria that then produce liquid fuels. The next task is to scale up the experiment to produce carbon neutral fuels to combat climate change.

“This is a true artificial photosynthesis system,” says Daniel Nocera, a leading researcher in renewable energy who is professor of energy at Harvard. “Before, people were using photosynthesis for water-splitting, but this is a true A-to-Z system, and we’ve gone well over the efficiency of photosynthesis in nature.”

Photosynthesis was perfected by the plant world over more than 3 billion years of evolution. It drives the entire living world and it is the primary source of all fossil fuels.

Ancient sunshine

Climate change became a problem only when humans started to extract ancient sunshine in the form of coal, oil and natural gas, stored in the Carboniferous rocks, and put it back in the atmosphere.

Just as wood fires from felled timber make no difference to the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide levels – because the same forest that shelters the fallen tree will absorb it again – so biofuels converted from surplus maize or sugarcane should, in theory, make no difference to global warming.

So the idea of what the Harvard team call “bionic leaf 2.0” is an attractive one. It could deliver liquid fuels in convenient form that would make no difference to the planet’s overall carbon budget. In effect, it could bypass the vegetation stage.

“It’s an important discovery. It says we can
do better than photosynthesis”

Chemists and engineers the world over are racing to exploit human ingenuity and deliver brilliant solutions, including artificial leaves that can capture carbon dioxide. The challenge is to do so effectively, cheaply and on a massive scale.

Which is why Professor Nocera’s lab teamed up with microbiologists led by biochemist and systems biologist Pamela Silver, of Harvard Medical School.

The scientists report in Science journal that they have devised a hybrid system based on cobalt-phosphorus alloy catalyst partnered with bacteria called Ralstonia eutropha, which splits water into oxygen and hydrogen at low voltages.

Organic chemistry

The microbes consume the free hydrogen and, in the presence of oxygen and carbon dioxide, begin some organic chemistry. So far, the system has made isobutanol and isopentanol, and even a bio-plastic precursor product.

The Harvard scientists say their bionic leaf converts solar energy to biomass with an efficiency of 10%. The fastest-growing plants do the same with an efficiency of 1%.

What works in a laboratory may be tricky to translate into large-scale production, but the researchers are confident they have something that works.

Professor Nocera says: “It’s an important discovery. It says we can do better than photosynthesis. But I also want to bring this technology to the developing world as well.

“If you think about it, photosynthesis is amazing. It takes sunlight, water and air – and then look at a tree. That’s exactly what we did, but we can do it significantly better, because we turn all that energy into a fuel.” – Climate News Network

Useful waste offers win-win benefits

An unsung success story in the switch to renewable energy is the use of waste to produce gas – and a valuable by-product.

LONDON, 2 February, 2016 – The future is increasingly bright for renewable energy, with the US aiming to cut the price of solar photovoltaics by 75% between 2010 and 2020. Denmark plans to obtain 50% of its energy from wind just five years from now.

But one form of renewable energy – and one which attracts few headlines – manages to create two useful products at the same time, and is making a growing contribution to combatting climate change.

The medieval alchemists who sought to turn base metal into gold would have thrilled at   chemistry that let them turn waste into both fuel and fertiliser. Their twenty-first century successors have discovered the secret of doing exactly that. 

Unwanted food, animal waste, municipal rubbish, crop and forestry residues, sewage and dozens of other left-overs of civilisation can and are now being turned into methane to generate electricity, provide district heating and to fuel road vehicles.

Big contribution

This largely unheralded revolution takes different forms across the world, mostly because governments set their own rules to encourage the technology, and also because local circumstances provide contrasting piles of waste. But in every case the waste can be converted into gas for use as fuel.

Although the technology is only part of the solution to climate change, the European Biogas  Association estimates that over time it should be able to replace 30% of current natural gas consumption in Europe.

The technology is roughly the same whatever the size of the plant or its location. Biogas plants use microbes to eat waste in an oxygen-free environment to produce methane, and leave fertiliser or soil conditioner as a useful by-product. The plants vary from small household types, very popular in China and India, to farm plants and larger-scale municipal installations in Europe.

Poor relation

The potential of wind and solar power for replacing coal to produce electricity is familiar;  the biogas revolution is hardly recognised. The first report on biogas produced by the International Gas Union went virtually unreported.

Yet its details included, for example: “One bag of food waste composted to biogas is enough to power a gas-driven car for almost two kilometres”, and: “A bus with 55 passengers can run for 1,000 km on the food waste produced by its passengers each year.”

Biogas is produced naturally in environments with no oxygen: swamps, for example, rice paddies and the stomachs of ruminant animals like cattle. An anaerobic digester’s microbes produce the methane by eating the organic content of the waste, leaving a nutrient-rich fertiliser as the residue.

Germany and China are the world leaders in turning farm waste into gas, with 8,000 and 24,000 farm-based plants respectively. More surprising perhaps is the fact that China has built 42 million small biogas plants in a decade to turn village waste into fuel.

Compatible mix

Usually the methane produced in these digesters is fed into generators or small power stations on site and used locally. But if it is further purified the gas can simply be fed into a pipeline and mixed with natural gas.

In Sweden, which aims by 2030 to replace fossil fuels in transport with biogas, the number of gas-driven vehicles has doubled to 50,000 in the last five years. One Swedish advance is to cool the gas to -163°C until it liquefies, reducing its volume by 600 times and making it a perfect fuel for large lorries. Demand for biogas outstrips supply in much of the country, which is now using its ample supplies of forestry waste.

