Waste-to-energy revolution boosted by biobattery idea

Waste-to-energy revolution boosted by biobattery idea

New processes to turn waste products into renewable energy that can power cars, planes and turbines are rapidly being developed across the world.

LONDON, 4 March, 2014 − Competition to make bio-fuels out of waste products that would otherwise have to be dumped is creating a fast-growing, worldwide industry.

And a German research organisation now believes it has perfected a system called a “biobattery” for turning a vast range of waste into energy.

The drive for better technology has been spurred on by criticism that the first generation of bio-fuels used productive land that should be used for food crops, rather than to grow plants for ethanol and other fuels.

That inspired scientists and governments to find ways of using everything from human waste to algae to power planes, cars and to make electricity.

So many new companies have sprung up to exploit this new market and try to gain big backers for their projects that there is even a daily internet news site, BiofuelsDigest, just to keep up with developments.

Political decision

Germany has been the leader in Europe because it has made the political decision to phase out nuclear power and replace it with renewables.

Biofuel plants are a key part of this revolution because the gas they produce is used to make electricity to balance out the shortfall when solar farms and wind turbines are not producing enough power.

There are already 8,000 plants in operation in Germany, with an electrical output of 3.75 gigawatts in total − the equivalent roughly to three nuclear power plants. Some of these are the first generation that use food plants to make fuel, and so remain controversial.

However, the Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental Energy and Safety Technology (UMSICHT) in Germany has developed the  biobattery, which uses sewage sludge, green waste, production residues from the food industry, straw and animal excrement to create electricity, heat, purified gas, engine oil and high quality biochar (a form of charcoal).

“We can utilise a number of raw materials that would otherwise have to be disposed of,
often at great cost”

The scientists at UMSICHT, a research organisation that claims to be the leader in Europe for turning ideas into commercial ventures, believe that they can efficiently produce electricity and even marine and aviation fuel from the process.

They built a pilot plant, which they say is cheap to set up and can be scaled up without the need for large capital resources. The other advantage is it saves the cost of disposing of material that would otherwise be waste.

“We can utilise a number of raw materials that would otherwise have to be disposed of, often at great cost,” says Professor Andreas Hornung, director of UMSICHT at the Institute’s branch in Sulzbach-Rosenberg.

“The plant converts more than 75% of the energy efficiency into high quality energy sources in a robust, continuous process. The efficacy can be improved even more if mobile latent heat accumulators are used.”

To make all this work efficiently, the biobattery is a series of environmental technologies bolted together in one complex. They include biogas plants, thermal storage, carburettors and engines to produce electricity.

At the heart of the system is a process called “thermo-catalytic reforming”, which turns organic material into carbon. This is then processed to make oil, gas or coke.

Biobattery developed by the Fraunhofer Institute.

The biobattery developed by Fraunhofer

The process is continuous, feeding raw material in one end and mixing it up without oxygen with a continuous turning screw. The material is heated up to break it down into charcoal and gases. These vapours are then heated up again and cooled down to create bio-oil and water. The remaining gas is purified and collected.

The liquid, gaseous and solid products can be re-used in various ways. The oil can either be processed into marine and aviation fuel or used in a combined heat and power plant, as can the gas, to produce electricity and heat. The separated process water, which contains numerous short-chain biodegradable carbon compounds, can be fed back into the biogas plant to increase the methane yield. The biochar is ideal as a soil conditioner.

A number of pilot projects have been set up in Germany and elsewhere in Europe to test whether the system is economic in practice. The gas and other fuel produced are already being used commercially.

Tax imposed

The construction of bio-plants using waste that would otherwise have been sent to landfill is being driven across Europe by a landfill tax imposed by the European Union to encourage local authorities to re-use waste, recycle it, or use it as fuel.

It already cost £80 a tonne in the UK to dump waste, and it will rise to £82.60 next month. This has caused many landfill sites to shut.

The amount of waste going to landfill in the UK has dropped from 100 million tonnes in 1997 to the current figure of 30 million tonnes. Landfill companies are now separating elements of the waste so it can be recycled or processed into a variety of fuels.

This bio-revolution has been possible only because the landfill tax makes the alternative of disposing of the waste so costly that it is more economic to turn it into fuel.

The new German bio-battery and a host of other inventions pushing their way onto the market mean that the cost of electricity produced by the technology will continue to fall, as wind and solar energy have already done dramatically in the last 10 years. – Climate News Network

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Climate change is likely factor in Syria’s conflict

Climate change is likely factor in Syria’s conflict

Researchers say climate change probably caused the savage drought that affected Syria nearly a decade ago − and helped to spark the country’s current civil war. 

