Tag Archives: carbon dioxide

New metal organic framework can produce valuable chemicals out of factory smoke

New technology aims to turn smoke from industry and power generation into useful, commercially-valuable products. The process hinges on a newly-developed metal organic framework (MOF) as a catalyst.

Image via Pixabay.

Smokestacks around the world release a tremendous amount of carbon dioxide gas into the atmosphere. What if, instead of letting it pile up in the atmosphere and heat up the climate, we captured this CO2 and put it to good use, instead? That’s exactly the aim of a scientific collaboration led by researchers at Oregon State University — and, according to a new study they published, one they accomplished.

The team describes a new metal organic framework, a compound material in which metals are used as a base, and interlaced with organic crystals. The compounds inside this MOF act as a catalyst, enabling the production of cyclic carbonates — a useful family of chemicals — from CO2 released in factory flue gases (smokestacks).

Up in smoke

“We’ve taken a big step toward solving a crucial challenge associated with the hoped-for circular carbon economy by developing an effective catalyst,” said chemistry researcher Kyriakos Stylianou of the Oregon State University College of Science, who led the study. “A key to that is understanding the molecular interactions between the active sites in MOFs with potentially reactive molecules.”

The novel MOF is loaded with propylene oxide, a common industrial chemical. This acts as a catalyst, allowing for the quick and easy conversion of CO2 gas into cyclic carbonates. These latter compounds have ring-shaped molecules and are quite useful for a variety of applications — ranging from pharmaceutical precursors to battery electrolytes.

The best part about this is that carbon is scrubbed out of flue gases in the process. Essentially, this MOF can be used to clean greenhouse gases from the smoke. It can also remove carbon from biogas (a mix of CO2, methane, and other gases produced by decaying organic matter).

The MOF is based on lanthanides, a somewhat special (and somewhat rare) family of metals — in fact, they’re often referred to as ‘rare earths’. They are soft, silvery-white, and have a variety of uses. Some examples of lanthanides include cerium, europium, and gadolinium.

Lanthanides were used for the MOF because they provide good chemical stability. This is especially important because the gases the MOF will be exposed to are hot, high in humidity, and quite acidic. The metal acts as a binder, holding the active organic materials in place so they can act as catalysts.

“We observed that within the pores, propylene oxide can directly bind to the cerium centers and activate interactions for the cycloaddition of carbon dioxide,” Stylianou said. “Using our MOFs, stable after multiple cycles of carbon dioxide capture and conversion, we describe the fixation of carbon dioxide into the propylene oxide’s epoxy ring for the production of cyclic carbonates.”

The team says that their findings are “very exciting”. They’re particularly thrilled about the MOF’s ability to use carbon dioxide gas even from impure sources, which saves time, energy, and costs associated with separating it before the process.

The paper “Lanthanide metal–organic frameworks for the fixation of CO2 under aqueous-rich and mixed-gas conditions” has been published in the Journal of Materials Chemistry A.

We could store car exhaust and use it to fuel our crops, in about a decade or so

Could car exhaust be captured and used to grow crops? Researchers at Texas A&M University are saying yes. A new white paper published by three faculty members is proposing that CO2 and water from car exhaust can be captured for this purpose, and outlines a general approach on how to do so. Although such an idea might seem quite exotic, it’s not the first time it’s been proposed, the authors argue.

Image credits Andreas Lischka.

The current paper doesn’t intend to offer an exact solution to such an approach, or the exact way through which it is to be implemented. Rather, it is a white paper — it outlines the basic issue and the authors’ initial analysis and thoughts on how to best address it. The team hopes that this paper will help to attract the funding needed to perform in-depth, formal research on the topic.

From tailpipe to table

“I started reading the related literature and did simulations of what was possible,” says Maria Barrufet, professor and Baker Hughes Endowed Chair in the Harold Vance Department of Petroleum Engineering at Texas A&M. “This is entirely realistic.”

“Several proposals have already been written for large trucks and marine vehicle applications, but nothing has been implemented yet. And we are the first to think of a passenger car engine.”

Such an approach would help massively reduce humanity’s overall environmental impact by reducing our output of carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. At the same time, it would help us increase agricultural productivity without placing any extra strain on natural processes and the ecosystems that provide them.

In broad lines, what the authors propose is to integrate a device into car engines that would capture and compress these waste products. The device in question would operate on the organic Rankine cycle (ORC) system and would be powered by waste heat given off by the engine. Organic Rankine cycle systems operate very similarly to steam engines on a smaller scale, using an organic fluid in lieu of water. This fluid has a lower boiling point than water, meaning that the device requires much lower temperatures to produce physical work than a traditional steam engine.

In turn, this ORC system will power components such as a heat exchange and pumps which will cool down and compress CO2 from a gas into a liquid, to enable storage.

The team explains that the CO2 and water captured from exhaust engines could prove to be very useful for agriculture, especially in high-intensity urban greenhouses. Such greenhouses employ artificial atmospheres that are highly enriched in CO2, generally containing around three times as much of it as the air we breathe. In combination with other systems supplying vital nutrients, this higher concentration of CO2 helps foster plant growth and leads to increased yields, as plants primarily grow using carbon from the air. Farms like these already spend money purchasing CO2, but making the gas widely available for cheap from traffic — maybe even for free — could go a long way towards promoting intensive urban agriculture. The team explains that on average, urban farms purchase roughly 5 pounds (2 kg) of CO2 and nearly six gallons (22 liters) of water for every two pounds (1 kg) of produce they grow.

Another argument in favor of such a scheme is that growing produce locally further reduces costs and environmental impact related to storing, handling, transporting, and refrigerating produce from farms to groceries. It would also help reduce traffic.

Beyond the benefits to agriculture, the sheer environmental benefits such a scheme can produce would be immense. In 2019, there were 1.4 billion private vehicles in operation globally, producing an average of 4.6 tons of CO2 per year each — which adds up to a lot.

“Years ago, we didn’t think we could have air conditioning in a car,” Barrufet said. “This is a similar concept to the air conditioning that we now have. In a simple way, it’s like that device, it will fit in tight spaces.”

For us driving the cars, the ORC system wouldn’t make any noticeable impact. Since it operates using waste heat, the authors are confident that it will not lead to any significant loss of engine power, increase in fuel use, or maintenance needs (although special coatings will be needed to prevent corrosion in the heat exchange systems). As far as emptying the system, the team envisions drivers simply turning in cartridges of water and CO2 in specialized centers, or even at gas stations, in exchange for empty ones. There’s nothing preventing them from using the products in their own greenhouses, however, but the authors stress that this process should be done responsibly to ensure that the CO2 is fully absorbed by plants and does not escape into the atmosphere — which would defeat the purpose of this whole exercise in the first place.

Not everything is settled, however. There is still work to be done determining how large these cartridges should be, how the water produced by the system should be handled (water cannot be compressed like a gas), and technical details, such as determining how the weight of these cartridges would affect the car’s performance and handling across all possible levels of weight.

Realistically, we’re probably looking at roughly 10 years or so of development before such systems are ready to be implemented commercially. We already have all the individual components needed, but we still need to figure out how to put them all together in the most efficient way.

“All of these independent ideas and technologies have no value if they cannot connect,” Barrufet said. “We need people concerned about the future to make this happen soon, energized students in petroleum, mechanical, civil, agricultural and other engineering disciplines who can cross boundaries and work in sync.”

The paper “Capture of CO2 and Water While Driving for Use in the Food and Agricultural Systems” has been published in the journal Circular Economy and Sustainability.

Submersible robots help us better understand ocean health and carbon flows

Floating robots could become indispensable in helping us monitor the health of ocean ecosystems and the flow of carbon between the atmosphere and oceans, according to a new study.

Although the microscopic marine plants and animals which make up plankton are the bedrock of ocean ecosystems. While they’re essential for the well-being of everything that swims, they’re also very important for our comfort and well-being, too. Plankton is one of the largest single sources of oxygen on the planet, and it consumes a lot of CO2 to do it. This process is known as marine primary productivity.

Knowing how they’re faring, then, would be a great help. Floating robots can help us out in that regard, according to a new paper.

Floats my boats

“Based on imperfect computer models, we’ve predicted primary production by marine phytoplankton will decrease in a warmer ocean, but we didn’t have a way to make global-scale measurements to verify models. Now we do,” said Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) Senior Scientist Ken Johnson, first author of the paper.

Together with former MBARI postdoctoral fellow Mariana Bif, Johnson shows how a fleet of marine robots could completely change our understanding of primary productivity on a global scale. Data from these crafts would allow researchers to more accurately model the flow of carbon between the atmosphere and the ocean, thus improving our understanding of the global carbon cycle.