Elsewhere, for example in the UK and South Korea, much biogas comes from old rubbish dumps where the methane they emit is piped to mini-power stations on site. More recently, to cut down on waste, local authorities in the UK have begun collecting thrown-away food so that purpose-built anaerobic digesters can convert it into gas and fertiliser.

Scotland, although part of the UK, has a devolved government which recognises that stronger regulation can drive the biogas revolution. – Climate News Network

An unsung success story in the switch to renewable energy is the use of waste to produce gas – and a valuable by-product.

LONDON, 2 February, 2016 – The future is increasingly bright for renewable energy, with the US aiming to cut the price of solar photovoltaics by 75% between 2010 and 2020. Denmark plans to obtain 50% of its energy from wind just five years from now.

But one form of renewable energy – and one which attracts few headlines – manages to create two useful products at the same time, and is making a growing contribution to combatting climate change.

The medieval alchemists who sought to turn base metal into gold would have thrilled at   chemistry that let them turn waste into both fuel and fertiliser. Their twenty-first century successors have discovered the secret of doing exactly that. 

Unwanted food, animal waste, municipal rubbish, crop and forestry residues, sewage and dozens of other left-overs of civilisation can and are now being turned into methane to generate electricity, provide district heating and to fuel road vehicles.

Big contribution

This largely unheralded revolution takes different forms across the world, mostly because governments set their own rules to encourage the technology, and also because local circumstances provide contrasting piles of waste. But in every case the waste can be converted into gas for use as fuel.

Although the technology is only part of the solution to climate change, the European Biogas  Association estimates that over time it should be able to replace 30% of current natural gas consumption in Europe.

The technology is roughly the same whatever the size of the plant or its location. Biogas plants use microbes to eat waste in an oxygen-free environment to produce methane, and leave fertiliser or soil conditioner as a useful by-product. The plants vary from small household types, very popular in China and India, to farm plants and larger-scale municipal installations in Europe.

Poor relation

The potential of wind and solar power for replacing coal to produce electricity is familiar;  the biogas revolution is hardly recognised. The first report on biogas produced by the International Gas Union went virtually unreported.

Yet its details included, for example: “One bag of food waste composted to biogas is enough to power a gas-driven car for almost two kilometres”, and: “A bus with 55 passengers can run for 1,000 km on the food waste produced by its passengers each year.”

Biogas is produced naturally in environments with no oxygen: swamps, for example, rice paddies and the stomachs of ruminant animals like cattle. An anaerobic digester’s microbes produce the methane by eating the organic content of the waste, leaving a nutrient-rich fertiliser as the residue.

Germany and China are the world leaders in turning farm waste into gas, with 8,000 and 24,000 farm-based plants respectively. More surprising perhaps is the fact that China has built 42 million small biogas plants in a decade to turn village waste into fuel.

Compatible mix

Usually the methane produced in these digesters is fed into generators or small power stations on site and used locally. But if it is further purified the gas can simply be fed into a pipeline and mixed with natural gas.

In Sweden, which aims by 2030 to replace fossil fuels in transport with biogas, the number of gas-driven vehicles has doubled to 50,000 in the last five years. One Swedish advance is to cool the gas to -163°C until it liquefies, reducing its volume by 600 times and making it a perfect fuel for large lorries. Demand for biogas outstrips supply in much of the country, which is now using its ample supplies of forestry waste.

Elsewhere, for example in the UK and South Korea, much biogas comes from old rubbish dumps where the methane they emit is piped to mini-power stations on site. More recently, to cut down on waste, local authorities in the UK have begun collecting thrown-away food so that purpose-built anaerobic digesters can convert it into gas and fertiliser.

Scotland, although part of the UK, has a devolved government which recognises that stronger regulation can drive the biogas revolution. – Climate News Network

Grasses’ growing role for American cars

Second-generation biofuel made from natural grass species challenges ethanol derived from maize crops as the US seeks to reduce its fossil fuel use.

LONDON, 17 January, 2016 – In tomorrow’s world, it won’t be just the corn on the great American plains that is as high as an elephant’s eye. It will be the elephant grass as well.

To deliver on US promises to reduce fossil fuel use, American motorists in future will drive on miscanthus − as elephant grass is also known – and prairie switchgrass.

Researchers led by Evan DeLucia, professor of biology at the University of Illinois, report in a new journal, Nature Energy, that to exploit biofuels – which recycle carbon already in the atmosphere, and are therefore technically “carbon-neutral” – Americans will have to think again about how they manage the change away from fossil fuels.

Right now, the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Renewable Fuel Standards foresee that by 2022 American motorists will start up their cars with 15 billion gallons (57 billion litres) of ethanol from corn. But this could be augmented by 16 billion gallons (60 billion litres) of biofuel derived from perennial grasses.

Energy source

The switch to the prairie’s native switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) and Eurasian elephant grass (Miscanthus giganteus) will be necessary because there are problems with corn as a source of energy.

One is that, in an increasingly hungry world, it reduces the overall levels of food available. The second is that corn requires annual planting, fertilising and harvesting. Perennial grasses simply grow, and can be mown once a year.

So by turning over surplus land to swift-growing grasses, and at the same time reducing the levels of carbon dioxide released from cultivation, the US could meet its target of a 7% reduction in its annual transportation emissions by 2022. If farmers went on gradually to switch from corn to the grasses, the reduction could get as high as 12%.