LONDON, 2 March, 2015 – In a dire chain of cause and effect, the drought that devastated parts of Syria from 2006 to 2010 was probably the result of climate change driven by human activities, a new study says.

And the study’s authors think that the drought may also have contributed to the outbreak of Syria’s uprising in 2011.

The drought, which was the worst ever recorded in the region, ravaged agriculture in the breadbasket region of northern Syria, driving dispossessed farmers to the cities where poverty, government mismanagement and other factors created the unrest that exploded four years ago. The conflict has left at least 200,000 people dead, and has displaced millions of others.

The study, by scientists from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, US, is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The authors are quite clear that the climatic changes were human-driven (anthropogenic) and cannot be attributed simply to natural variability, but are careful to stress that their findings are tentative.

“We’re not saying the drought caused the war,” says Richard Seager, one of the co-authors. “We’re saying that, added to all the other stressors, it helped kick things over the threshold into open conflict.

“And a drought of that severity was made much more likely by the ongoing human-driven drying of that region.”

Link with violence

Their study, although it contains new material, is not the first to suggest a possible link between extreme weather and the likelihood of violence.

Some researchers have investigated whether there may be a link between El Niño and La Niña − the periodic Pacific weather disruptions − and outbreaks of unrest.

Syria was not the only country affected by the drought. It struck the Fertile Crescent, linking Turkey, Syria and Iraq, where agriculture and animal herding are believed to have started around 12,000 years ago.

Suggestions of a global connection between climate change and political instability is being taken seriously by two influential groups − insurers and military planners.

The Levant has always seen natural weather swings. Other research has suggested that the Akkadian empire, spanning much of the Fertile Crescent about 4,000 years ago, probably collapsed during a long drought.

Drought can lead to devastating consequences when coupled with pre-existing acute vulnerability

But the authors of the Lamont-Doherty study, using existing studies and their own research, showed that the area has warmed by between 1°C and 1.2°C since 1900, and has undergone a 10% reduction in wet-season precipitation.

They say this trend is a neat match for models of human-influenced global warming, and so cannot be attributed to natural variability.

Global warming has had two effects, they say. First, it appears to have indirectly weakened wind patterns that bring rain-laden air from the Mediterranean, reducing precipitation during the usual November-April wet season. And higher temperatures have increased the evaporation of moisture from soils during the hot summers.

The authors say an episode of this severity and length would have been unlikely without the long-term changes.

Other researchers have observed the long-term drying trend across the Mediterranean region, and have attributed at least part of it to anthropogenic warming.

The researchers say Syria was especially vulnerable because of other factors − including a huge increase in population from four million in the 1950s to 22 million in recent years.

Water-intensive crops

The government has also encouraged water-intensive export crops such as cotton, while illegal drilling of irrigation wells depleted groundwater, says co-author Shahrzad Mohtadi, an international affairs consultant at the US Department of State.

The drought’s effects were immediate and overwhelming. Agricultural production − typically, a quarter of Syria‘s gross domestic product − fell by a third. In the northeast, livestock was practically wiped out, cereal prices doubled, and nutrition-related diseases among children increased steeply.

As many as 1.5 million people fled from the countryside to cities already strained by waves of refugees from the war in neighbouring Iraq.

“Rapid demographic change encourages instability,” the authors say. “Whether it was a primary or substantial factor is impossible to know, but drought can lead to devastating consequences when coupled with pre-existing acute vulnerability.”

Solomon Hsiang, professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, says the study is “the first scientific paper to make the case that human-caused climate change is already altering the risk of large-scale social unrest and violence”. – Climate News Network

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Seeing is believing: scientists trace greenhouse effect

Seeing is believing as scientists trace greenhouse effect

High-precision field instruments in the US have provided the first real-time “action shots” of the increasing impact of CO2 on global warming.

LONDON, 28 February, 2015 − Government scientists in the US say they have directly observed for the first time the greenhouse effect in action, while monitoring the way carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere absorbed increasing amounts of thermal radiation from the surface.

Their measurements, taken over a period of 11 years in Alaska and Oklahoma, confirm predictions made more than 100 years ago, and repeatedly examined: there is a greenhouse effect, and the greenhouse gas that most helps the world warm is carbon dioxide.

The phenomenon is known in climate science shorthand as radiative forcing, which happens when the Earth absorbs more energy from solar radiation than it emits as thermal radiation back into space.

