Nature, Science

Dutch Toxic Landfill Site Now Capturing and Storing Carbon

The Volgermeerpolder, near Amsterdam, proves that peat bogs can be created artificially.
A peat bog. Photo: Shutterstock

The Volgermeerpolder, located near Amsterdam in the Netherlands, is a toxic waste site that was capped with foil and an artificial wetland on top.

According to researchers at Radboud University, six years after the opening of the wetland, it appears that the new site is already forming peat, which can capture and store carbon.

How does this work? Peat contains high levels of carbon, which binds pollutants. There is already a large layer of peat beneath the toxic landfill, which is preventing toxins from leaking from the landfill into the groundwater. That layer of peat has eliminated the need to dig up the entire toxic site at the Volgermeer. Instead, authorities were able to cap the site with a layer of foil.

If the foil were to tear, another protective layer of peat is forming on top of that protective barrier. Growing peat from scratch has never been attempted before, but it appears to be working.

Peat grows at a very slow pace—only about 1 millimeter per year on average—and researcher Sarah Faye Harpenslager says this growth is something that can’t be measured directly.

“That one millimeter falls outside of the margin of error,” she said. “But we can measure whether carbon is being captured and stored by determining the difference in carbon dioxide levels by taking the amount of carbon dioxide that is captured by plants and then subtracting the carbon dioxide that is released when those plans decompose. The less plants decompose, the more peat that is formed. The Volgermeer is indeed capturing and storing carbon, so peat is clearly being formed even though you can’t see it.”

Harpenslager and her colleagues also compared peat formation in ponds with different bottoms—sand, clay, or a layer of organic topsoil. The topsoil was shown to be the more fertile. “In ponds with a thin layer of topsoil, peat-forming plants grow most prolifically and capture the most carbon,” Harpenslager said. “For peat o form, it is essential that peat-forming plants such as common reed, cattail, and water soldiers start to grow here.”

According to the researchers, the results of their study are not just applicable to capping of polluted land. Their research shows that peat could also be important for the capture and storage of greenhouse gases through need peat formation and preventing subsidence.

Climate Change, Environmental Hazards

Carbon Released from Soil Could Exacerbate Global Warming

Carbon stored in arctic and sub-arctic soil could be released if warming in the region continues, thus intensifying climate change.
Photo: Shutterstock

One of the many threats of global climate change is that, on a warming Earth, carbon trapped in soil will be released, which would make the entire problem even worse. Until recently, studies of this possibility have been mixed. According to a new study, it seems that the difference is caused largely by where the study is done.

In colder regions, soil has been slowly collecting carbon for some time, as microbes in that soil are much more sluggish than they are in temperate regions.

“But as you start to warm, the activities of these microbes increase, and that’s when the losses start to happen,” says Thomas Crowther, the study’s lead author. “The scary thing is, these cold regions are the places that are expected to warm the most under climate change.”

The study, led by researchers from Yale, found that warming soil could produce a 17-percent increase in emissions by the middle of the 21st century, effectively adding another United States’ worth of emissions to the already severe problem of excessive carbon emissions from industry.

The more the global temperature rises, the worse the problem will get, with the expected two degree Celsius increase by mid-century being more than we can actually afford if we are to avoid runaway global climate change.

The Arctic and sub-Arctic, which have the largest soil-based carbon stores, area already expected to warm faster than many other parts of the world, meaning this extra carbon could be released sooner rather than later.

The plus side of this study, and there is one, is that now we know this, which means we can focus more research efforts on the issue and hopefully figure out a way to slow down this release. Even if we can’t find a way to directly address the issue of increased carbon release from these soil stores, it is more evidence for the importance of reducing emissions and removing carbon from the atmosphere.

Eco-friendly, Green, Science

Converting Carbon Dioxide into Ethanol is Actually Pretty Easy

Scientists discovered a way to produce ethanol from carbon dioxide.
An ethanol refinery in the American midwest. Photo: Shutterstock

The goal of developing alternative energy is twofold: to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels because we will run out of them eventually, and to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that we dump into the air.