Furthermore, the duo explains, shifts in phytoplankton productivity can have significant effects on all life on Earth by changing how much carbon oceans absorb, and by altering oceanic food webs. The latter can easily impact human food security, as the oceans are a prime source of food for communities all over the world. In the context of our changing climate, it’s especially important to know with accuracy how much carbon plankton can scrub out of the atmosphere, and what factors influence this quantity.

Part of what makes the ocean such a good carbon sink is that dead organic matter sinks to the bottom. Plankton grows by consuming atmospheric oxygen, and is in turn consumed by other organisms, such as fish. As these eventually die, they sink to the bottom of the sea, where they’re decomposed by bacteria, releasing carbon in the process. However, because this happens at great depths, the carbon is effectively prevented from returning to the atmosphere for very long periods of time. Generally, it seeps into deep-water sediments and stays there for millions of years or more.

That being said, this process is very sensitive to environmental factors such as changes in climate. While we understand that this happens, we’ve not been able to actually monitor how primary productivity is responding to climate change on a global scale, as most of it happens in the depths of the oceans.

“We might expect global primary productivity to change with a warming climate,” explained Johnson. “It might go up in some places, down in others, but we don’t have a good grip on how those will balance.”

“Satellites can be used to make global maps of primary productivity, but the values are based on models and aren’t direct measurements,”

Autonomous robots could help us get the data we need, the study argues. For starters, it’s much easier to build robots that can withstand the humongous pressures of the deep ocean than it is to build equivalent manned submarines. Secondly, robots are mass-producible for relatively little cost. Human crews are expensive and slow to train — they’re also quite limited in availability. Finally, robots can operate for much longer periods of time than human crews, and nobody needs to risk their life in the process.

The authors point to the deployment of Biogeochemical-Argo (BGC-Argo) floats across the globe as a great example of how robots can help monitor primary productivity. These automated floats can measure temperature, salinity, oxygen, pH, chlorophyll, and nutrient content in marine environments, at depths of up to 2,000 meters (6,600 ft). A float can perform its monitoring tasks autonomously, shifting between different depths and supplying live data to researchers onshore. These robots have been deployed in increasing numbers over the past decade, providing reliable — but as of yet, still sparse — measurements of oxygen production across the globe.

Although the data they’ve been feeding us didn’t tell us anything new, it is the first time we’ve been able to quantitatively measure primary productivity directly.

“Oxygen goes up in the day due to photosynthesis, down at night due to respiration—if you can get the daily cycle of oxygen, you have a measurement of primary productivity,” explained Johnson.

In order to confirm that these robots were actually performing their job reliably, the team compared primary productivity estimates computed from the BGC-Argo floats to ship-based sampling data in two regions: the Hawaii Ocean Time-series (HOT) Station and the Bermuda Atlantic Time-series Station (BATS). The data from these two sources matched over several years, proving the reliability of the system.

“We can’t yet say if there is change in ocean primary productivity because our time series is too short,” cautioned Bif. “But it establishes a current baseline from which we might detect future change. We hope that our estimates will be incorporated into models, including those used for satellites, to improve their performance.”

Seeing as we have drones flying about the atmosphere taking pictures of everything and anything, it only makes sense that we’d eventually have some doing the same underwater. I am personally very thrilled to see robots taking on the deepest depths. The ocean is a fascinating place, but I’m also terrified of drowning, so I’ll probably never work up the courage to actually explore it. Hopefully, our automated friends will do the work for us and help us understand what is still a very much unexplored frontier of Earth.

The paper “Constraint on net primary productivity of the global ocean by Argo oxygen measurements” has been published in the journal Nature.

A new model developed to estimate how ocean acidity evolves over time

A new mathematical model developed at the University of Colorado at Boulder could allow us to accurately forecast ocean acidity levels up to five years in advance.

A pteropod shell submerged in seawater adjusted to an ocean chemistry projected for the year 2100. It dissolved in 45 days.
Image credits NOAA.

Ocean acidification is driven by CO2 gas in the atmosphere, levels of which are increasing sharply due to human activity. The acid in question is carbonic acid which, although a relatively weak acid, can impact the health and wellbeing of marine life by messing with their metabolism and calcification processes (i.e. with their ability to form and maintain shells).

The authors hope that their model can be used to insulate coastal communities from the economic and nutritional impacts of ocean acidification while helping researchers and policymakers develop adequate conservation methods for marine environments.

Not the acid we were looking for

“We’ve taken a climate model and run it like you would have a weather forecast, essentially — and the model included ocean chemistry, which is extremely novel,” said Riley Brady, lead author of the study, and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences.

The team says that their model is the first to allow for acidity predictions over such a long time period, as previous attempts could only reliably predict up to a few months of data.

For the study, the team focused on the California Current System (CCS), which is one of the four major coastal upwelling systems in the world, running from the tip of Baja California in Mexico all the way up into the Canadian coast. The CCS supports fishing grounds that yield around a billion dollars in fishing catches every year in the U.S. alone. It’s also particularly vulnerable to ocean acidification, the team explains, as it pushes deeper waters (which acidic and denser, so they settle near the bottom) to the surface. The extra acidification we’re causing could push its fragile ecosystems over the edge.

The team used a climate model developed at the National Center for Atmospheric Research to generate ‘forecasts’ for past changes in acidity levels and compared those to real-world data — finding that they fit recorded changes very well. Another advantage this model has over localized ones that it can factor in events with global effects, such as El Niño.

However, while the results were quite exciting, our ability to deploy such models is still limited. These tools still require an immense amount of computational power, data, manpower, and time to implement and run, so they can’t really be used around the clock to generate acidification forecasts.

But we do know that they would be useful. It’s estimated that around 30% to 40% of the CO2 emissions from human activity are absorbed by the world’s waters and react to form carbonic acid, which makes them more acidic. The effect is only going to increase in the future, and researchers are expecting that large swaths of the ocean are going to become completely corrosive to the shells of certain organisms within decades.

“The ocean has been doing us a huge favor,” said study co-author Nicole Lovenduski, associate professor in atmospheric and oceanic sciences and head of the Ocean Biogeochemistry Research Group at INSTAAR.

But now, “ocean acidification is proceeding at a rate 10 times faster today than any time in the last 55 million years.”

Communities who rely on ocean resources for food or tourism will undoubtedly be affected by acidification, the team notes.

The paper “Skillful multiyear predictions of ocean acidification in the California Current System” has been published in the journal Nature.

Global warming is literally dissolving the ocean’s plankton

Ocean acidification is wreaking havoc on the ocean’s tiniest inhabitants, and the entire ocean is likely feeling the effects.

The color scale shows shell thickness. Old plankton had thicker, healthier shells than modern samples. Image from Fox et al / Scientific Reports (2020).

As a geology student, many things can be unusual. You start to think about time in millions of years, which is completely counterintuitive. You start to realize just how intricate (and beautiful) the processes that shape our planet are, and you also start to understand that there are firm physical laws governing how our planet looks like. There’s a reason why mountains on Earth don’t grow forever and why the continents move about the way they do — the laws of physics constrain geology, and they constrain nature.

What does this have to do with plankton, one might ask, and the oceans in general?

Well, many of the ocean’s inhabitants have soft bodies protected by hard shells. Clams, oysters, and sea snails have them, as do multiple other types of mollusks and plankton. These seashells are almost always made of calcium carbonate — which, under most conditions, is fine. The ocean water is well-suited to support calcium carbonate under normal conditions. But here, too, there is a physical rule that allows this.

Seawater is slightly basic (meaning pH > 7). When we increase the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) we emit, not all of it goes into the atmosphere. Much of it, in fact, is absorbed by the oceans. As oceans absorb CO2, their chemistry starts to change, and they become more acidic.

When there is too much carbon dioxide in the oceans, it makes for acidic waters that don’t support seashells. If current emission trends continue, it might spell disaster for many of the ocean’s inhabitants. Image credits: Elisajans / Wikipedia.

When the acidity reaches a certain threshold, animals can no longer build and maintain seashells, and they can’t survive anymore.

This is already happening, a new study shows.

Plankton old, plankton new

The new study started in a museum.

When it comes to comparing our current environment with that of the past, museums can provide a trove of information. The museum is not just what you see when you visit it — museums have additional storage rooms, where they sometimes keep thousands upon thousands of samples gathered by researchers. In this case, Lyndsey Fox, a researcher from Kingston University in London, analyzed plankton fossils gathered by the 1872–76 expedition of the HMS Challenger.