“The moral of this whole story is that we need to find a way
to expand the production of second generation biofuel crops”

Professor DeLucia says: “Greenhouse gas savings from bioenergy have come under varying levels of attack, and this paper goes a long way to showing that, contrary to what some are saying, these savings can be potentially large if cellulosic biofuels from dedicated energy crops meet a large share of the mandate.

“This is a viable path forward to energy security, reducing greenhouse gases and providing a diversified crop portfolio for farmers in the U.S.”

The researchers used a climate model to test what would happen if land now being used to grow corn (Zea mays) for ethanol – currently, 40% of the corn harvest is used for biofuel – was switched to the two candidate grasses.

Store more carbon

“Our results were staggering,” Professor DeLucia says. “Since both of those plants are perennial, you don’t till every year. The grasses also require less fertiliser, which is a source of nitrous oxide, and they store more carbon in the ground than corn.”

The switch could turn the US Midwest from a net source of greenhouse gas emissions to a “sink” absorbing them. The study assumed that, rather than the most productive soil, the low-yielding land would be converted to grasses for biofuel.

It also factored in some of the other consequences: if the extra billions of gallons of fuel led to a fall in fuel prices, would Americans drive more, and eliminate the carbon savings? Even if that did happen, such a change has the potential to reduce US emissions overall.

But growers have to be sure that energy policies will be consistent, according to the paper’s co-author, Madhu Khanna, professor in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois.

“The moral of this whole story is that we need to find a way to expand the production of second generation biofuel crops and maybe even displace corn ethanol,” she says. – Climate News Network

Second-generation biofuel made from natural grass species challenges ethanol derived from maize crops as the US seeks to reduce its fossil fuel use.

LONDON, 17 January, 2016 – In tomorrow’s world, it won’t be just the corn on the great American plains that is as high as an elephant’s eye. It will be the elephant grass as well.

To deliver on US promises to reduce fossil fuel use, American motorists in future will drive on miscanthus − as elephant grass is also known – and prairie switchgrass.

Researchers led by Evan DeLucia, professor of biology at the University of Illinois, report in a new journal, Nature Energy, that to exploit biofuels – which recycle carbon already in the atmosphere, and are therefore technically “carbon-neutral” – Americans will have to think again about how they manage the change away from fossil fuels.

Right now, the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Renewable Fuel Standards foresee that by 2022 American motorists will start up their cars with 15 billion gallons (57 billion litres) of ethanol from corn. But this could be augmented by 16 billion gallons (60 billion litres) of biofuel derived from perennial grasses.

Energy source

The switch to the prairie’s native switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) and Eurasian elephant grass (Miscanthus giganteus) will be necessary because there are problems with corn as a source of energy.

One is that, in an increasingly hungry world, it reduces the overall levels of food available. The second is that corn requires annual planting, fertilising and harvesting. Perennial grasses simply grow, and can be mown once a year.

So by turning over surplus land to swift-growing grasses, and at the same time reducing the levels of carbon dioxide released from cultivation, the US could meet its target of a 7% reduction in its annual transportation emissions by 2022. If farmers went on gradually to switch from corn to the grasses, the reduction could get as high as 12%.

“The moral of this whole story is that we need to find a way
to expand the production of second generation biofuel crops”

Professor DeLucia says: “Greenhouse gas savings from bioenergy have come under varying levels of attack, and this paper goes a long way to showing that, contrary to what some are saying, these savings can be potentially large if cellulosic biofuels from dedicated energy crops meet a large share of the mandate.

“This is a viable path forward to energy security, reducing greenhouse gases and providing a diversified crop portfolio for farmers in the U.S.”

The researchers used a climate model to test what would happen if land now being used to grow corn (Zea mays) for ethanol – currently, 40% of the corn harvest is used for biofuel – was switched to the two candidate grasses.

Store more carbon

“Our results were staggering,” Professor DeLucia says. “Since both of those plants are perennial, you don’t till every year. The grasses also require less fertiliser, which is a source of nitrous oxide, and they store more carbon in the ground than corn.”

The switch could turn the US Midwest from a net source of greenhouse gas emissions to a “sink” absorbing them. The study assumed that, rather than the most productive soil, the low-yielding land would be converted to grasses for biofuel.

It also factored in some of the other consequences: if the extra billions of gallons of fuel led to a fall in fuel prices, would Americans drive more, and eliminate the carbon savings? Even if that did happen, such a change has the potential to reduce US emissions overall.

But growers have to be sure that energy policies will be consistent, according to the paper’s co-author, Madhu Khanna, professor in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois.

“The moral of this whole story is that we need to find a way to expand the production of second generation biofuel crops and maybe even displace corn ethanol,” she says. – Climate News Network

Nepali farmers get renewable ‘green’ fertilizer

Concerns about environmental damage caused by costly chemicals and worries about climate change are altering farming methods in the mountains of Nepal.

KATHMANDU, 20 October, 2015 – For centuries, Nepalese farmers have been mixing the dung and urine of their buffaloes, cows and goats with vegetable compost to make solid manure.

But scientists and agricultural development experts have now helped eight “climate-smart” villages in the foothills of the Himalayas to make liquid variants of this traditional organic fertilizer.

Special mixes of dung, urine, water and additives – including leaves from trees in local woods – have been developed over the past two years to help fix nitrogen and other important plant nutrients into the soil. The bio-fertilizers are collectively known as “jholmol”.

Such organic methods are not only good for the soil, they also contribute to the natural carbon cycle, ensuring carbon is sequestered in the earth.