The sun shines through the greenhouse gases as if they were glass, and warms the rocks. The rocks emit infra-red waves, but the transparent gases now keep the heat in, as if they formed the glass roof of a greenhouse.

Radiative forcing

Although this radiative forcing has been assessed, quantified, modelled, predicted and worried about, the scientists say this is the first time it has been formally tested outside, in the open air.

Daniel Feldman, geological project scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, and colleagues report in Nature that the increase in temperatures over the period adds up to two-tenths of one Watt per square metre per decade.

And this small notch in the thermometer record is linked to an increase of 22 parts per million in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere in the decade. Much of this extra CO2 comes from the burning of fossil fuels.

The finding is no surprise. For 30 years, climate scientists have recorded a steady average annual rise in planetary temperatures.

“We see, for the first time in the field, the amplification of the greenhouse effect because there’s more CO2 in the atmosphere . . .”

They expected it, and they predict that unless the world makes a switch from coal, oil and natural gas to solar, wind, water and wave energy, or biofuels, or nuclear or geothermal power sources, global average temperatures will go on rising inexorably. The glaciers and icecaps will melt, sea levels will rise, and climate extremes – especially heat waves, and probably floods – will also increase.

So the Nature study is just a piece of tidying up. But it is an illustration that the calculations can be confirmed by direct measurement − by catching carbon dioxide in the act, so to speak. Laboratory measurements said it would happen, computer simulations said it would happen, and now direct measurement completes the picture.

Solar radiation

“We see, for the first time in the field, the amplification of the greenhouse effect because there’s more CO2 in the atmosphere to absorb what the earth emits in response to incoming solar radiation,” Dr Feldman says.

“Numerous studies show rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations, but our study provides the critical link between those concentrations and the addition of energy to the system, or the greenhouse effect.”

The study is built on 3,300 measurements in Alaska and 8,300 in Oklahoma, under clear skies and using high-precision instruments.

Carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas: water vapour also plays a role, along with oxides of nitrogen and methane or natural gas.

But the study was powerful enough to isolate carbon dioxide’s contribution, and even register a dip in this radiative forcing early every year as the green shoots of spring begin to take up the greenhouse gas to build the new leaves and stems that nourish a hemisphere.

The authors conclude that the results confirm theoretical predictions, and provide empirical evidence of just what rising CO2 levels can do. – Climate News Network

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Ancient landscapes point to dramatic climate change

Ancient landscapes point to dramatic climate change

Scientists believe Chinese civilisation could have been founded by climate refugees after the collapse of an Inner Mongolian culture over 4,000 years ago.

LONDON, 26 February, 2015 − Chinese and US scientists have uncovered prehistoric evidence of mass migration triggered by climate change.

Something occurred 4,200 years ago – a collapse of the monsoon system, the sapping of the groundwater, the sudden drainage of a lake – that brought a Neolithic culture to an end and left nothing but sandy landscapes in China’s Inner Mongolia region.

Archaeological evidence has revealed the jade carvings that once marked the Hongshan culture, along with evidence of hunting, fishing and even commercial traffic with Mongolian shepherds. And then the artefacts stop.

There is a 600-year period marked by no evidence of human settlement at all. Where there had once been streams, lakes grassland and forest, and a flourishing new Stone Age culture, only shifting sand dunes remained.

Recent origin

Xiaoping Yang, professor in the Institute of Geology and Geophysics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, and research colleagues from China, New Mexico, Hawaii and Texas report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they used a new laboratory technique to show that the northern Chinese deserts were not – as many had thought – millions of years old.

Instead, they are of very recent origin, and the researchers found evidence of dramatic change during human settlement.

In addition, the exploration of artefacts in the region – and the discovery, among other things, of a jade object that might be a dragon − now suggests that Chinese culture and identity may have its origins in the far north, rather than in the Yellow River basin, which has been the archaeologists’ working hypothesis until now.

“This study has far-reaching implications for understanding how human populations respond and adapt to drastic climate change”

If that was so, then one of the world’s great civilisations was founded by climate refugees.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The Beijing team used space-based radar topography measurements to show that the dunes and depressions of the Hunshandake region of northern China had once been home to lakes fed by a system of streams and rivers.

This was then confirmed with fossil evidence of tree pollens and algae that typically float in freshwater lakes.

The scientists built up a timetable of events by dating sediment samples with a technique called optically-stimulated luminescence, which reveals when minerals were last exposed to sunlight.