Studying micro-fossils is never an easy task. Analyzing how thick their shells are and then using a tomography scanner to create 3D models of their shells (which are less than 1 millimeter in diameter) is an even trickier job. But Fox and colleagues succeeded, and built stunning reconstructions of this century-old plankton. They then did the same thing for plankton gathered from a 2011 expedition to the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean called Tara.

The results were striking.

All modern plankton had much thinner shells — up to 76% thinner. In some cases, the shells were so thin that the team wasn’t even able to image them.

No matter where researchers looked, modern plankton had thinner, more vulnerable shells. Image credits: Fox et al / Scientific Reports (2020).

It’s a shocking result. Researchers were well aware that ocean acidification was taking a toll, but the extent to which this was observed is concerning.

Stress on all sides

Some species seem to handle it better than others, presumably due to biological differences among species (though researchers did not attempt to explain this).

“Whilst all specimens analyzed showed some reduction in shell thickness, the degree to which different species responded varied greatly,” the authors of the study write.

There are plenty of old samples in museums, and researchers want to look at more species from different areas of the ocean and study the differences and peculiarities — but the elephant in the room is clear. As we pump more and more carbon dioxide, much of it will end up in our oceans, with long-lasting consequences for the entire ecosystem. We are reaching a point where some organisms are already struggling to maintain their shells, the study highlights.

“Oceanic carbonate ion concentrations decrease as a consequence of increased atmospheric CO2 levels, which, in turn, has a negative effect on the capacity for calcifying organisms (such as molluscs, crustaceans, corals, and foraminifera) to form their essential skeletal or shell material out of calcium carbonate,” the study continues.

It’s not just microscopic creatures, either. A recent study found that ocean acidification is also destroying the shells of crabs, and while some creatures might take it better than others, no creature is spared from its effects. When the plankton suffers, the entire food chain on Earth suffers.

The evil twin of global warming, as ocean acidification is often referred to, is even more insidious than its sibling. We don’t see when plankton is being dissolved in the ocean. We hardly know how many creatures are unable to maintain their shells due to it. We may not know the full scale of the problem, but we know the cause, and we know that if we want to address it, reducing our emissions is key.

To make matters even worse, ocean acidification doesn’t act in a vacuum. The oceans are getting warmer, and as the oceans gather more carbon, they have less available oxygen — which creatures also need. This is a one-two punch which, many creatures are struggling to withstand.

“Ocean acidification is not the only stressor faced by the world’s oceans in the coming decades and over the time period studied here. Rising temperatures and deoxygenation are also likely to have a substantial impact on marine ecosystems, and eastern boundary upwelling systems are likely to be strongly affected by all three stressors,” the study concludes.

We might not see it, but it just goes to show how insidious the effects of global warming really are.

The study was published in Scientific Reports.

Even a little extra CO2 is triggering big changes in forests

While there’s a lot of talk about how forests can help mitigate climate change thanks to their net-positive CO2 absorption, not nearly enough attention has been given to how climate change will affect forests. A new study found that as the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide increases, plants adapt by changing the way they utilize water. The results suggest that evergreen plants are at an advantage, potentially replacing deciduous or leaf-shedding trees in many areas of the globe.

Credit: Pixabay.

Jennifer McElwain, a paleobotanist at Trinity College Dublin, has in the past analyzed how plants adapted to changes in atmospheric oxygen and carbon dioxide millions of years ago. This time, McElwain and colleagues didn’t look at the fossil record but rather studied relatively recent data and records on forest growth.

The work of Jack Wolfe at the Smithsonian Institute in Chicago proved paramount. During the 1980s and 1990s, he kept meticulous records of changes in forests around the world, from tropical ecosystems like Fiji to desert landscapes in Arizona. When this data was recorded, CO2 levels in the atmosphere were about 50 parts per million (ppm) lower than they are today.

The team led by McElwain traveled to 21 forest sites that Wolfe had first surveyed decades earlier, comparing what they found to the old records.

What they found was very surprising. In the span of only 30 years, the way the forests responded to CO2 was significantly different at the physiological level.

“We looked at how the woody plants handle water, which they release through the leaves as water vapour, and we could see plants had become more efficient at holding on to water,”said Dr. Wuu Kuang Soh, a research associate at Trinity College and lead author of the new study. “They were losing less water for every molecule of carbon they were taking up from the atmosphere.”

The findings suggest that increasing CO2 in the atmosphere is affecting the forests’ capacity to retain water, and this may have important consequences. For example, when forests recycle less water, floods became more common.

Evergreen trees and shrubs are more efficient in using water than their leaf-shedding counterparts in cooler climates. By the end of the century, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could double, dramatically altering the ecology of forests globally.

“Our results indicate that future increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide may confer a competitive advantage to woody evergreen trees in cooler parts of the world, and this insight will improve our ability to build models on vegetation response to future climate change,” McElwain said in a statement.

The findings appeared in the journal Science Advances.

An artificial leaf can turn carbon dioxide into fuel

Seeking innovative ways to deal with the rise in greenhouse gas emissions, a group of scientists has developed a so-called “artificial leaf” that can convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into a useful alternative fuel – with almost no costs.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

The research, published in the journal Nature Energy, was inspired by the way plants use energy from sunlight to turn carbon dioxide into food.

“We call it an artificial leaf because it mimics real leaves and the process of photosynthesis,” said Yimin Wu, an engineering professor at the University of Waterloo who led the research. “A leaf produces glucose and oxygen. We produce methanol and oxygen.”

Carbon dioxide is the primary contributor to global warming. Making methanol out of it would both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide a substitute for the fossil fuels that create them. The key to the process is a cheap, optimized red powder called cuprous oxide.

The powder is created by a chemical reaction when four substances – glucose, copper acetate, sodium hydroxide, and sodium dodecyl sulfate – are added to water that has been heated to a particular temperature. It’s engineered to have as many eight-sided particles as possible

Then, the powder serves as the catalyst, or trigger, for another chemical reaction when it is mixed with water into which carbon dioxide is blown and a beam of white light is directed with a solar simulator.

“This is the chemical reaction that we discovered,” said Wu, who has worked on the project since 2015. “Nobody has done this before.”

The reaction produces oxygen, as in photosynthesis, while also converting carbon dioxide in the water-powder solution into methanol. The methanol is collected as it evaporates when the solution is heated.

Looking ahead, the next steps in the research include increasing the methanol yield and commercializing the patented process to convert carbon dioxide collected from major greenhouse gas sources such as power plants, vehicles, and oil drilling.

“I’m extremely excited about the potential of this discovery to change the game,” said Wu, a professor of mechanical and mechatronics engineering, and a member of the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology. “Climate change is an urgent problem and we can help reduce CO2 emissions while also creating an alternative fuel.”

New material selectively captured CO2 molecules and turns them into useful products

Japanese researchers at the University of Kyoto have recently demonstrated a porous polymer that selectively binds to carbon dioxide molecules. It is ten times more efficient than similar other materials and is made from inexpensive materials. In the future, such a material could be incorporated into the exhausts of fossil fuel power generators or carbon capture stations. The CO2 would not only be prevented to reach the atmosphere, where it raises temperatures, it could also be turned into a useful product.

This new porous polymer has propeller-shaped molecular structures that enables selectively capturing CO2. Credit: Mindy Takamiya.

The new material belongs to a class called porous coordination polymer (PCP), also known as metal-organic frameworks (MOF). It mainly consists of zinc metal ions and an organic component, known as a ligand, with a propeller-like molecular structure.

When CO2 molecules approach the structure, the ligands rotate and rearrange themselves, thereby trapping the carbon. This results in slight changes in the molecular channels of the PCP, which basically acts as a sieve.

X-ray structural analysis revealed that the material only interacts with carbon dioxide molecules, which are captured 10 times more efficiently than other PCPs.

No energy input is required for the process to occur because it is favorable for the CO2 to bind to the zinc ions. Once bound, the CO2 molecules become activated and capable of reacting with other molecules.

“We have successfully designed a porous material which has a high affinity towards CO2 molecules and can quickly and effectively convert it into useful organic materials,” says Ken-ichi Otake, a materials chemist at Kyoto University.

The researchers claim that the CO2 can be incorporated into useful organic materials, such as cyclic carbonates which can be used in petrochemicals and pharmaceuticals.

The findings appeared in the journal Nature Communications.

Earth didn’t have a high-carbon atmosphere until 1965, study showed

Despite being the norm now, the atmosphere did not have a high-carbon dioxide level until 1965, according to a new study published in the Nature Communications journal.

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

The study showed that for the entire 2.5 million years of the Pleistocene era, carbon dioxide concentrations averaged 230 parts per million. Today’s levels, by comparison, are more than 410 parts per million.