Beneficial microbes

Some mixes of jholmol – such as those containing leaves from the neem tree and stinging nettles, and a special package of beneficial microbes, called jeevatu − also serve as pesticides to control insects and fungal infections.

Yam Presad, who farms just under half a hectare of land in Naubise, a poor village on the floor of a steep-sided valley two hours’ drive east of Kathmandu, has been using jholmol for the past year.

“Jholmol does not increase the amount of rice and vegetables I grow, but it saves me having to buy chemical fertilizers, and people like the produce better,” he says.

“The cabbages are not shiny, like they were when we used chemical fertilizers and pesticides, but they taste a lot better. People like the fact that we only use natural products. They regard it as safe food.”

The Centre for Environmental Policy, Research and Development (CEAPRED), a Nepal-based NGO, is helping to establish eight “climate-smart” villages in the centre of the country.

Increasingly erratic rainfall is making it more difficult to eke out a living from agriculture. The annual monsoon rains tend to arrive later than in the past, and when the rain does fall it often buckets down in heavy downpours that are interspersed with long dry periods.

Meanwhile, scientists say temperatures across much of the Himalayan region are increasing at twice the global average.

Along with the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), CEAPRED is encouraging villagers to experiment with new ways of conserving water and new crop-growing techniques that will still give a good harvest, despite the changes in climate.

In Naubise, as everywhere in the deceptively green mountains of Nepal, water is in short supply for both drinking and irrigation.

It is easy for farmers to make jholmol because virtually every Nepalese smallholding has a couple of cows and one or two buffaloes to provide milk and pull the plough.

The manure is often also used for energy – shovelled into tanks to make bio-gas, which powers a gas ring in the kitchen.This saves on wood fuel and helps to preserve the precious community-owned forests that still cover the steepest hillsides.

Population pressure has gradually reduced the size of farms in Nepal over the past 50 years. The average size of a family holding today is just 0.8 hectares – and much less in many hilly areas.

Cash remittances

Most smallholdings are unable to provide adequate food or cash income for a family, so, increasingly, rural families depend on cash remittances from one or more sons who have gone abroad to find work.

Some estimates put the number of migrant workers driven off the land by poverty at more than three million – about 10% of Nepal’s 32 million population.

This year, the farmers of Naubise and hundreds of other mountain villages in central Nepal are even more hard-pressed than usual due to the series of earthquakes in April and May that killed more than 8,500 people and destroyed buildings in many communities.

Small self-help improvements such as jholmol are likely to play a key role in assisting the rural poor of Nepal – and potentially other mountainous countries in Asia – to survive in an increasingly harsh environment and deal with the impacts of climate change. – Climate News Network

  • Robert Powell is a journalist and humanitarian communications specialist.
    Email: robertgpowell@hotmail.com; LinkedIn: https://uk.linkedin.com/pub/robert-powell/6/580/4b3

Concerns about environmental damage caused by costly chemicals and worries about climate change are altering farming methods in the mountains of Nepal.

KATHMANDU, 20 October, 2015 – For centuries, Nepalese farmers have been mixing the dung and urine of their buffaloes, cows and goats with vegetable compost to make solid manure.

But scientists and agricultural development experts have now helped eight “climate-smart” villages in the foothills of the Himalayas to make liquid variants of this traditional organic fertilizer.

Special mixes of dung, urine, water and additives – including leaves from trees in local woods – have been developed over the past two years to help fix nitrogen and other important plant nutrients into the soil. The bio-fertilizers are collectively known as “jholmol”.

Such organic methods are not only good for the soil, they also contribute to the natural carbon cycle, ensuring carbon is sequestered in the earth.

Beneficial microbes

Some mixes of jholmol – such as those containing leaves from the neem tree and stinging nettles, and a special package of beneficial microbes, called jeevatu − also serve as pesticides to control insects and fungal infections.

Yam Presad, who farms just under half a hectare of land in Naubise, a poor village on the floor of a steep-sided valley two hours’ drive east of Kathmandu, has been using jholmol for the past year.

“Jholmol does not increase the amount of rice and vegetables I grow, but it saves me having to buy chemical fertilizers, and people like the produce better,” he says.

“The cabbages are not shiny, like they were when we used chemical fertilizers and pesticides, but they taste a lot better. People like the fact that we only use natural products. They regard it as safe food.”

The Centre for Environmental Policy, Research and Development (CEAPRED), a Nepal-based NGO, is helping to establish eight “climate-smart” villages in the centre of the country.

Increasingly erratic rainfall is making it more difficult to eke out a living from agriculture. The annual monsoon rains tend to arrive later than in the past, and when the rain does fall it often buckets down in heavy downpours that are interspersed with long dry periods.

Meanwhile, scientists say temperatures across much of the Himalayan region are increasing at twice the global average.

Along with the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), CEAPRED is encouraging villagers to experiment with new ways of conserving water and new crop-growing techniques that will still give a good harvest, despite the changes in climate.

In Naubise, as everywhere in the deceptively green mountains of Nepal, water is in short supply for both drinking and irrigation.

It is easy for farmers to make jholmol because virtually every Nepalese smallholding has a couple of cows and one or two buffaloes to provide milk and pull the plough.

The manure is often also used for energy – shovelled into tanks to make bio-gas, which powers a gas ring in the kitchen.This saves on wood fuel and helps to preserve the precious community-owned forests that still cover the steepest hillsides.

Population pressure has gradually reduced the size of farms in Nepal over the past 50 years. The average size of a family holding today is just 0.8 hectares – and much less in many hilly areas.