They started with the proposition that an extraordinary series of droughts occurred in the northern hemisphere around 4,200 years ago, in North Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

Something similar happened in Hunshandake at around that time. The monsoon rainfall weakened, the lake levels dropped dramatically, and the water table was lowered drastically − and perhaps finally.

The researchers call it a “rapid and catastrophic shift”. And they warn that their research suggests that attempts to reverse the advance of the deserts in the region are likely to have limited success, because the change in the hydrological system is irreversible. Any water that fell there would just trickle away.

Human departure

Such discovery of links between climate and human departure is not isolated. In the last two years, meteorologists and archaeologists have identified climate change as a factor in the collapse of the Bronze Age Mediterranean culture, the implosion of the Assyrian empire at Nineveh in the 7th century BC, and the end of the Indus Valley civilisation 4,000 years ago.

Climate has also been implicated in the advance of the armies of Genghis Khan in the 13th century.

While climate change cannot explain everything about such shifts in ancient history, it is a factor.

But, say the Beijing scientists, “our evidence suggests that Hongshan culture was devastated by combined regional green/desert vegetation shift”, and that the change was intensified and made final by a sudden and final sapping of the groundwater table below the lakes and pastures in the region.

The scientist who used the optically-stimulated luminescence technique, geologist Steven Forman, of Baylor University in Texas, says: “This study has far-reaching implications for understanding how human populations respond and adapt to drastic climate change.” – Climate News Network

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Satellite link puts sharper focus on ocean acidity rise

Satellite link puts sharper focus on ocean acidity rise

Global data network could provide scientists with an easy and cheaper way of finding answers to crucial questions on the oceans’ changing chemistry.

LONDON, 25 February, 2015 − Climate scientists are looking for a new perspective on the increasingly acidic oceans through a suite of satellites 700 km out in space, watching over parts of the seas that research ships cannot reach.

They report in the journal Environmental Science and Technology that thermal cameras could measure ocean temperatures, while microwave sensors could measure ocean salinity. Together, the two sets of data could help answer, cheaply and easily, questions about the chemistry of the oceans – and in particular changes in pH, the index of acidity.

Until now, researchers have depended on specialist instruments or shipboard samples to provide answers to huge questions about the oceans’ increasing uptake of carbon dioxide. Such research is costly and limited.

But ocean science has become ever more important. Each year, 36 billion tonnes of CO2 are released into the atmosphere, and about a quarter of this gets into the oceans.

Greenhouse gas

That’s a good thing: if it did not, global warming would accelerate at an even greater rate. But the same global transfer of greenhouse gas also delivers a stronger solution of carbonic acid to the oceans, and ocean acidity levels have risen by 26% over the last 200 years.

The consequences for all those sea creatures that evolved to exploit ocean chemistry to build shells or skeletons are uncertain, but the evidence so far is that changes can affect fish behaviour, shellfish reproduction, and coral growth.

The changes could almost certainly affect fisheries in the short term, and in the long term could possibly alter the continuous and vital exchanges between atmosphere and ocean that controls the climates of continents.

So marine scientists launched a Global Ocean Acidification Observing Network to assemble worldwide expertise and find new ways to monitor change.

“We are pioneering these techniques so that we can monitor large areas of the Earth’s oceans”

“Satellites are likely to become increasingly important for the monitoring of ocean acidification especially in remote and dangerous waters like the Arctic,” says one of the report’s authors, Jamie Shutler, an oceanographer at the University of Exeter. UK.

“It can be difficult and expensive to take year-round direct measurements in such inaccessible locations. We are pioneering these techniques so that we can monitor large areas of the Earth’s oceans, allowing us to quickly and easily identify those areas most at risk from the increasing acidification.”

The European Space Agency’s SMOS satellite in orbit. Image: ESA

The European Space Agency’s SMOS satellite in orbit.
Image: ESA

The new approach will exploit a number of existing satellites, along with the European Space Agency’s Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity sensor (SMOS), launched in 2009, and the US space agency NASA’s Aquarius satellite, launched in 2011.

The satellites cannot, of course, directly measure ocean pH values, but the capacity of CO2 to dissolve in water is controlled by ocean temperatures.

Salinity levels

On the other hand, salinity levels play into the capacity to form carbonates. Chlorophyll levels in the oceans also indicate the rates at which biology can exploit any of the dissolved carbon dioxide.

If the scientists have temperature and air pressure data as well, they have enough to begin to calculate the rates at which any stretch of sea might be acidifying.

Although such measurements are indirect, and involve complex mathematical calculation, the results can be checked in some places against real-time data from a network of autonomous instruments called Argo, and by shipboard laboratory studies.