In 1965, Earth’s atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations exceeded 320 parts per million, a high point never reached in the past 2.5 million years, according to the study. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that contributes to the warming of Earth’s atmosphere.

“According to this research, from the first Homo erectus, which is currently dated to 2.1 to1.8 million years ago, until 1965, we have lived in a low-carbon dioxide environment — concentrations were less than 320 parts per million,” said Yige Zhang, a co-author of the research study and an assistant professor in the Department of Oceanography in the College of Geosciences.

The researching team analyzed soil carbonates from the Loess Plateau in central China to quantify ancient atmospheric carbon dioxide levels as far back as 2.5 million years ago. Climate scientists often use ice cores as the “gold standard” in physical climate records, Zhang said, but ice cores only cover the past 800,000 years.

“It’s important to study atmospheric CO2 (carbon dioxide) concentrations in the geological past, because we know that there are already climate consequences and are going to be more climate consequences, and one way to learn about those consequences is to look into Earth’s history,” Zhang said. “Then we can see what kind of CO2 levels we had.”

Analyzing pedogenic carbonates found in the ancient soil (paleosoil) from the Loess Plateau, the scientists reconstructed the Earth’s carbon dioxide levels.

“Carbonates formed during soil formation generally reach carbon isotopic equilibrium with ambient soil CO2, which is a mixture of atmospheric CO2 and CO2 produced by soil respiration,” said Nanjing University’s Jiawei Da. “Through the application of a two-component mixing model, we can reconstruct paleo-CO2 levels using carbonates in fossil soils.”

Using those materials and the techniques, the researchers constructed a carbon dioxide history of the Pleistocene.

“Our reconstructions show that for the entire Pleistocene period, carbon dioxide averaged around 230 parts per million, which is the same as the last 800,000 years’ values,” Zhang said.

Could snowball planets still host life? This study claims so

Life, uhm, finds a way?

Artistic depiction of a snowball Earth. Image credits: NASA.

Whenever astronomers announce the discovery of a new planet, our thoughts inexorably fly to potential habitability. Every planet is remarkable in its own way and helps us learn even more about the universe, but something about a planet being potentially habitable makes it incredibly exciting.

The vast majority of planets, however, are not habitable. To put it this way, almost all exoplanets we’ve ever discovered are very uninhabitable. The main criterium for habitability, it first needs to orbit around a specific type of star, at a specific distance from it. This is so that the planet can support liquid water, an essential requirement of all life as we know it. But this is hardly sufficient.

The planet’s surface temperature is affected by several factors, especially its atmosphere. Too much CO2 in the atmosphere could raise temperatures dramatically, and not enough greenhouse gases can make it freezing cold. The chemistry needs to be just right, but even so, there are other complications.

Jupiter’s satellite Europa, for instance, is completely frozen. It’s also a satellite, not even a planet — and yet, there is strong evidence that it hosts liquid water beneath its frozen surface, and is also shielded for radiation, which makes it an excellent candidate for extraterrestrial life.

In a new study, researchers argue that snowball exoplanets (planets similar to Earth, but with all the oceans frozen) can be similarly well-suited for life.

A key argument for that is that the Earth itself is thought to have gone through snowball phases. Some 715 million years ago the entire planet was encased in snow and ice — and this is approximately when the first animals are thought to have evolved. A snowball phase is different from an ice age — in the former, the oceans are completely frozen, whereas in the latter, some liquid ice remains at the equator area. The Earth is believed to have gone through several of these phases, although some researchers argue that some water still remained liquid — the so-called “slushball” Earth versus the snowball Earth theories. At any rate, life on Earth managed to survive in these conditions, so couldn’t it have done the same thing somewhere else?

You have these planets that traditionally you might consider not habitable and this <new study> suggests that maybe they can be,” says Adiv Paradise, an astronomer and physicist at the University of Toronto, Canada.

“We know that Earth was habitable through its own snowball episodes, because life emerged before our snowball episodes and life remained long past it,” Paradise said in a press release. “But all of our life was in our oceans at that time. There’s nothing about the land.”

Paradise and colleagues wanted to know if some areas of land on snowball planets could still be hot (or rather, not-cold) enough to support life. They used computer models, tweaking different variables such as the amount of sunlight and the continent configuration.

Carbon dioxide was a key parameter. Although we now have too much of it in our atmosphere and it’s getting too hot, CO2 is a vital component of a habitable planet, as it keeps the planet warm enough to avoid freezing. Basically, the reason why a planet becomes a snowball Earth in the first place is that it has too little carbon dioxide. Here on Earth, this process notably happened when the continents started eroding. Water absorbs carbon dioxide, turns it into carbonic acid, which further interacts and gets absorbed by rocks during erosion. The carbon binds with the minerals and is stored on the seafloor. Planets exit the snowball phase when this carbon is re-released into the atmosphere — but there’s no guarantee that this will happen, the new study shows.

Earth-like planets can become stuck in a snowball state under some conditions, the models suggested. However, they also showed that in some conditions, some areas of snowball planets can still host life.

Land areas in the center of continents, away from the frozen oceans, can reach temperatures of 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) — which is sufficient to allow life to survive and reproduce.

The findings suggest that a planet’s habitability is not as clear as we once thought. The habitability boundary is not always clear — in fact, in the case of snowball planets at least, it’s a bit fuzzy, Paradise concludes.

The study has been published in JGR Planets.

Iceland researchers trap CO2 into rocks — but there’s a catch

Iceland’s volcanoes might hold the key to sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere but the process requires huge amounts of water.

If we want to ensure a sustainable future for our planet’s climate, reducing our emissions is paramount, but ultimately, it would be really good if we could also remove existing CO2 from the atmosphere — otherwise, the inertia of the warming will still continue long after we have reduced our emissions (than in itself is a gargantuan challenge, but that’s a different story).

While the roadmap to cutting emissions is fairly clear, eliminating CO2 from the atmosphere is a whole other beast, and scientists are only now starting to test ways through which this could be done. A project in Iceland seems like the most promising approach so far.

The technique starts from a natural event in which basaltic rocks absorb carbon dioxide and mineralize it, storing it forever — but this geological process happens over great periods of time. In order to accelerate this process, scientists developed a way to first absorb the CO2 into water, and then inject the carbonated water into porous basaltic rocks. The bubbly liquid is then pumped under high pressure into the rock 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) under the ground. The CO2 produced by the injection itself is also absorbed.

“So basically we are just making soda water out of the CO2,” says project director Edda Sif Aradottir.

The solution infiltrates into the rock pores and starts to solidify, reacting with the calcium, magnesium, and iron inside the rock, beginning an accelerated mineralization process. It’s not the first time something like this has been attempted, but researchers weren’t sure just how quick this process was. It took only two years for the carbon to solidify.

“With this method we have actually changed the time scale dramatically,” says geologist Sandra Osk Snaebjornsdottir, who also worked on the project called CarbFix. “Almost all of the injected CO2 was mineralized within two years in our pilot injection,” Snaebjornsdottir says.

For Iceland, a true land of ice and fire, the method is perfect. Virtually all of the country consists of volcanic, basaltic rocks, and the country generates more than half of its energy from clean geothermal sources. The country is also an island, so it has access to what is essentially limitless supply of water — because the method uses huge quantities of water. Around 25 ton of water are needed for each ton of carbon dioxide injected into the ground, something which Snaebjornsdottir calls the “Achilles heel” of the method. Furthermore, the method hasn’t yet been adapted to use saltwater instead of freshwater — which could make a huge difference. Providing hundreds or thousands of tons of freshwater is not something many places can readily do.

Scalability is another concern. The CarbFix project, which was implemented at a power plant, reduced the plant’s emissions by a third, amounting to 12,000 tons of CO2 captured and stored at a cost of about $25 a ton. Considering that Iceland alone, a country of less than 400,000 people, emits over 4 million tons a year, that’s a hefty price tag — but not one beyond affordability. The United States, for instance, produces around 5,000 million tons of CO2 a year which, at the current price tag, would cost $125 billion, which is still only a fraction of the country’s military budget — and that’s enough to offset all of the country’s emission. Of course, having the money is only a part of the problem, you also need to invest in the injection facilities, and have access to proper basaltic rocks in the first place, but since this is still the early stages of the carbon injecting technology, there are reasons to hope that the efficiency and price will improve in the not-too-distant future. Judging by the world’s current climate trajectory, we may need this technology sooner rather than later.