Cash remittances

Most smallholdings are unable to provide adequate food or cash income for a family, so, increasingly, rural families depend on cash remittances from one or more sons who have gone abroad to find work.

Some estimates put the number of migrant workers driven off the land by poverty at more than three million – about 10% of Nepal’s 32 million population.

This year, the farmers of Naubise and hundreds of other mountain villages in central Nepal are even more hard-pressed than usual due to the series of earthquakes in April and May that killed more than 8,500 people and destroyed buildings in many communities.

Small self-help improvements such as jholmol are likely to play a key role in assisting the rural poor of Nepal – and potentially other mountainous countries in Asia – to survive in an increasingly harsh environment and deal with the impacts of climate change. – Climate News Network

  • Robert Powell is a journalist and humanitarian communications specialist.
    Email: robertgpowell@hotmail.com; LinkedIn: https://uk.linkedin.com/pub/robert-powell/6/580/4b3

Scientists push boundaries to find new energy

From algae to alloys, ingenuity in the world’s laboratories is fuelling experiments to find new ways of providing viable sources of clean energy.
LONDON, 8 October, 2015
– Wind and solar energy remain the only obvious replacements for fossil fuels, but recent research shows that scientists are clearly thinking outside the box to come up with future alternatives. They have recently been able to report at least theoretical progress with nuclear energy, algae, and a novel alloy. In just a few days, they proved that thermonuclear fusion – once somebody works out how to make it happen – will be economically viable. They have worked out how to cultivate green algae for biofuel in huge quantities at US$50 a barrel, which is about the cost of crude oil. They have even found a way to get electrical energy directly from cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae. And they have exploited an alloy that can deliver a colossal pulse of electric power when you kick it.

Experimental stage

None of these technologies has advanced beyond the experimental stage, but all are testament to the ingenuity now being deployed in the world’s laboratories and experimental start-ups. Fusion power – not to be confused with nuclear fission – exploits the thermonuclear conversion of hydrogen to helium with little or no noxious discharge and the generous release of energy. This is what powers the sun and fuels the planet’s life. It is also the basis of the thermonuclear bomb. For the last 60 years, humans have been trying to make fusion work peacefully on Earth, with only tantalising flickers of success. But if it does work, British scientists report in the journal Fusion Engineering and Design, it will not be too expensive. They analysed the cost of building, running and ultimately decommissioning a fusion power station, and found it comparable to fission or nuclear energy. The challenge of nuclear fusion is to heat stripped-down heavy hydrogen atoms to 100 million °C so that they fuse into helium, while finding a way to tap the released energy, and at the same time keep the reaction going.

“What we can say is that our predictions suggest fusion won’t be vastly more expensive than fission”

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), now being built in the South of France, might in a decade show that it could happen. Assuming it works, the process should be affordable. There would be no high-level radioactive waste, no problems with finding fuel, and no by-product that could be turned into nuclear weaponry. “Obviously we have had to make assumptions, but what we can say is that our predictions suggest fusion won’t be vastly more expensive than fission,” said Damian Hampshire, of the Centre for Materials Physics at Durham University, UK. “Calculating the cost of a fusion reactor is complex, given the variations in the cost of the raw materials and exchange rates. However, this work is a big step in the right direction.” Biofuel is currently based mostly on the conversion of agricultural crops – sugar cane, or corn – to feedstock for ethanol, which can be converted into gasoline or other fuels. But, in a hungry world, this is not an ideal solution. So researchers have been looking at the microbial plant life in waste water and ponds as a possible answer, with promising experimental results on the small scale. But now an Israeli company called Univerve has pioneered a cultivation system that gets ever more sunlight to speed up photosynthesis and get the algae working ever harder They report in Technology journal that they bubbled air through a suspended, modular triangular structure with transparent walls so the algae get their solar energy from all sides and their oxygen at all times. They promise green reactors up to 100 metres, holding 100 cubic metres of “production medium”, or algae. There is a bonus: algae make omega-3 oils, so it could also serve the food industry and deliver cattle feed, as well as feedstock for the biofuel business. In Montreal, Canada, researchers report in the same journal that they can tap into the photosynthesis in the tank full of algae and directly retrieve clean energy in the form of electricity. The process involves tapping into the electron transfer chains in the plant life that turn sunlight into carbon-based tissue. In essence, the tank of cyanobacteria serves as the anode in a biological battery.

Commercially-useful

Having demonstrated the principle, the next step is to work out how to get commercially-useful power from what becomes, quite literally, the power plant. In the US, civilian and military scientists have been looking again at an alloy of iron doped with gallium that has been around for decades, but which has just shown that it can produce electricity. It has been named Galfenol, and is described in the Journal of Applied Physics as magnetoelastic. Squeeze or deform it, and its magnetisation changes. Stick it in a magnetic field, and it changes shape. The scientists found that when boxed in a clamp so that it could not deform, wrapped with copper wire and subjected to a powerful impact, Galfenol generated as much as 80 megawatts of instantaneous power per cubic metre. That is, it converted mechanical energy into electromagnetic discharge. Right now, like the other advances, it remains a discovery awaiting an application. But energy researchers are certainly applying great ingenuity to the search for clean energy sources. – Climate News Network

From algae to alloys, ingenuity in the world’s laboratories is fuelling experiments to find new ways of providing viable sources of clean energy.
LONDON, 8 October, 2015
– Wind and solar energy remain the only obvious replacements for fossil fuels, but recent research shows that scientists are clearly thinking outside the box to come up with future alternatives. They have recently been able to report at least theoretical progress with nuclear energy, algae, and a novel alloy. In just a few days, they proved that thermonuclear fusion – once somebody works out how to make it happen – will be economically viable. They have worked out how to cultivate green algae for biofuel in huge quantities at US$50 a barrel, which is about the cost of crude oil. They have even found a way to get electrical energy directly from cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae. And they have exploited an alloy that can deliver a colossal pulse of electric power when you kick it.