But satellites are about the only way of making consistent measurements of the desolate and hostile Arctic and Indian Oceans. They could also help researchers understand the changes taking place in complex stretches of sea such as the Bay of Bengal and the Greater Caribbean.

The research is in its infancy. But the authors say that satellite studies − supported by good measurements taken directly at sea − could become a key element in understanding and assessing the acidification of the oceans. – Climate News Network

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Energy giant’s bleak outlook is 25% rise in CO2

Energy giant’s bleak outlook is 25% rise in CO2

The British-based oil and gas supermajor BP says it expects global emissions of carbon dioxide to rise by a quarter in the next 20 years.

LONDON, 24 February, 2015 − It may come as a shock, as governments ponder how to tackle climate change, to learn that the world is moving rapidly in the wrong direction.

But BP, one of the world’s six biggest oil and gas companies, says it thinks that, on present trends, emissions of CO2 will be 25% greater within two decades than they are today.

The prediction is published in BP’s Energy Outlook 2035, which it says is its best effort “to describe a ‘most likely’ trajectory of the global energy system”.

Global consumption

Some of the company’s other projections are hardly less startling. It thinks, for instance, that global energy consumption will be 37% greater by 2035 than it is today, with more than half the growth coming from India and China, and virtually all of it from countries that are not members of the OECD − the 34-member group of highly developed countries.

Global energy intensity − which measures the energy efficiency of a country’s economy − in 2035 is expected to be only half of what it was in 1995, and 36% lower than in 2013.

The lower the energy intensity is, the less it costs to convert energy into wealth. Even so, global energy use per person is projected to increase by 12%, as growing numbers of people demand higher living standards.

Renewables are expected to grow faster than any other energy source, by 6.3% annually. Nuclear power, at 1.8% a year, and hydro-electric power (1.7%) will grow faster than total energy use.

Among fossil fuels, natural gas is expected to grow fastest, with oil marginally ahead of coal. By 2035, China and India will together account for 60% of global demand for coal.

The most likely path for carbon emissions, despite current government policies and intentions, does not appear sustainable

In a guide to its Energy Outlook, BP (formerly British Petroleum) says it thinks fossil fuels will provide most of the world’s energy needs by 2035, meeting two-thirds of the expected increase in demand by then.

But it is renewables − “unconventional fossil fuels”, and gas, which is the least polluting fossil fuel − that will provide the largest share, while coal grows more slowly than any other fuel.

This, the Outlook says, will be the consequence of slowing industrialisation in emerging Asian economies and of more stringent global environmental policies.

To that it might have added the growing pressure for investors to steer clear of putting their money into fossil fuels, for fear that they could be at risk from a robust and rigorously-enforced global agreement on cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Bob Dudley, BP’s chief executive, writes: “The most likely path for carbon emissions, despite current government policies and intentions, does not appear sustainable.

Scale of challenge

“The projections highlight the scale of the challenge facing policy-makers at this year’s UN-led discussions in Paris. No single change or policy is likely to be sufficient on its own.

“And identifying in advance which changes are likely to be most effective is fraught with difficulty. This underpins the importance of policy-makers taking steps that lead to a global price for carbon, which provides the right incentives for everyone to play their part.”

There are already signs that senior officials involved in the UN negotiations recognise the need to dampen expectations surrounding December’s talks in Paris.

The executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres, said on 3 February that changing the world’s model of economic development would “not happen overnight and it will not happen at a single conference on climate change. . . It just does not occur like that. It is a process, because of the depth of the transformation.”

If BP’s Outlook proves correct, that process may be even longer and tougher than many expect. − Climate News Network

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Climate change opens new doors to deadly diseases

Climate change opens new doors to deadly diseases

Scientists warn that humans will face epidemics of diseases never encountered before as global warming drives animals and parasites into new habitats.

LONDON, 23 February, 2015 − Disease emergencies such as the eruption of Ebola in West Africa or the spread of West Nile virus in North America may be a consequence of climate change − and could become more frequent as the world warms, according to scientists.

That is because the change in climate conditions means that the insects that transmit diseases, and the animal hosts that serve as a natural reservoir of infection, can spread to new territories.

Malaria, which kills 600,000 people a year, has moved to higher latitudes and higher altitudes, claiming new victims.

But, the scientists argue, the issue is wider than that. Ease of travel, the international traffic of large volumes of crops and animal products, and increasing human disruption of ecosystems are all factors in the spread of what they call emerging infectious diseases (EID).