According to the Paris Agreement, Iceland has agreed to cut its emissions by 40% by 2030. However, the country’s CO2 emissions have increased significantly in recent years, largely due to the transportation sector, which is vital for the country’s tourism sector. For this reason, despite the fact that most of the country’s energy is renewable, Iceland’s CO2 emissions per capita are way over the European average.

Iceland’s Environment and Natural Resources Minister Gudmundur Ingi Gudbrandsson has encouraged the project, which might be vital for Iceland’s — and the world’s — climate objectives.

One Icelandic glacier-volcano duo is emitting 20 times more methane than all other volcanoes in Europe

Turns out humanity doesn’t have a monopoly on self-destructive behaviors.

Sólheimajökull glacier.

Sólheimajökull glacier, Iceland.
Image credits Chris / Flickr.

One glacier in Iceland is putting out large quantities of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, a new study reports. The  Sólheimajökull glacier — which flows from the active, ice-covered volcano Katla — generates and releases about 41 tonnes of methane (through meltwater) each day during the summer months. That’s roughly equivalent to the methane produced by 136,000 cows, the team adds.

Melthane

“This is a huge amount of methane lost from the glacial meltwater stream into the atmosphere,” said Dr. Peter Wynn, a glacial biogeochemist from the Lancaster Environment Centre and corresponding author of the study.

“It greatly exceeds average methane loss from non-glacial rivers to the atmosphere reported in the scientific literature. It rivals some of the world’s most methane-producing wetlands; and represents more than twenty times the known methane emissions of all Europe’s other volcanoes put together.”

Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (CO2) — 28 times more powerful, to be exact. Knowing exactly how much of it makes its way into the atmosphere thus becomes very important, both from an environmentalist and a legal point of view (for cap-and-trade or similar systems).

Whether or not glaciers release methane has been a matter of some debate. On the one hand, they’re almost perfectly suited for the task: they bring together organic matter, water, and microbes in low-oxygen conditions (all very conducive to methane), capping them all off with a thick layer of ice to trap the gas. On the other hand, nobody had ever checked to make sure. So the team decided to take the matter into their own labs.

They visited the Sólheimajökull glacier in Iceland to retrieve samples from the meltwater lake it forms. The team then measured methane concentrations in the samples and compared them to methane levels in nearby sediments and other rivers, to make sure they weren’t picking up on environmental methane emissions from the surrounding area.

“The highest concentrations were found at the point where the river emerges from underneath the glacier and enters the lake. This demonstrates the methane must be sourced from beneath the glacier,” Dr. Wynn explains.

Subsequent spectrometry analyses revealed that the methane was generated by microbial activity underneath the glacier. However, the volcano also has a part to play here. It doesn’t generate methane directly, but it “is providing the conditions that allow the microbes to thrive and release methane into the surrounding meltwaters,” explains Dr. Wynn.

The thing is that methane really likes oxygen. It likes it so much, in fact, that whenever the two meet they hook up into CO2. What generally happens with glaciers is that oxygen-rich meltwaters seep to the bottom and convert any methane trapped there into CO2. At Sólheimajökull, however, most of the oxygen in this meltwater is neutralized by gases produced by the Katla volcano. The methane remains unaltered, dissolves into the water, and escapes from under the glacier unscathed.

“Understanding the seasonal evolution of Sólheimajökull’s subglacial drainage system and how it interacts with the Katla geothermal area formed part of this work”, said Professor Fiona Tweed, an expert in glacier hydrology at Staffordshire University and co-author of the study.

Heat from Katla also keeps the environment cozy for the microbes living under the glacier and may “greatly accelerate the generation of microbial methane, so in fact you could see Katla as a giant microbial incubator,” adds Dr. Hugh Tuffen, a volcanologist at Lancaster University and co-author on the study.

Such active, ice-bound volcanoes and geothermal systems are abundant in both Iceland and Antarctica. The present paper suggests that these systems can have a meaningful impact on our climate projections. Katla “emits vast amounts of CO2 — it’s in the top five globally in terms of CO2 emissions from volcanoes,” Dr. Tuffen explains.

“If methane produced under these ice caps has a means of escaping as the ice thins, there is the chance we may see short term increases in the release of methane from ice masses into the future,” says lead author Dr. Rebecca Burns.

However, the team says it’s still unclear such processes will play out in the context of climate change. There could be a short-term spike of methane released while glaciers melt and thin out, but the process may be self-limiting in the long-term: without ice, the conditions for methane production are removed.

The paper “Direct isotopic evidence of biogenic methane production and efflux from beneath a temperate glacier” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Maize.

Researchers hack corn to grow fatter and absorb more carbon dioxide

An international team of researchers wants to level up corn by boosting its ability to capture CO2 from the atmosphere.

Maize.

Image credits Juraj Varga.

Corn (or maize) is a fruit and one of the most important staple foods on the planet, exceeding even rice or wheat in quantity grown per year. However, in Australia, while corn has the widest geographical spread of all field crops, it lags behind its counterparts (such as wheat or rice) in yield.

One of the main issues maize has to grapple with in the land down under are harsh environmental conditions. In a bid to help the crop bloom to its full potential, an international team of researchers has been toying with its genome, to boost the plant’s ability to photosynthesize.

Sunny maize

“We developed a transgenic maize designed to produce more Rubisco, the main enzyme involved in photosynthesis, and the result is a plant with improved photosynthesis and hence, growth. This could potentially increase tolerance to extreme growth conditions,” said lead researcher Dr. Robert Sharwood from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis, led by The Australian National University (ANU).

While all plants rely on photosynthesis to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, they go about it in different ways. Plants like wheat and rice use an older and less efficient photosynthetic path (the ‘C3’ path), while other plants such as maize and sorghum use the more efficient C4 path.

Some of the most important food crops today (as well as many that are used for animal feed and biofuel production) rely on the C4 pathway. C4 plants are specially adapted to thrive in hot and dry environments — ones that are expected to be more prevalent in future decades.

“There is an urgent need to deliver new higher-yielding and highly adapted crop species, before crops are affected by the expected climate change conditions. These conditions will increase the threats against global food security, and the only way to prepare for them is through international research collaborations.”

One of the molecules that underpins photosynthesis is an enzyme known as Rubisco — which converts CO2 into organic compounds. Rubisco’s activity is much improved in C4 plants, making the process faster and more water-efficient. As a result, these plants are more tolerant to heat and drought, and tend to be more productive than their C3 counterparts. Maize has one of the most efficient Rubisco enzymes and uses “less nitrogen” to grow than other crops.

“So, our main question was, if we increase Rubisco content in maize, what would it do for the plant?” says co-author David Stern, from the Boyce Thompson Institute.

“We found that by boosting Rubisco inside the maize cells, we get an increase in crop productivity,”

Overall CO2 assimilation and crop biomass increased by 15%, the team reports. While quite excited with their results so far, the researchers plan to further increase the “pool of active Rubisco” in the plant to increase this percentage even further. Until then, however, they hope to pit their maize against real-field conditions — the crop has, thus far, only been tested in glasshouse and cabinet conditions.

However, if the team’s maize proves itself hardy enough to survive farmland, it could pave the way for further C4 crop species to receive the same treatment.

The paper “Overexpression of Rubisco subunits with RAF1 increases Rubisco content in maize” has been published in the journal Nature Plants.

Scientists show how a mineral could be used to suck CO2 from the atmosphere

Magnesite, a type of magnesium carbonate, could be used to store CO2 from our atmosphere, which could be immensely helpful in our fight against climate change.

Naturally occurring magnesite. Image credits: Rob Lavinsky / Wikipedia.

The problem with climate change isn’t whether it’s happening or not — we’re way past that point, and there’s a mountain of scientific evidence backing that up. Instead, the discussion should be around how bad things are. We’ve managed to turn the massive wheels of global climate, and it will be immensely difficult to stop them from turning. Even if we would magically stop all our greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, the climate would still continue to warm up for a period, which is why researchers aren’t only focused on reducing our emissions, but also on finding ways to absorb some of the greenhouse gases we’ve already emitted — particularly, carbon dioxide (CO2).

In a new study, researchers describe a very promising mineral, magnesite, which can store vast quantities of CO2. They also describe a way to speed up its formation — essentially, producing it.

“Our work shows two things,” says project leader, Professor Ian Power from Trent University, Ontario, Canada. “Firstly, we have explained how and how fast magnesite forms naturally. This is a process which takes hundreds to thousands of years in nature at Earth’s surface. The second thing we have done is to demonstrate a pathway which speeds this process up dramatically.”

Natural magnesite crystal (4 microns wide). Image credits: Ian Power.