Experimental stage

None of these technologies has advanced beyond the experimental stage, but all are testament to the ingenuity now being deployed in the world’s laboratories and experimental start-ups. Fusion power – not to be confused with nuclear fission – exploits the thermonuclear conversion of hydrogen to helium with little or no noxious discharge and the generous release of energy. This is what powers the sun and fuels the planet’s life. It is also the basis of the thermonuclear bomb. For the last 60 years, humans have been trying to make fusion work peacefully on Earth, with only tantalising flickers of success. But if it does work, British scientists report in the journal Fusion Engineering and Design, it will not be too expensive. They analysed the cost of building, running and ultimately decommissioning a fusion power station, and found it comparable to fission or nuclear energy. The challenge of nuclear fusion is to heat stripped-down heavy hydrogen atoms to 100 million °C so that they fuse into helium, while finding a way to tap the released energy, and at the same time keep the reaction going.

“What we can say is that our predictions suggest fusion won’t be vastly more expensive than fission”

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), now being built in the South of France, might in a decade show that it could happen. Assuming it works, the process should be affordable. There would be no high-level radioactive waste, no problems with finding fuel, and no by-product that could be turned into nuclear weaponry. “Obviously we have had to make assumptions, but what we can say is that our predictions suggest fusion won’t be vastly more expensive than fission,” said Damian Hampshire, of the Centre for Materials Physics at Durham University, UK. “Calculating the cost of a fusion reactor is complex, given the variations in the cost of the raw materials and exchange rates. However, this work is a big step in the right direction.” Biofuel is currently based mostly on the conversion of agricultural crops – sugar cane, or corn – to feedstock for ethanol, which can be converted into gasoline or other fuels. But, in a hungry world, this is not an ideal solution. So researchers have been looking at the microbial plant life in waste water and ponds as a possible answer, with promising experimental results on the small scale. But now an Israeli company called Univerve has pioneered a cultivation system that gets ever more sunlight to speed up photosynthesis and get the algae working ever harder They report in Technology journal that they bubbled air through a suspended, modular triangular structure with transparent walls so the algae get their solar energy from all sides and their oxygen at all times. They promise green reactors up to 100 metres, holding 100 cubic metres of “production medium”, or algae. There is a bonus: algae make omega-3 oils, so it could also serve the food industry and deliver cattle feed, as well as feedstock for the biofuel business. In Montreal, Canada, researchers report in the same journal that they can tap into the photosynthesis in the tank full of algae and directly retrieve clean energy in the form of electricity. The process involves tapping into the electron transfer chains in the plant life that turn sunlight into carbon-based tissue. In essence, the tank of cyanobacteria serves as the anode in a biological battery.

Commercially-useful

Having demonstrated the principle, the next step is to work out how to get commercially-useful power from what becomes, quite literally, the power plant. In the US, civilian and military scientists have been looking again at an alloy of iron doped with gallium that has been around for decades, but which has just shown that it can produce electricity. It has been named Galfenol, and is described in the Journal of Applied Physics as magnetoelastic. Squeeze or deform it, and its magnetisation changes. Stick it in a magnetic field, and it changes shape. The scientists found that when boxed in a clamp so that it could not deform, wrapped with copper wire and subjected to a powerful impact, Galfenol generated as much as 80 megawatts of instantaneous power per cubic metre. That is, it converted mechanical energy into electromagnetic discharge. Right now, like the other advances, it remains a discovery awaiting an application. But energy researchers are certainly applying great ingenuity to the search for clean energy sources. – Climate News Network

Elephant grass could offer viable alternative to coal

By adapting a tropical grass to grow in the British climate, scientists hope to be able to replace coal in power stations with biofuel. LONDON, 29 September, 2015 − The UK government is spending £1.8 million on a scientific project that aims to breed a new seed-producing variety of tropical grass that could provide a viable source of fuel for power stations. Miscanthus, better known as elephant grass, is already being used in Europe to produce biofuel to replace coal in power stations − but growing enough of it is the main drawback. So scientists at Aberystwyth University in Wales are being given government funding to help develop miscanthus strains that like UK conditions and produce viable seeds, without losing the fast-growing and drying properties that make it ideal for biofuel. The variety currently used is Miscanthus x Giganteus, which grows fast – up to three metres tall − on poor agricultural land in Europe to produce a cash crop for farmers in the spring, when the dried stalks from the previous year are ideal for burning in power stations.

Hybrid variety

However, the “giganteus” is a hybrid variety that does not produce viable seeds. To grow a new plant, farmers currently have to break off and sow a bit of the root, or rhizome, of another elephant grass. Even with machines to plant dozens of chopped-up rhizomes, it is very time-consuming to plant enough elephant grass to feed a power station, or to make bio-fuel for cars. If the grass produced seed, areas could be planted 200 times faster. Currently, the UK demand for biomass for electricity is more than 5 million tonnes a year, of which 75% is imported − which partly defeats the object, since transporting biomass uses fossil fuels. The theory is that all of these imports could be replaced by elephant grass if UK farmers were given the means to plant enough.