Agents of disease

And there could be yet another factor: humans haven’t completely appreciated just how opportunistic parasites and other agents of disease can be.

Zoologists Daniel Brooks, of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Eric Hoberg, of the US National Parasite Collection, argue in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society that changes in climate will mean changes in habitat. And changes in habitat will mean that animals are exposed to new pathogens – anything that causes a disease – and parasites.

It follows that humans will increasingly be exposed to epidemics of new diseases never encountered before on such a scale. But it will not, Professor Brooks says, be like the plot of the 1971 science fiction movie, The Andromeda Strain, about a single deadly global infection.

“There are going to be a lot of localised outbreaks putting pressure on medical and veterinary health systems,” he says. “It will be the death of a thousand cuts.”

Infectious microbes evolved to survive in a natural host, occasionally spreading to a new host. The assumption has been that because evolution is a gradual process, new host infections would be rare. But microbes have turned out to be much more resourceful.

“There are going to be a lot of localised outbreaks . . . It will be the death of a thousand cuts”

When humans hunted capuchin and spider monkeys out of existence in Costa Rica, their parasites switched promptly to the local howler monkeys.

In the Canadian Arctic, as temperature patterns changed, lungworms have moved northward and switched hosts from caribou to musk oxen.

The implication is that pathogens are more versatile and opportunistic than anyone had predicted. In which case, humans are likely to see more emerging infectious diseases as conditions change.

The two scientists propose a “fundamental conceptual shift” in thinking about disease.

“Even though a parasite might have a very specialised relationship with one particular host in one particular place, there are other hosts that may be as susceptible,” Professor Brooks says.

Resistance could evolve too, but this would then mean that the pathogen became a chronic disease problem, rather than an acute one.

Unexpected circumstances

So public health chiefs and veterinary scientists will be called upon to co-operate in increasingly unexpected circumstances, especially as climate change begins to alter the ground rules.

“Palaeontological studies suggest that species with large geographical ranges and with high ability to disperse are most successful at surviving large-scale environmental perturbation and mass extinctions,” the two authors conclude.

“Thus, the species most successful at surviving global climate changes will be the primary sources of emerging infectious diseases (EID), so host extinction will not limit the risk of EID.

“The planet is thus an evolutionary and ecological minefield of EID through which millions of people, their crops and their livestock wander daily.” – Climate News Network

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New ideas give energy boost to wave power

New ideas give energy boost to wave power

Scientists and engineers in Scandinavia reveal new plans to harness the huge potential of waves to produce commercially viable renewable energy.

LONDON, 22 February, 2015 − All along the coasts of Europe where the Atlantic waves crash onto the shore there are experimental wave power stations producing electricity.

Now engineers in Norway and Sweden − two of the countries trying hardest to develop this technology − have announced “breakthroughs” in their methods, which the inventors believe will make wave power competitive.

At present, most wave power stations are small-scale. All of them work, but making them commercially viable to compete economically with other renewables and fossil fuels has so far eluded their inventors.

The latest Norwegian experiment has been installed in a redundant fishing vessel in the Stadthavet area of West Norway, an area designated for renewable energy testing.

Bicycle pump principle

Like all the best ideas, it is simple. “In principle, it works almost like a bicycle pump,” explains engineer and project manager Edgar Kvernevik, of Kvernevik Engineering AS.

The makers have installed four large chambers in the vessel’s bow. As the waves strike the vessel, the water level in the chambers rises. This creates an increase in air pressure, which in turn drives four turbines – one for each chamber.

The pitch of the vessel also contributes by generating additional air pressure in the chambers when the wave height is large. The design of the chambers is such that they work in response to different wave heights, which means that the energy is exploited very effectively.

“The plant thus produces electricity with the help of what is called a fluctuating water column,” says Kvernevik, who has spent much of his working life designing and building vessels.

Our aim is to . . . produce hydrogen at a competitive price – based on an infinite resource and involving no harmful emissions”

“All we have to do is to let the vessel swing at anchor in a part of the ocean with sufficient wave energy. Everything is designed to be remotely-controlled from onshore.

“This floating power plant has also been equipped with a special anchoring system, which means that it is always facing into the incoming waves. This ensures that the plant is in the optimal position at all times.”

A former fishing vessel converted to a wave power plant. Image: Sintef

A former fishing vessel that has been converted to a wave power plant.
Image: Sintef

The turbines on the deck of the vessel continue to work regardless of whether the chambers are inhaling or exhaling air as the wave runs past the vessel.