Power and his colleagues showed that by using small polystyrene balls as a catalyst, the formation of the mineral can be accelerated to 72 days. Furthermore, the plastic spheres can be reused indefinitely, making the entire process cheaper and easier to implement.

“Using microspheres means that we were able to speed up magnesite formation by orders of magnitude. This process takes place at room temperature, meaning that magnesite production is extremely energy efficient,” added Power.

[panel style=”panel-primary” title=”Magnesite” footer=””]This mineral is basically a magnesium carbonate, occurring as an alteration product of magnesium-rich ultramafic rocks, or as veins associated with the same type of rocks.

Magnesite has been found in modern sediments, caves and soils. It typically forms at temperatures around 40 °C (104 °F) and has been used as, among others, a binder in flooring material.[/panel]

Magnesite sediments in a beach in British Columbia, Canada. Image credits: Ian Power.

It’s really exciting that the crystallization process has been achieved at room temperature, and that it has been so greatly accelerated. Even better, the technology shows promise when it comes to absorbing CO2 — with more CO2 in the air than at any point in the last 800,000 years — we could sure use the extra help. But for now, at least, the process needs to be massively scaled before it can start make a dent in global emissions.

“For now, we recognise that this is an experimental process, and will need to be scaled up before we can be sure that magnesite can be used in carbon sequestration (taking CO2 from the atmosphere and permanently storing it as magnesite). This depends on several variables, including the price of carbon and the refinement of the sequestration technology, but we now know that the science makes it doable”.

Power urges more research in this field. Aside from the economic aspects, there are still some scientific parts which can be worked upon.

In the meantime, different research groups have also found ways to inject and store CO2 into naturally-occurring basalts, but whether or not that process can also be scaled remains to be seen.

Results were presented at the Goldschmidt Conference. The abstract can be openly read online.

How Roman priests walked through the “Gates to Hell” — and came back

Romans staged elaborate sacrificial rituals in which castrated priests walked through the “Gates to Hell,” carrying with them healthy bulls. The priests would return unscathed, while the sacrificial animals would succumb to the Gods. Now, a new study has found the secret to this ancient ritual.

Roman ruins at Hierapolis. Image credits: Kisch / Wikipedia.

The Gate to Hell

In 2013, archaeologists made an intriguing discovery in the Greco-Roman city of Hierapolis, now in modern-day Turkey. Known as Pluto’s Gate, or Ploutonion in Greek, the cavern was a gate to the underworld.

Archaeologists dug up its temple, pool, and steps leading down to the ceremonial cave, all matching ancient historical depictions of the place.

Back in the Ancient times, the Greek geographer, philosopher, and avid traveler Strabo, (64/63 BC to 24 AD) described it thusly:

“This space is full of a vapor so misty and dense that one can scarcely see the ground. Any animal that passes inside meets instant death. I threw in sparrows and they immediately breathed their last and fell.”

Strabo also described how sacrificial rituals were carried at the site. Castrated priests would be left unharmed, while animals were killed without any human intervention. There’s no reason to doubt his and others’ recollection of the events. But what was really happening there?

Ruins of the temple around the grotto. Image credits: Ömerulusoy / Wikipedia.

Geology and magic

Hierapolis itself lies in a geologically active area. Its geothermal waters were a major attraction, with many people believing they have magical healing powers. But beneath the city, a massive fissure (the Babadag fracture zone) leaks volcanic carbon dioxide, which is barely visible as a mist. The same phenomenon is happening today.

Volcano biologist Hardy Pfanz at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany wanted to measure these emissions, so he took a portable gas analyzer system to map the CO2 concentration at the ancient temple. In the study, he writes:

“The concentrations of CO2 escaping from the mouth of the grotto to the outside atmosphere are still in the range of 4–53% CO2 depending on the height above ground level. They reach concentrations during the night that would easily kill even a human being within a minute.”

He goes on to say that this could easily be understood as the door to the underworld.

“These emissions are thought to reflect the Hadean breath and/or the breath of the hellhound Kerberos guarding the entrance to hell.”

The CO2 concentration 40 centimeters above the arena floor reaches 35% — more than enough to asphyxiate animals or even humans. However, the concentration falls rapidly with height. This means that the priests were simply tall enough, their noses being above the CO2 blanket, where the air was safe to breathe.

But they also had a few other tricks up their sleeves. While Strabo believed their ability to survive the grotto was owed to their castration, Pfanz believes the priests were aware of the nature of the environment.

Strabo also wrote that priests only went in a bit far in the cave, and sometimes held their breath. As the animals got dizzier and dizzier, they would let their heads more and more down — but priests would pay attention and keep their heads up. Pfanz also learned that the carbon dioxide concentration varies with the time of day. So sacrifices would be carried out during the morning or evening hours when the concentration of the gas was highest. But outside of the sacrifices, the priests would stay well away from the cave, only coming close during noon, when levels were at their lowest. Even today, emissions are still dangerous, as archaeologists reported that several birds and other small animals were unfortunate enough to venture over the emissions zone, and fell to its effects.

It’s wonderfully exciting that researchers were able to bring together so many different aspects of science. Linking modern chemistry to ancient rituals and archaeology is exciting and opens up a unique window to the past. Just imagine, the priests had at least some idea of what was going around, but for the average viewer, you would be witnessing the Gods in action, taking the soul of the unfortunate sacrifice. It must have been a hell of a show.

Journal Reference: Hardy Pfanz, Galip Yüce, Ahmet H. Gulbay, Ali Gokgoz. Deadly CO2 gases in the Plutonium of Hierapolis (Denizli, Turkey).

NASA observatory highlights the importance of studying CO2 on Earth: it’s connected to everything

NASA’s high-resolution satellites are offering us a unique view of what’s happening with carbon dioxide on Earth

Aside from looking up towards the stars, NASA’s eyes are also glancing down on Earth. From its vantage point, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO) sees the subtle strings that link CO2 to everything on the planet. The ocean, all the land, the atmosphere, all ecosystems and creatures and last but certainly not least — mankind. A special collection of five research papers document how CO2 is intertwined with all aspects of life on Earth.

Every year, mankind emits a whopping 40 billion tons of CO2. Most of that, the data shows, comes from cities. More than 70 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from human activities originate in urban areas, but it’s hard to see just what happens to the CO2 because it merges with the atmosphere right after it’s emitted. In order to better understand these processes, Florian Schwandner of JPL and colleagues used OCO-2 data to study changes in the CO2 within the air column below the satellite. For instance, within the city of Los Angeles, researchers were able to isolate some individual sources of CO2 and then track the carbon as it moved from the urban center to the suburbs and then towards the outskirts of the city.

OCO-2’s orbit also enabled scientists to monitor CO2 emissions from some volcanoes — which contrary to popular belief, are very small compared to mankind’s contribution. Atmospheric carbon dioxide acts as Earth’s thermostat, and we’re the ones supercharging it — not nature.

Carbon-monitoring satellites are extremely useful as they allow us to get a broader and more accurate picture of what’s happening to the greenhouse gas within our atmosphere, but the problem is that they’re few and far between.

“They’re very precise, but there’s very few of them,” says Annmarie Eldering, an environmental engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “If you want to understand how the continent of Africa or the Pacific Ocean relate to the global carbon cycle, that data set isn’t very sensitive.”

Building up a picture of CO2 is a complex business that requires a lot of modelling. Image credits: NASA / JPL.

The second paper analyzed how the 2015-16 El Niño affected the carbon dioxide cycle over the Pacific. El Niño is a climate cycle in the Pacific Ocean with a global impact on weather patterns, typically associated with a large band of hotter water. The 2015-16 event was the hottest in human history, and it dramatically raised CO2 emissions over large areas of the globe. However, human emissions remained largely similar, so what gives?

Aside from carbon dioxide, OCO’s instruments also allowed it to observe solar-induced fluorescence, or SIF. The SIF is emitted by chlorophyll molecules in plants, indicating that photosynthesis is happening. This was the key to the extra CO2. In South America, the biggest drought in three decades limited the vegetation’s ability to consume CO2. In Africa, high temperatures helped decompose plant material, which also releases CO2; and in Asia, rampant fires released massive quantities of peat carbon which had accumulated over thousands of years.

“This is the gold star for OCO: we wanted to understand what happened in different regions of the world, Annmarie Eldering adds.

The last El Nino in 2015-16 impacted the amount of carbon dioxide that Earth’s tropical regions released into the atmosphere, leading to Earth’s recent record spike in atmospheric carbon dioxide. The effects of the El Nino were different in each region.Credit: NASA-JPL/Caltech.