“We need to develop our economy to take advantage of green technologies, as opposed to relying on a limited stock of fossil fuels”

In addition, smaller local biomass plants could be built near where the elephant grass grows, thus cutting transport costs. And any surplus could be used to produce liquid fuel to power lorries and cars. According to enthusiasts, if a car engine used a gallon of fuel every 25 miles, one tonne of miscanthus could produce biofuel to drive over 750 miles. Once the grass has been planted, it lives for 20 years and produces 10-20 tonnes of fuel per hectare. It is also said to be beneficial for birds and wildlife that live protected inside the almost impenetrable foliage and in the leaf litter between the rows. In some parts of the world, miscanthus varieties that do produce seeds can be a problem as they can block watercourses and are hard to remove once their roots have become established. However, the scientists at Aberystwyth University’s Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences are confident that they can produce a plant that reproduces and grows well in European conditions, while avoiding any environmental problems with careful management.

Reduce emissions

Dr John Clifford Brown, leader of the project, believes that the crop will benefit the agricultural industry and reduce the UK’s carbon emissions. He revealed that the university has already spent 10 years working on developing miscanthus into a crop that can supply the UK’s growing biomass demand, and that the seeds of the new hybrids will be planted at four trial sites across the UK to see which performs best. “Several harvesting approaches will be explored to maximise crop quality and quantity,” he said. “The overall goal is to develop new systems for miscanthus-based agriculture that increase profitability, and so enable transition of today’s niche crop into a large-scale biomass supply system. “The UK needs to reduce CO2 emissions in order to mitigate climate change, and we also need to develop our economy to take advantage of green technologies, as opposed to relying on a limited stock of fossil fuels.” – Climate News Network

By adapting a tropical grass to grow in the British climate, scientists hope to be able to replace coal in power stations with biofuel. LONDON, 29 September, 2015 − The UK government is spending £1.8 million on a scientific project that aims to breed a new seed-producing variety of tropical grass that could provide a viable source of fuel for power stations. Miscanthus, better known as elephant grass, is already being used in Europe to produce biofuel to replace coal in power stations − but growing enough of it is the main drawback. So scientists at Aberystwyth University in Wales are being given government funding to help develop miscanthus strains that like UK conditions and produce viable seeds, without losing the fast-growing and drying properties that make it ideal for biofuel. The variety currently used is Miscanthus x Giganteus, which grows fast – up to three metres tall − on poor agricultural land in Europe to produce a cash crop for farmers in the spring, when the dried stalks from the previous year are ideal for burning in power stations.

Hybrid variety

However, the “giganteus” is a hybrid variety that does not produce viable seeds. To grow a new plant, farmers currently have to break off and sow a bit of the root, or rhizome, of another elephant grass. Even with machines to plant dozens of chopped-up rhizomes, it is very time-consuming to plant enough elephant grass to feed a power station, or to make bio-fuel for cars. If the grass produced seed, areas could be planted 200 times faster. Currently, the UK demand for biomass for electricity is more than 5 million tonnes a year, of which 75% is imported − which partly defeats the object, since transporting biomass uses fossil fuels. The theory is that all of these imports could be replaced by elephant grass if UK farmers were given the means to plant enough.

“We need to develop our economy to take advantage of green technologies, as opposed to relying on a limited stock of fossil fuels”

In addition, smaller local biomass plants could be built near where the elephant grass grows, thus cutting transport costs. And any surplus could be used to produce liquid fuel to power lorries and cars. According to enthusiasts, if a car engine used a gallon of fuel every 25 miles, one tonne of miscanthus could produce biofuel to drive over 750 miles. Once the grass has been planted, it lives for 20 years and produces 10-20 tonnes of fuel per hectare. It is also said to be beneficial for birds and wildlife that live protected inside the almost impenetrable foliage and in the leaf litter between the rows. In some parts of the world, miscanthus varieties that do produce seeds can be a problem as they can block watercourses and are hard to remove once their roots have become established. However, the scientists at Aberystwyth University’s Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences are confident that they can produce a plant that reproduces and grows well in European conditions, while avoiding any environmental problems with careful management.

Reduce emissions

Dr John Clifford Brown, leader of the project, believes that the crop will benefit the agricultural industry and reduce the UK’s carbon emissions. He revealed that the university has already spent 10 years working on developing miscanthus into a crop that can supply the UK’s growing biomass demand, and that the seeds of the new hybrids will be planted at four trial sites across the UK to see which performs best. “Several harvesting approaches will be explored to maximise crop quality and quantity,” he said. “The overall goal is to develop new systems for miscanthus-based agriculture that increase profitability, and so enable transition of today’s niche crop into a large-scale biomass supply system. “The UK needs to reduce CO2 emissions in order to mitigate climate change, and we also need to develop our economy to take advantage of green technologies, as opposed to relying on a limited stock of fossil fuels.” – Climate News Network

Cutting warming to 1.5°C could put food supply at risk

Scientists say meeting the tougher demands of many countries on limiting global temperature rise may be technically feasible, but would risk worsening world hunger. LONDON, 21 May, 2015 – As world leaders try to agree how to prevent global warming from heating the planet by more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels, scientists have tackled an altogether thornier question: can we keep the rise below 1.5°C? The lower target − demanded by more than 100 countries as a safer goal − is attainable, they say. But there will be little room for error, and getting there will mean not only cutting greenhouse gas emissions, but actually removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. That is not possible with the technology now available. And even if it could one day be done, it would probably have forbiddingly harmful consequences for world food supplies. However, limiting temperature rise by 2100 to less than 1.5°C is still feasible, say the researchers from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), Germany, and colleagues. They report their findings in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Similar actions

