EarthwiseFrom green business and new environmental legislation to how nature impacts our environment in ways never before considered, Earth Wise offers a look at our changing environment every day through public radio.
From green business and new environmental legislation to how nature impacts our environment in ways never before considered, Earth Wise offers a look at our changing environment every day through public radio.
To date, the world has produced more than five billion tons of plastic and is making more all the time. Based on the way things are currently done, most of that will end up in landfills or in the natural environment. By 2050, the amount of plastic is expected to exceed 13 billion tons. This is one of the world's biggest environmental problems. Recently, an international collaboration by universities and institutions in the UK, China, and Saudi Arabia has developed a method of converting plastic waste into hydrogen gas and high-value solid carbon. The technique was achieved with a new type of catalysis that uses microwaves to activate catalyst particles that effectively strip hydrogen from plastic polymers. The work was recently published in the journal Nature Catalysis and details how the researchers mixed mechanically pulverized plastic particles with a microwave-susceptor catalyst of iron oxide and aluminum oxide. That mixture was then subjected to microwave treatment and yielded a large volume of hydrogen gas and a residue of carbonaceous material, most of which was identified as carbon nanotubes. The process is more rapid than most methods for dealing with plastic waste and can extract over 97% of the hydrogen in plastic without producing any carbon dioxide emissions. The new method represents an attractive potential solution to the problem of plastic waste. Instead of polluting the planet, plastics could become a valuable feedstock for producing clean hydrogen fuel as well as valuable carbon materials. Proponents of the so-called hydrogen economy have continued to seek a green and economical way to produce hydrogen. This new work might be just what they are looking for. ********** Web Links Turning plastic waste into hydrogen and high-value carbons Photo, posted April 21, 2007, courtesy of Redwin Law via Flickr. Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio.
Hydrogen-Powered Transport In Britain | Earth Wise
The first hydrogen-powered train in the UK had its first mainline runs at the end of September. The train, known as HydroFLEX, was developed under a project headed by the University of Birmingham under the UK government's Department for Transport. Hydrogen-powered trains do not emit harmful gases but rather use hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, water, and heat. The technology in the HydroFLEX train will be available by 2023 to retrofit existing diesel-powered trains and thereby de-carbonize the rail network and make train travel greener and more efficient. The UK has ambitious plans for the use of hydrogen technology. The Department of Transport plans to publish a master plan in January that will outline how green hydrogen could power buses, trucks, rail, maritime, and aviation transport across the UK. The HydroFLEX trial is taking place in Tees Valley in northeastern England and the plan is for that area to become a Hydrogen Transport Hub that will include the world's largest versatile hydrogen refueling facility. The plans for Tees Valley involve academia, industry, and government participants. The next stages of the HydroFLEX project are well underway with the University of Birmingham developing a hydrogen and battery-powered module that can be fitted underneath a train to allow for more space for passengers in train cars. The UK government's Hydrogen for Transport Program is also funding a green hydrogen refueling station and 19 hydrogen-powered garbage trucks in Glasgow, Scotland. The UK plans to switch to a net zero economy and their current program increasingly embraces hydrogen technology to provide more sustainable, greener forms of transportation. *********** Web Links UK embraces hydrogen-fueled future as transport hub and train announced Photo, posted May 15, 2019, courtesy of Jeremy Segrott via Flickr. Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio.
Hydrogen-Powered Transport In Britain | Earth Wise
Lignin is an organic polymer that provides the rigid structure of plants and is what gives wood and bark their characteristic properties. Lignin typically comprises between 20 and 35% of the mass of wood. The two major substances extracted from trees, grasses, and other biomass materials are cellulose and lignin. Cellulose is used to make paper, bioethanol, and other products, but lignin is largely unused because it is difficult to break down into useful substances such as feedstocks for fuels. As a result, lignin is largely wasted. Worldwide, some 50 million tons of lignin are produced from paper and bioethanol manufacturing each year and almost all of that is simply burned to generate heat. Lignin can be broken down using pyrolysis techniques at high temperatures to create bio-oils, but those oils lack sufficient hydrogen and contain too much oxygen to be useful as fuels. There is a process called hydrodeoxygenation that adds hydrogen and removes oxygen, but it requires high temperatures and very high pressures as well as producing char and tar that reduces the efficiency of the process. Researchers at Georgia Tech recently published work describing a new process for turning lignin into useful products. They developed a dual catalyst system of super-acid and platinum particles that adds hydrogen and removes oxygen from lignin bio-oil and makes it useful as a fuel and source of chemical feedstocks. The new process could help meet the growing demand for bio-based oils as well as helping the forest product, paper, and bioethanol industries by providing an additional revenue stream from what previously was a waste product. ********** Web Links New Process Boosts Lignin Bio-oil as a Next-Generation Fuel Photo, posted August 16, 2017, courtesy of evcabartakova via Flickr. Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio.