These observations are truly groundbreaking — the fact that they were all released at once makes it even more impressive. Talking to BBC, Paul Palmer, an atmospheric scientist at Edinburgh University in the UK, says that this type of satellites opens up an entirely new way of looking at our planet.

“This is the first major climate variation where we’ve had satellite observations of atmospheric composition, and of land properties and of ocean properties – all at the same time,” he said.

“The last major El Niño was 1997/8 and that was really just the start of the satellite tropospheric chemistry missions. We’re now sampling a lot of different variables and the real breakthrough comes when you tie all the information together. We’re not quite there yet, but this is a really good start.”

The work also involved heavy use of complex modeling, and these results will help finesse future models even more.

“Understanding how the carbon cycle in these regions responded to El Nino will enable scientists to improve carbon cycle models, which should lead to improved predictions of how our planet may respond to similar conditions in the future,” said OCO-2 Deputy Project Scientist Annmarie Eldering of JPL. “The team’s findings imply that if future climate brings more or longer droughts, as the last El Nino did, more carbon dioxide may remain in the atmosphere, leading to a tendency to further warm Earth.”

However, the Trump administration has slashed the budget for such projects and has announced plans to do so even more in the future. In their attempt to promote fossil fuels, America’s leaders are taking away some of the most vital tools scientists are using to study the planet.

For more information on NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 mission, visit NASA’s OCO page.

The DAC module installed in Iceland. Credit: Climeworks.

First ‘negative emissions plant’ that turns ambient CO2 into stone switches on in Iceland

On Wednesday, Reykjavik Energy’s Edda Aradóttir was proud to announce the first negative emissions plant in the world. Located at the Hellisheidi Power Plant, the CarbFix2 project captures CO2 directly from ambient air. It then dissolves it in water and then pumps it into an injection site near the facility, where the CO2 reacts with basaltic bedrock, forming solid carbonate minerals. Not only does the project put a dent in global warming, it can also provide eco-friendly construction materials.

The DAC module installed in Iceland. Credit: Climeworks.

The DAC module installed in Iceland. Credit: Climeworks.

CO2 mineralization is already a proven concept. Last year, researchers involved with CarbFix published a paper reporting that “between 95 and 98 percent of the injected CO2 was mineralized over a period of less than two years, which is amazingly fast.”

Up until now, volcanic CO2 was captured from hot water tapped at the Hellisheidi geothermal power plant and then injected back into the Icelandic basalt from which it emanated. Now, CarbFix 2 is taking carbon sequestration to the next level by capturing CO2 directly from the ambient air. Essentially, this plant generates negative emissions.

Ultimately, any CO2 that you inject underground turns into carbonate minerals. Usually, though, this process takes hundreds to thousands of years. The key to rapid mineralization of carbon is basalt – a volcanic rock which Iceland has an abundance of. Iceland is actually mostly made up of basalt (90%). To make things even better, the rock is also rich in calcium, magnesium, and iron – the other key elements for carbon mineralization.

Credit: CarbFix.

Credit: CarbFix.

Elsewhere, in Switzerland, another company called Climeworks opened its own ambient air carbon capture plant last year. Climeworks joined efforts with CarbFix for the current project where so far one direct air capture (DAC) module was installed.

“The potential of scaling-up our technology in combination with CO2 storage, is enormous,” founder and CEO of Climeworks, Christoph Gebald said.

Even so, these amazing carbon capture technologies can’t solve our global warming — not at the rate we’re spewing CO2 anyway. The gas has a concentration of 0.04 percent in the ambient air on average which makes capturing it rather tedious. The plant will only capture 900 tonnes by the end of 2017, which is about as 55 American homes emit in a year. Every ton costs $600 after all expenses are factored in. Even if it were cheap, not all countries can take advantage of the tech since a rich-basalt underground is crucial. Still, basalt can be found in abundance in many parts of the world, making the technology potentially scalable.

The real solution to man-made climate change is the immediate phasing of fossil fuels in favor of clean renewable energy. Things have gotten way too hot in the past decade, though, so every innovative project is more than welcomed. What’s today only an experiment could become a lifeline in the not so distant future.

Wash hands sign.

Waste not, want not: astronauts to turn pee into nutrients, tools on deep-space missions

Astronauts heading out to Mars or other corners of deep space will need systems capable of producing critical nutrients and materials on-route while keeping their craft’s weight as low as possible. One team of researchers is looking to down two birds with one stone by using yeast to turn astronaut’s urine and carbon dioxide into plastic mass and omega-3 fatty acid.

Wash hands sign.

Image credits Amanda Mills.

You can’t stuff a spaceship with everything astronauts will possibly need for a journey because every bit of extra weight translates to a large increase in the fuel required to get to space. Which begs the question: what happens if a crew member loses a bit of kit or a tool while working outside of the spaceship? How will they get a replacement? Well, one way to do it is to have some sort of production system on-hand to be used in such cases — and we have 3-D printing that. 

As for the raw materials, scientists are increasingly turning to the astronauts themselves, who will generate constant material, in the form of waste, by simply eating or breathing. And the researchers are letting nothing go to waste.

Liquid assets

“If astronauts are going to make journeys that span several years, we’ll need to find a way to reuse and recycle everything they bring with them,” says Clemson Univeristy Ph.D Mark A. Blenner, lead author of a study looking to turn waste CO2 and urine into a usable resource.

“Atom economy will become really important.”

Here on Earth, we can play fast and loose with matter, since we’ve got plenty lying around. But in space, every molecule of usable material comes at a premium and we simply can’t afford to discard it. Towards that end, he and his team are working on turning astronaut-waste into things the crew actually need, such as plastic mass for 3D printing and vital nutrients.

These last ones in particular are tricky. Some vital nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, can’t be stored for more than a few years before they degrade. Since any meaningful expedition will take more than that limited shelf life, we’ll need to produce such nutrients on-route a few years after launch and after the ship reaches its destination.

The team developed a biological system that relies on several strains of the yeast Yarrowia lipolytica which can be loaded in a dormant state and awakened when the crew needs to start producing material or nutrients. Y. lipolytica need nitrogen and carbon to grow, both of which are luckily in supply from the astronauts themselves. Blenne’s team showed that the yeast can feed on nitrogen contained in urine without any extra processing. For CO2, it’s a bit more complicated. It’s abundant in astronauts’ exhaled breath (or the atmosphere on Mars) and needs to be scrubbed out of the air anyhow or it becomes toxic, but the yeast can’t use it as-is in its gaseous form. To address that issue, the team is relying on photosynthetic algae known as cyanobacteria to fix the carbon dioxide into a form Y. lipolytica can absorb.

Solid gains

One of the strains of Y. lipolytica will churn out omega-3 fatty acids for the crew, which plays a key role in maintaining the brain, heart, and eyes in good health. Another strain of the yeast was engineered to biosynthesize monomers and link them together to form polymers — plastic mass. These polymers can then be run through a 3D printer so the crew can create spare parts, tools, or any other object they need on the journey.

Currently, both strains only produce a small quantity of both polymer or omega-3, but the team is working on increasing yields. They’re also trying to make new strains that can produce other types of monomers with different physical properties, so future crews have access to a wider range of materials to better address any need.

But the work Blenner’s team is performing isn’t only for outer space — the omega-3 strain is just as useful for nutrition down here, and will be a particular boon to the aquaculture industry. Seafood raised in fish farms need omega-3 supplements, which in a particular twist of irony we’re currently producing from wild seafood and then feeding it to our fishy crops. Blenner’s yeast could solve that issue and finally allow ocean ecosystems some respite from fishing.

Overall, the research is also furthering our knowledge of yeast behavior in general and Y. lipolytica in particular. Although it is a yeast, it’s not very well studied and differs quite a bit from more mainstream strains of yeast, such as those used in alcoholic fermentation.

“We’re learning that Y. lipolytica is quite a bit different than other yeast in their genetics and biochemical nature,” Blenner says. “Every new organism has some amount of quirkiness that you have to focus on and understand better.”

The team presented their paper “Biosynthesis of materials and nutraceuticals from astronaut waste: Towards closing the loop” at the 254th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in Washington, which will last through Thursday.

meatVSbeans

Replacing beef with beans on Americans’ plates might be the fastest way to cut CO2 emissions

meatVSbeans

The United States is the second biggest greenhouse gas polluter in the world, after China. At the same time, it’s the most powerful country in the world and much of this prosperity is owed to burning copious amounts of fossil fuels over the past 150 years. In other words, the United States has a social responsibility in front of all the citizens of the world to 1) reduce it’s greenhouse emissions fast and 2) help other nations — particularly the fast rising developing nations — achieve the same goal by transferring technology and funds.