In the same area, which has a high average wind velocity, researchers have been studying the idea of floating wind turbines.

The project is now looking at combining wind turbines and wave power plants on the same vessel and using the electricity to create hydrogen gas – a way of storing the energy.

“We see this project as a three-stage rocket,” Kvernevik says. “The first stage is to test the model we have just built to make sure that electricity generation can be carried out as planned.

Production plant

“Next, a hydrogen production plant will be installed on board the vessel so that the electricity generated can be stored in the form of hydrogen gas.

“We have high hopes that hydrogen will be the car fuel of the future. Our aim is to work with others to produce hydrogen at a competitive price – based on an infinite resource and involving no harmful emissions.

“The plan is then to construct a plant with a nominal capacity of 1000kW (1MW). We will do this by installing five production modules similar to the current plant, either on a larger vessel or a custom-built barge. Finally, we will build a semi-submersible platform designed to carry a 4MW wave power plant with a 6MW wind turbine installed on top.”

The Norwegian Marine Technology Research Institute (MARINTEK) is one of the project partners that have contributed towards the development of the wave power plant.

Reliable source

Meanwhile, a Swedish company claims to have cracked the problem of scaling-up wave energy with a gearbox that generates five times as much power per tonne of device at one third of the cost.

One of the obvious problems with wave power is the height and timing of the waves, making it difficult to convert the power into a reliable energy source. But CorPower Ocean’s new wave energy system claims to produce three to four times more power than traditional systems.

The new system that helps to solve this problem is based in a buoy that absorbs energy from the waves − a scaled-up version of a heart surgeon’s research into heart pumping and control functions.

Patrik Möller, CorPower’s chief executive, says the wave energy converter – in contrast to competing systems − can manage the entire spectrum of waves.

He says: “We can ensure that it always works in time with the waves, which greatly enhances the buoy’s movement and uses it all the way between the wave crest and wave trough and back in an optimal way, no matter how long or high the waves are.”

The buoys are compact and lightweight and can be manufactured at a relatively low cost. A buoy 8 metres in diameter can produce 250-300 kilowatts in a typical Atlantic swell. A wave energy park with 100 buoys can generate 25 to 30 megawatts. – Climate News Network

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Big cities head for water crisis as populations explode

Big cities head for water crisis as populations explode

With more than half the world’s population now in cities, scientists warn that inadequate surface water supplies will leave many at increasing risk of drought.

LONDON, 21 February, 2015 − More than 40% of the world’s great cities supplied by surface water could become vulnerable to shortages and drought by 2040, according to new research. And more than three out of 10 were already vulnerable in 2010.

Meanwhile, the vital array of satellites designed to monitor rainfall and to warn of potential flooding is reported to be coming to the end of its shelf life.

For the first time in history, more than half the world’s population is now concentrated in cities, and this proportion is predicted to increase to two-thirds. Cities grow up near plentiful water supplies − and as a population explodes, so does demand. But the flow remains much the same.

Some cities are already under drought stress. Chennai in southern India had to be supplied with tankers in 2004 and 2005, and São Paulo in Brazil is now at crisis point.

Supply analysis

Environmental scientist Julie Padowski and Steven Gorelick, director of the Global Freshwater Initiative at Stanford University in California, report in Environmental Research Letters that they analysed supplies to 70 cities in 39 countries, all of them with more than 750,000 inhabitants, and all of them reliant on surface water.

They defined vulnerability as the failure of an urban supply basin to meet demands from human, environmental and agricultural users, and they set the supply target as 4,600 litres per person per day – which factors in “virtual water”, defined as the total volume of water needed to produce and process a commodity or service.

They proposed three different kinds of measure of supply. If a city failed to meet one or two of these metrics, it was considered threatened. If it failed to meet all three, it was rated as vulnerable.

Importantly, the scientists did not factor in climate change, which is likely to make conditions worse. Instead, they simply considered current demand and supply, and then projected demand in 2040.

Of their 70 cities, they found that 25 (36%) could already be considered vulnerable by 2010. By 2040, this number had grown to 31 (44%).

The six cities that will begin to face water shortages are Dublin in Ireland, Charlotte in the US, Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, and Guangzhou, Wuhan and Nanjing in China.

Most of the cities that are already vulnerable rely on reservoirs, and the study implies that urban planners will need to think about more reservoirs, deeper wells or desalination plants, or will have to contemplate the diversion of rivers from somewhere else.