CO2 acts as a greenhouse gas, trapping heat against the Earth. It is one of the major culprits in global climate change. However, even as we turn to alternative energy sources like wind or solar, we still have a lot of CO2 in the atmosphere, and we need to get rid of it to turn back the damage we’ve already done.

A team at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory was working on a way to convert CO2 into something useful when they did exactly that. They developed a system using copper and carbon, easily obtained materials, which converts CO2 into ethanol, an alternative, renewable fuel. Best of all, the process works at room temperature, which makes it easy to start and stop, and reasonably cheap.

The team is exploring the technology further in the hopes of making it efficient enough for industrial use. This could be a huge step in the right direction. By converting CO2 into ethanol, either in the atmosphere or while it’s being created, we get more fuel out of the process. This, in turn, reduces our reliance on fossil fuels and reduces pollution, which slows the effects of climate change. It’s a win-win.

The carbon and copper method the researchers discovered would allow us to create ethanol without using as much arable land (it’s usually made from corn) and without affecting food prices. Plus, burning ethanol produces CO2, which could subsequently be turned into more ethanol. This process may not be exactly carbon neutral, but it’s a huge step toward that goal and an excellent way to make up for shortfalls from solar or wind energy production.

Nature, Science

Italian Study Shows Effects of Air Pollution Over Half A Century

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

A first of its kind study in Italy has shown the direct effects of air pollution, and subsequent attempts to reduce it, on the amount of light that reaches soil. Based on daily radiation records of soil from 50 locations around Italy, the authors of the study have shown that after the early 1980s, more solar radiation reached soil on clear days than it had in the previous 30 years of measurement.

The reason for the change is the reduction of aerosols and other pollutants that took place as environmental laws changed. When they enter the atmosphere, air pollutants stagnate there and block the solar radiation coming through the atmosphere.

Between the late 1950s and the early 1980s, there was a significant reduction—or dimming—that was most noticeable on clear days. The increase of air pollution during the 1960s and 1970s is the most obvious culprit here, as smog and other pollutants refracted light and result in less of it reached the ground. That decreased light impacted plant growth and ambient temperatures.

However, following efforts to clean up and reduce air pollution, which were initiated in the early 1980s, there has been a general increase, or brightening, on clear days. Thus, plants received more light than they had in the previous decades.

This study is the first to focus on Italy, but the findings are in line with trends reported from around the world. It gives us yet more proof of the measurable impact green initiatives have had. Looking at this study, for example, shows data-originated proof that the reduction in air pollution has an objective, measurable impact on the lived experience of plants, animals, and microbes on the Earth.

Climate Change, Environmental Hazards, fossil fuels, Sustainability

Fossil Fuels Could Be History in Ten Years If We Make the Effort

Biomass cakes, wood, and trash is used for this cooking fire. Over 100 million households in India use such stoves 2-3 times each day.
Biomass cakes, wood, and trash is used for this cooking fire. Over 100 million households in India use such stoves 2-3 times each day. Photo: Info-farmer | WikimediaCC.

On a global scale, shifting to a clean energy system that does not rely on fossil fuels is a difficult task. People have been arguing about it for years. Detractors often look to the past and point out how long it took to switch from wood to coal, or to get electricity up and running throughout the world.

Switching from wood to coal took between 96 and 160 years, which is a time frame that many scientists think is too long to effectively slow down global warming.

According to a new study by Professor Benjamin Sovacool of the University of Sussex, we could transition out of fossil fuels in about a decade. His argument is based on comparing those older transitions to newer, smaller scale transitions.

For example, two-thirds of Indonesia was switched from kerosene to LPG stoves in only three years, while France saw electricity produced by nuclear power rise from 4% in 1970 to 40% in 1982.