While most Americans believe climate change is real and an immediate threat, when it comes to doing something about it opinions become mixed. And if you say the ‘T’ word, you better run for the hills. No, not Trump — I mean ‘taxes’. But the single, fastest way to cut the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions might not be stripping a tax on the industry or the gas pump. According to researchers from Loma Linda University led Helen Harwatt, giving up on beef in favor of beans would have the most immediate impact on our emissions.

“Given the novelty, we would expect that the study will be useful in demonstrating just how much of an impact changes in food production can make, and increase the utility of such options in climate-change policy,” Harwatt said.

If Americans ate beans instead of beef, the U.S. would realize 50 to 75% of its 2020 GHG-reduction targets

Right now, most of our protein comes from livestock meat, 70% of which is produced in factory farms. This is a highly energy-intensive industry that responsible for 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs); more than all the cars, planes, ships, tanks or any kind of transportation in the world. But not all meats are equal. Beef, for instance, is the most resource-intensive kind of meat to produce  Depending on where it’s grown, one pound of beef uses 1,800 to 2,500 gallons (56 tons to 70 tons) of water and releases 22.3 kg of carbon dioxide equivalent GHG emissions per kilogram. And that’s not counting land use and other resources.

A 2011 report by the Environmental Working Group found that eating one fewer burger every week for a year was the equivalent of taking your car off the road for more than 500 kilometres, and if everyone in the U.S. ate no meat or cheese just one day a week for a year it would be equivalent to taking 7.6 million cars off the road.

Simply put, eating beef driving a lot of global warming and pollution — not only in this country but all around the world. At the same time, beef is an excellent source of protein for millions of people.

So are beans, though.

beans vs beef

Credit: Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine

A 2015 study carried out by a team from the University of Minnesota asked 14 men and 14 women to eat two test lunches which included a ‘meatloaf’ made of either beans or beef. Both meals were matched in calories and total fat. The beef meal provided 26 grams of protein and three grams of fiber while the bean meal provided 17 grams of protein and 12 gram of fiber. All participants didn’t report differences in appetite between the beef and bean meals over the course of 3 hours following their lunch. These findings support the idea that plant-based proteins with high fiber may offer similar appetite regulation as animal protein.

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen performed a similar study and came up with even more interesting findings. Their study which involved 43 young men not only found beans fill the belly better than beef,  they do it on fewer calories. A typical fast food meat patty tallies up about 230 calories but bean burgers, by contrast, average just 115 calories.

The takeaway would be that beans offer a very similar intake pound-for-pound with beef, with the added benefit of being more satiating which helps you lose weight. Beans are also a lot cheaper and contain lots of fiber as opposed to beef. Foods naturally high in fiber lower cholesterol, control blood sugar, regulate bowel movements, help prevent type-2 diabetes, reduces the risk of heart diseases, and more.

“While more studies are needed for a definitive proof, it appears as if vegetable-based meals – particularly those based on beans and peas – can serve as a long term basis for weight loss and as a sustainable eating habit,” concluded th estudy’s lead author Anne Raben in a University of Copenhagen press release.

Let’s spill the beans

The most important thing at stake when switching beef with beans, however, is the wellbeing of our planet, though it’s good to know our waistline is also taken care of.

“The nation could achieve more than half of its GHG reduction goals without imposing any new standards on automobiles or manufacturing,” said  Joan Sabate, a co-author of the new Loma Linda University study which assessed the environmetal impact of switching beef in favor of beans.

Substituting beans for beef would also free up 42 percent of U.S. cropland currently under cultivation. That’s a staggering 1.65 million square kilometers or 400 million square acres. This free space can then be used to grow more plant-based foods, including beans, of course, to support a rising population.

All of this sounds rational to most people, I take it, but when confronted with the choice in the real life who can we count on? Americans love beef, especially burgers, so it’s understandable why this might look like a lost cause. That’s not necessarily the case. In 2014, 400 million fewer animals were killed for food because people, mainly Millenials in the United States, chose to eat less meat. Moreover, according to Professor Harwatt, a third of American consumers are now buying meat analogs — plant-based products that resemble animal foods — and the trend is growing. So, there’s a lot to be optimistic about. Besides, people don’t need to give up beef or meat, in general, entirely. That just sounds like too much of a sacrifice and such decisions need not sound like that. Instead, even replacing meat-based meals one day of the week with plant-based products can have a huge impact.

At least, beans are better than another alternative: insects. Previously, a group from the University of Edinburgh, UK, found replacing half of the meat we eat worldwide with crickets and mealworms would cut farmland use by a third, consequently vastly reducing greenhouse gas emissions. There’s also promising progress being made in the field of artificial meats. The price of a lab-grown burger has dropped to $11.36 down from $325,000 in 2012. 

“Given the scale of greenhouse gas reductiotens needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, are we prepared to eat beef analogs that look and taste like beef, but have a much lower climate impact?” Horwatt asks. “It looks like we’ll need to do this. The scale of the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions needed doesn’t allow us the luxury of ‘business as usual’ eating patterns.”

Findings appeared in the journal Climatic Change.

We just breached the 410 ppm threshold for carbon dioxide — the highest it’s been since the mid-Pliocene

Remember when the world was hoping our atmosphere will never reach 400 carbon dioxide parts per million (ppm)? Well, we can wave 400 ppm goodbye, cause it’s come and passed — we’ve even breached 410, for the first time in human history. Yes, this is bad and yes, it will have even worse consequences.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels could reach a level unseen in 50 million years by the 2050s. If they continue rising into the 2200s, they’ll create a climate that likely has no precedent in at least 420 million years. Credit: Foster, et al., 2017

The Mauna Loa Observatory recorded its first-ever carbon dioxide reading in excess of 410 parts per million — it was 410.28, to be more precise. It’s a new generation of atmosphere, which will trap more and more heat. It’s solid evidence that the 400 ppm has been definitely breached, as we are now looking at other, even more worrying figures. It’s also an indication that humanity’s impact on the planet can now be discussed at a geological level.

“Its pretty depressing that it’s only a couple of years since the 400 ppm milestone was toppled,” Gavin Foster, a paleoclimate researcher at the University of Southampton told Climate Central last month. “These milestones are just numbers, but they give us an opportunity to pause and take stock and act as useful yard sticks for comparisons to the geological record.”

It’s not just the Mauna Loa that’s raising the red flag. Earlier this year, the U.K. Met Office scientists issued their first-ever carbon dioxide forecast. The forecast correctly predicted that 2016 would also be the first year in the record where the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide wouldn’t dip below 400 parts per million (ppm) and predicts a rise of 2.5 ppm — smaller than in 2016, but still not good.

The UK Met Office prediction. Credits: UK Met Office.

There’s a direct connection between the global warming we’re seeing and the greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, especially carbon dioxide. The last time similar levels were reached on Earth was 3 million years ago, during the mid-Pliocene, a period often used as an analog for today’s climate. Just take a moment to think that the last time there was this much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, humans weren’t even around as a species.

During that time, temperatures 2–3 °C higher than today and sea levels were 25 meters higher. If current levels maintain, that’s a good indication of what might lie in store for the future. Needless to say, if similar conditions would be recreated today, they would threaten the lives of hundreds of millions if not billions of people. So how do we keep today’s climate from becoming like the mid-Pliocene climate?

Well, the answer is (technically) simple — just reduce our emissions, by a lot. It’s actually doing that that’s more difficult. The world has taken some steps towards that goal, with the Paris Agreement providing a much-needed international framework, but the way things are going at the moment, it’s simply not enough. Think about it this way: if we reduce our emissions, we’re still emitting and making things worse, just not as worse as we were before. “Less bad” is not the same as better, not in this case. But there is a tipping point If we want to see temperatures plateau. There is some debate around what tipping point may be, but it’s somewhere around 50%. Basically, we have to reduce our emissions by half if we want to keep carbon levels stable, and even more if we want to see them drop.

“The rate of increase will go down when emissions decrease,” Pieter Tans, an atmospheric scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said. “But carbon dioxide will still be going up, albeit more slowly. Only when emissions are cut in half will atmospheric carbon dioxide level off initially.”

As cliche as it may sound, the stakes have never been higher. If we don’t take massive action fast, we’re well on course to reach a climate that’s unprecedented in 50 million years, since the Eocene.

“The early Eocene was much warmer than today: global mean surface temperature was at least 10°C (18°F) warmer than today,” Dana Royer, a paleoclimate researcher at Wesleyan University who studied Eocene climate, said. “There was little-to-no permanent ice. Palms and crocodiles inhabited the Canadian Arctic.”

If that doesn’t scare you, I don’t know what will.