Rainfall data

Meanwhile, they cannot rely on rainfall data because – as geological engineer Patrick Reed, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Cornell University, and colleagues report in Environmental Research Letters − the network of dedicated satellites “fails to meet operational data needs for flood management”.

Four of the 10 satellites have exceeded their design life − some by more than a decade. There are already weak spots in the network, especially in developing countries, which means that floods could take people by surprise.

Space-based instruments offer a way of monitoring rainfall and ground moisture upstream, in a way that gives authorities time to predict the moment when the rivers will start to rise and flood the cities. When four fail to deliver, the potential for catastrophe will be even worse.

So the scientists call for better international co-ordination of satellite replacement.

“It is important for us to start thinking as a globe about a serious discussion on flood adaptation and aiding affected populations to reduce their risks,” Professor Reed says. “We want to give people time to evacuate, to make better choices, and to understand their conditions.” – Climate News Network

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Sardines swim into northern waters to keep cool

Sardines swim into northern waters to keep cool

Fish species in subtropical European waters are migrating north to escape warming seas − leaving fishermen who rely on them for a living with empty nets.

LONDON, 20 February, 2015 − Several important fish species that for centuries have been part of the staple diet of people in the Mediterranean region are abandoning sub-tropical seas because the water is too warm and are heading north.

Sardines, which for generations have been the most abundant commercial fish species in Portugal, are moving away. They are now established in the North Sea, and are being caught in the Baltic – a sea that until recently was normally frozen over in the winter.

Sardines, anchovies and mackerel − three fish species that are important in the diet of many southern European and North African countries − have been studied by scientists trying to discover how climate change and warming seas are affecting their distribution.

Fishing industry

As well as the affect on the fishing industry, the abundance or disappearance of these species is crucial for many other marine species that rely on them for food.

A pioneering study, published in Global Change Biology, analysed 57,000 fish censuses conducted over 40 years, and has tracked the movement of these fish during this period.

It confirms that the continued increase in water temperature has altered the structure and functioning of marine ecosystems across the world. But it also shows that the effect has been greater in the North Atlantic, with increases of up to 1.3 ºC in the average temperature over the last 30 years.

This variation in temperature directly affects the frequency and range of pelagic fish, which live in the middle of the water column and are directly influenced by temperature, rather than habitat. It includes the sardine (Sardina pilchardus), anchovy (Engraulis encrasicolus), horse mackerel (Trachurus trachurus) and mackerel (Scomber scombrus), among others.

Sardines and other fish represent “an exceptional bioindicator to measure the direction and speed of climate change expected in the near future”

They feed off phytoplankton and zooplankton, and are themselves the staple diet of large predators, such as cetaceans, large fish and marine birds. These fish occur off the shores of many coastal countries in the world and are important sources of protein.

Scientists have known that fish were moving to new areas, but did not know whether it was in response to their main food supply plankton moving first or whether it was a simple response to changing temperatures.

The new study has developed statistical models for the North Sea area, and confirms the great importance of sea temperatures.

“Time series of zooplankton and sea surface temperature data have been included to determine the factor causing these patterns,” Ignasi Montero-Serra, lead author of the study and researcher in the department of Ecology at the University of Barcelona, explains to the Scientific Information and News Service.

To demonstrate the consequences of the warming of the seas, the research team analysed fish censuses from commercial fishing performed independently along the European continental shelf between 1965 and 2012, extracted from data provided by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea.

The study, which is the first to be carried out on such a large timescale and area, allows for the dynamics of this species to be understood in relation to the rapid warming of the oceans that has been happening since the 1980s.

The results reveal that sardines and other fish with fast life cycles, planktonic larval stage and low habitat dependence are highly vulnerable to changes in ocean temperature, and therefore represent, Montero-Serra says, “an exceptional bioindicator to measure the direction and speed of climate change expected in the near future”.

Accelerated increase

Montero-Serra says that accelerated increase in temperature of the continental seas has resulted in sardines and anchovies − with a typically subtropical distribution − increasing their presence in the North Sea and “even venturing into the Baltic Sea”. And the presence of species with a more northern distribution, such as the herring and the sprat, has decreased.

The analysis is therefore a clear sign that species in the North Sea and Baltic Sea are “becoming subtropical”.

This is due to the pelagic fish being highly dependent on environmental temperatures at different stages of their life cycle − from reproductive migrations and egg-laying, to development and survival of larvae.

According to the researchers, the changes in such an important ecological group “will have an effect on the structure and functioning of the whole ecosystem”, although they still do not know the scale of the socio-economic and ecological repercussions. – Climate News Network

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