Pandemic Lockdowns And Carbon Emissions | Earth Wise
The early months of the COVID-19 pandemic saw many human activities reduced to a fraction of what they were previously. Notably, air pollution in major cities was dramatically lower than it had been in decades. Now, a new study has looked at the effect of the pandemic shutdowns on carbon dioxide emissions. An international team of climate scientists has published an assessment of carbon dioxide emissions by industry, transportation, and other sectors from January through June. According to their measurements, this year's pandemic lockdowns resulted in a 9% decline in emissions from 2019 levels. An earlier study reported a 17% drop in CO2 emissions, but the new study was more comprehensive and detailed. The new data includes estimates of day-by-day, sector-specific and country-level differences in CO2 emissions derived from frequently updated data sources, some of which are nearly in real-time. It tracks the effects of COVID-19-related disruptions of human activities in China starting in February and in the United States and Europe in March through May. The data revealed the resumption of emissions in many regions, such as in China, where they are now back to pre-pandemic levels. Emissions in the Americas and Europe have been slower to recover, especially in the US, where COVID-19 hotspots are continuing to emerge. The reduction in carbon emissions has been due mostly to transportation with fewer people driving to work and traveling by air. Even by June, when lockdowns were easing, global emissions were still significantly reduced. In any case, a pandemic is a highly undesirable and unwelcome way to reduce carbon emissions, but the data from this year does show that it is effective. ********** Web Links Pandemic lockdowns caused steep and lasting carbon dioxide decline Photo, posted August 7, 2020, courtesy of Michael Mueller via Flickr. Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio.
Pandemic Lockdowns And Carbon Emissions | Earth Wise
An international team of researchers has found evidence that frozen methane deposits in the Arctic Ocean have started to be released over a large area of the continental slope off the East Siberian coast. High levels of methane have been detected down to a depth of 1,100 feet in the Laptev Sea near Russia. The slope sediments in the Arctic contain huge quantities of methane and other gases, known as hydrates. Methane has a warming effect 80 times stronger than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. The US Geological Survey has identified Arctic hydrate destabilization as one of the four most serious scenarios for abrupt climate change. The research team aboard a Russian ship said that most of the bubbles they observed coming up from the sea bottom were dissolving in the water, but that methane levels at the surface were four to eight times what would normally be expected. Frozen methane deposits have been called the "sleeping giants of the carbon cycle." If these deposit releases were to reach a high enough level, it would be a tipping point that could greatly increase the speed of global warming. With Arctic temperatures now rising more than twice as fast as the global average, the likelihood of a significant release of the frozen methane grows greater all the time. Temperatures in Siberia were 9 degrees Fahrenheit higher than average from January to June this year. Last winter's sea ice melted unusually early. This winter's freeze has yet to begin, which is already a later start than any time on record. These new discharges of methane are larger than anything found before and are a very worrisome occurrence. ********** Web Links Arctic methane deposits 'starting to release', scientists say Photo, posted September 26, 2014, courtesy of the Office of Naval Research via Flickr. Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams/Released. Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio.
If it seems like natural disasters happen more frequently than they used to, that is because they do. A new report from the United Nations entitled "The Human Cost of Disasters 2000-2019" provides the facts. From 2000 to 2019, there were 7,348 natural disasters around the world, compared with 4,212 natural disasters from 1980-1999. The culprit is the climate. Climate-related disasters increased from 3,556 events during the 1980-1999 period to 6,681 in the past 20 years, again an increase of more than 3,000. The global economic losses associated with natural disasters have been staggering. The earlier 20-year period saw $1.63 trillion in losses while the recent period resulted in $2.97 trillion in losses. Disasters killed 1.19 million people in the earlier period and 1.23 million in the recent period. It is a testimonial to the skills and efforts of disaster management agencies, civil protection departments, fire brigades, public health authorities, the Red Cross and Red Crescent, and many NGOs that the cost in human lives was not much greater over the past 20 years. According to a statement from the UN, human society is being willfully destructive. They draw that conclusion in light of reviewing the disaster events over the past 20 years and seeing the failure of society to act on science and early warnings to invest in prevention, climate change adaptation, and disaster risk reduction. ********** Web Links Extreme Weather Events Have Increased Significantly in the Last 20 Years Photo, posted September 18, 2020, courtesy of the National Guard via Flickr. Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio.
A new startup company spun out of the University of Toronto wants to make clothing from food waste. If they are successful, you may someday buy a shirt or a pair of gym shorts made from banana peels, rotten tomatoes, coffee grounds, or moldy bread. A problem faced by the clothing industry is that most textiles are blended with synthetic and non-renewable fiber polyester, which makes them unrecyclable. An alternative that has come on the scene in recent years is polylactic acid (or PLA), which is a decomposable bioplastic that is currently used for food packaging, medical implants, and 3D printing. It is likely that a sustainable future for the fashion industry will depend on the ability to make use of biodegradable and carbon-neutral materials. PLA is typically made from cornstalk, but the startup – called ALT TEX – does not want to rely on a crop already used for feedstock, human consumption, and alternative fuel. Furthermore, there is no need to plant more corn when there is an abundant supply of unused post-industrial food waste from growers, producers, and retailers that contains the same biological building blocks for producing PLA. ALT TEX has been conducting experiments using discarded apples to create a PLA-based fabric that is strong, durable, decomposable, and cost effective. They are working with farmers and food suppliers to access their waste. If their efforts are successful, it would be possible to divert significant amounts of organic waste that currently emits the powerful greenhouse gas methane and instead enable the fashion industry to be more sustainable. ********** Web Links Earth-friendly fashion: U of T startup turns food waste into wearables Photo, posted August 30, 2019, courtesy of Ruth Hartnup via Flickr. Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio.