In these cases, and others, the key is government involvement and a stated goal of transitioning energy models. The examples of coal or electricity were haphazard, with the adaptation of those systems being left largely to chance, to people deciding to engage with them.

By setting out with a goal of converting to a carbon neutral system like solar power, it would be much easier to shift, since there would be direction and goals to work towards. There would also be greater support for research into such technology, which would help immensely.

Professor Sovacool also notes that our current technology is far more advanced that it was when electricity was new, or even in the 1970s for that matter. Figuring out how to make something like solar power work, and then how to implement it, would be a lot easier to pull off.

Business, Eco-friendly, technology

Tesla Grows the Electric Car Market and Sheds Old Revenue Streams

The Tesla Model 3 will cost less than earlier models and introduce electric vehicles to a larger consumer market.
The Tesla Model 3 will cost less than earlier models and introduce electric vehicles to a larger consumer market. Photo: Tesla.

Tesla is probably best known for producing electric cars. They sold 100,000 cars in 2015. Beyond developing and marketing the best-known electric cars, they were doing work for more established automakers.

Tesla spent a lot of time in the early years courting contracts for powertrain and battery production for companies like Daimler and Toyota. Now, as electric cars become a more serious aspect of the auto-industry, those companies are pulling away from their contracts with Tesla in order to focus on in-house production and design.

Although oil prices have been very low lately, electric cars continue to gain a foothold among consumers. Bloomberg predicts that by 2040, one third of new cars sold will be electric, and that such vehicles will make up a quarter of the cars in the world.

This increase in the number of electric cars suggests that larger automakers are finally taking electric cars seriously. It is likely that more of them will show up on the market in the future. For Tesla, that’s something of a double-edged sword, as it will likely mean fewer contracts with other companies, but provide more time to dedicate to in-house development.

Just because Daimler is no longer working with them doesn’t mean that other companies won’t. For companies that haven’t been designing their own in-house electric cars and production line, contracting with Tesla could be a great way to enter this market. Braver manufacturers might decide to go eschew Tesla’s help and attempt to develop proprietary electric vehicles.

Either way, Tesla isn’t struggling. They’re introducing their fourth design, the Model 3, later this month, and have begun delivery of the Model X. The Model 3 is expected to have a smaller sticker price than previous models, which could open their vehicles up to a much larger market.

Climate Change, Environmental Hazards, Science

Himalayan Water Quality Deteriorating Due to Climate Change

The Tibetan Plateau provides water for 40% of the world’s population and is showing an increase in carbon due to climate change.
The Tibetan Plateau provides water for 40% of the world’s population and is showing an increase in carbon due to climate change. Photo: Jochen Westermann | FlickrCC.

Climate change is an especially difficult problem to contain. For instance, climate change caused by carbon emissions has a snowball effect. Permafrost, which is frozen subsurface soil, doesn’t normally melt, but it does contain a lot of captured carbon.

As global temperatures rise, permafrost in some areas starts to melt, which in turn releases additional carbon into the atmosphere and local water sources. This in turn makes global warming worse and the cycle keeps going. According to Finnish researchers, that’s exactly what’s happening in the Himalayas.

These researchers found that there is an increasing amount of carbon in water from the Tibetan Plateau, the highest plateau in the world known as the water tower of Asia. Approximately 40% of the world population gets its water from the Tibetan Plateau, and until recently, there was a less carbon in that water.

Water quality is an important issue for people everywhere. Nearly half of the world population gets its water from a source that is undergoing rapid change. The researchers have called for more studies on the issue, to determine the extent of the problem and to find ways to fix it.

Local knowledge of climate change, or its effect on water quality, isn’t particularly extensive or well developed. With that many people living in the area, the impact on the climate is huge, but a lot of people don’t know that climate change is directly impacting the quality of their water supply, and even if they do, aren’t well equipped to deal with this issue.

As usual in climate science the answer will likely lie in more research. It will help scientists figure out how to mitigate some of the problem before it gets too bad, and the dissemination of that information will go a long way towards that effort.