Not surprisingly, the answer includes doing more, and doing it faster. “Actions for returning global warming to below 1.5°C by 2100 are in many ways similar to those for limiting warming to below 2°C,” says IIASA climate researcher Joeri Rogelj, one of the lead authors of the report. The authors accept that the economic, political, and technological conditions for achieving even 2°C are “substantial”. The negotiations to be held in Paris in December by member states of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) may show what chance there is of meeting them. The new study identifies key ways of reaching the 1.5°C target by 2100. One is a tight limit on future carbon emissions. Gunnar Luderer, PIK senior researcher in sustainable solutions, who co-led the study, says: “In 1.5°C scenarios, the remaining carbon budget for the 21st century is reduced to almost half, compared to 2°C scenarios. “As a consequence, deeper emissions cuts are required from all sectors, and global carbon neutrality would need to be reached 10-20 years earlier than projected for 2°C scenarios.” Energy efficiency will also need to improve faster, he says.

“The scenarios we assess keep warming to the lowest levels currently considered technologically feasible”

But the study finds that staying below 1.5°C would require a radical step change: some time this century, carbon emissions would have to become negative at a global scale. That is the scientists’ way of saying that significant amounts of CO2 will have to be actively removed from the atmosphere. And there is at present no known way of doing that. In theory, it is possible − for example, through bio-energy use, combined with carbon capture and storage. But that is a technology that so far remains untested on a large scale. It would also increase hunger, as the crops needed to produce enough biofuel would compete for land with food plants. Another idea is to grow more forests, which would sequester carbon in their trees, but this would be open to the same objection − that it would reduce cropland. The higher temperatures in prospect will themselves affect forest growth and health.

Lowest levels

Rogelj told the Climate News Network: “Increased temperatures can make afforestation efforts harder. However, the scenarios we assess here keep warming to the lowest levels currently considered technologically feasible, and this issue will thus have a relatively smaller impact.” Whatever happens, the authors expect things to get hotter before they have any chance of cooling down. Rogelj says: “Basically, all our 1.5°C scenarios first exceed the 1.5°C temperature threshold somewhere in mid-century, before declining to 2100 and beyond as more and more carbon dioxide is actively removed from the atmosphere by specialised technologies.” Over 100 countries worldwide more than half the members of the UNFCCC, including the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) have declared their support for a 1.5°C target. – Climate News Network

Scientists say meeting the tougher demands of many countries on limiting global temperature rise may be technically feasible, but would risk worsening world hunger. LONDON, 21 May, 2015 – As world leaders try to agree how to prevent global warming from heating the planet by more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels, scientists have tackled an altogether thornier question: can we keep the rise below 1.5°C? The lower target − demanded by more than 100 countries as a safer goal − is attainable, they say. But there will be little room for error, and getting there will mean not only cutting greenhouse gas emissions, but actually removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. That is not possible with the technology now available. And even if it could one day be done, it would probably have forbiddingly harmful consequences for world food supplies. However, limiting temperature rise by 2100 to less than 1.5°C is still feasible, say the researchers from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), Germany, and colleagues. They report their findings in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Similar actions

Not surprisingly, the answer includes doing more, and doing it faster. “Actions for returning global warming to below 1.5°C by 2100 are in many ways similar to those for limiting warming to below 2°C,” says IIASA climate researcher Joeri Rogelj, one of the lead authors of the report. The authors accept that the economic, political, and technological conditions for achieving even 2°C are “substantial”. The negotiations to be held in Paris in December by member states of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) may show what chance there is of meeting them. The new study identifies key ways of reaching the 1.5°C target by 2100. One is a tight limit on future carbon emissions. Gunnar Luderer, PIK senior researcher in sustainable solutions, who co-led the study, says: “In 1.5°C scenarios, the remaining carbon budget for the 21st century is reduced to almost half, compared to 2°C scenarios. “As a consequence, deeper emissions cuts are required from all sectors, and global carbon neutrality would need to be reached 10-20 years earlier than projected for 2°C scenarios.” Energy efficiency will also need to improve faster, he says.

“The scenarios we assess keep warming to the lowest levels currently considered technologically feasible”

But the study finds that staying below 1.5°C would require a radical step change: some time this century, carbon emissions would have to become negative at a global scale. That is the scientists’ way of saying that significant amounts of CO2 will have to be actively removed from the atmosphere. And there is at present no known way of doing that. In theory, it is possible − for example, through bio-energy use, combined with carbon capture and storage. But that is a technology that so far remains untested on a large scale. It would also increase hunger, as the crops needed to produce enough biofuel would compete for land with food plants. Another idea is to grow more forests, which would sequester carbon in their trees, but this would be open to the same objection − that it would reduce cropland. The higher temperatures in prospect will themselves affect forest growth and health.

Lowest levels

Rogelj told the Climate News Network: “Increased temperatures can make afforestation efforts harder. However, the scenarios we assess here keep warming to the lowest levels currently considered technologically feasible, and this issue will thus have a relatively smaller impact.” Whatever happens, the authors expect things to get hotter before they have any chance of cooling down. Rogelj says: “Basically, all our 1.5°C scenarios first exceed the 1.5°C temperature threshold somewhere in mid-century, before declining to 2100 and beyond as more and more carbon dioxide is actively removed from the atmosphere by specialised technologies.” Over 100 countries worldwide more than half the members of the UNFCCC, including the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) have declared their support for a 1.5°C target. – Climate News Network