The early months of the Covid-19 pandemic had dramatic effects on many aspects of our daily lives. Vehicle traffic, air pollution, and many other aspects of modern life saw reduced levels not seen in decades. It turns out that one of the things that saw reduced levels was people's exposure to environmental noise. According to University of Michigan researchers, daily average sound levels dropped in half during the time that local governments made announcements about social distancing and issued stay-at-home orders in March and April as compared to noise levels measured in January and February. The data was acquired from the Apple Hearing Study, which looked at noise exposure data from volunteer Apple Watch users in Florida, New York, California, and Texas. The analysis included more than half a million daily noise levels measured before and during the pandemic shutdown. The noise reduction – 3 decibels, which is a factor of two in noise level – is considered to be quite large and could have a significant effect on people's overall health outcomes over time. The four states studied had differing responses in terms of stay-at-home orders. Both California and New York both had really drastic reductions in sound that happened very quickly, whereas Florida and Texas had somewhat less of a reduction. The study demonstrated the utility of everyday use of digital devices in evaluating daily behaviors and exposures. This sort of analysis could allow researchers to begin describing what personal sound exposures are like for Americans who live in a certain state, or are of a certain age, or who do or don't have hearing loss. The Apple Hearing Study is continuing and is still accepting new participants. ********** Web Links Stay-at-home orders cut noise exposure nearly in half Photo, posted April 10, 2020, courtesy of Joey Zanotti via Flickr. Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio.
One of the Holy Grails of science has apparently been found: a room-temperature superconductor. In a paper recently published in Nature, scientists from the University of Rochester and collaborators announced that they had observed superconductivity at 59 degrees Fahrenheit in an exotic material they produced in the laboratory. Superconductivity is a phenomenon occurring in certain materials characterized by the total absence of electrical resistance. Current flowing in a closed loop of superconducting wire can go on forever. Superconductors have other unique characteristics as well, all of which combine to make them quite useful in a number of applications. Superconductors are used in high-powered magnets in particle accelerators and in MRI machines. They continue to be developed for use in electrical power transmission, energy storage, communication filters, magnetic sensors, and more. The problem with superconductors is that they only work at very low temperatures. For most of a century – after superconductivity was discovered in 1911 – those temperatures were very close to absolute zero: 459 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. (In the late 1980s, so-called high-temperature superconductors were discovered. Those materials superconduct at the temperature of liquid nitrogen: about 320 degrees below zero). The dream has been to find a superconductor that works at ambient temperatures. The Rochester team has produced tiny amounts of a mysterious combination of hydrogen, carbon, and sulfur which, when subjected to extraordinarily high pressures (over 2 million atmospheres), superconducts at the temperature of a pleasant fall day. There is no practical value for this first room-temperature superconductor, but it proves that superconductivity can exist at ambient temperature. Once something is shown to exist at all, there is reason to hope that it can occur in ways that are easier and more practical to attain. ********** Web Links First room-temperature superconductor excites — and baffles — scientists Photo, posted June 18, 2013, courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory via Flickr. Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio.
Approximately 75% of the area covered by ocean is deep, dark, and cold. This is known as the deep sea. But even in these remote regions of the planet things are heating up. According to a new study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, researchers analyzed a decade of hourly temperature readings at four depths in the Atlantic Ocean's Argentine Basin, off the coast of Uruguay. The research team selected recording depths that would best represent the average depth of the ocean, which is just over 12,000 feet. The researchers found that deep sea temperatures fluctuate more than was previously known. They also detected a warming trend at the bottom of the ocean. In fact, all recordings indicated a warming trend of 0.02 to 0.04 degrees Celsius per decade between 2009 and 2019. This is a significant warming trend in the deep sea because temperature fluctuations are typically measured in thousandths of a degree. Researchers say this increase is consistent with warming trends in the shallow ocean associated with anthropogenic climate change. However, they say more research is needed to better understand what is driving the warming temperatures in the deep sea. A better understanding of what is driving these changes could have far-reaching implications. Since oceans absorb a significant amount of the world's heat, learning about the oceans' temperature trends could help researchers better understand temperature fluctuations in the atmosphere as well. The researchers hope their findings will demonstrate the need to survey deep ocean temperatures annually in order to better identify the long-term trends. ********** Web Links The deep sea is slowly warming Photo, posted July 1, 2018, courtesy of NOAA Ocean Exploration and Research via Flickr. Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio.