The Weekly Carboholic

Posted on February 20, 2008

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permafrost polygonsA new study by the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology and reported in the Asahi Shimbum (English edition) says that Russian permafrost has been melting deeper and faster than previous studies indicated. Specifically, the average temperature of the permafrost has risen almost to melting, the depth of melt has doubled since 2000, and the size of melt lakes have increased by 3.5x. All of these things are bad, given that permafrost traps a huge amount of methane, a very potent greenhouse gas.

However, we can’t accept these results on face value for a very important reason – they directly contradict several Russian studies. These results need to be verified and reconciled with studies like this one, published by the global heating denier organization the Heartland Institute. Ultimately, unless someone is lying here (which is always a possibility when talking about global heating), the data for both studies have to be explainable via a single hypothesis – data cannot be thrown out without corrupting the scientific method. I look forward to hearing how these disparate results are reconciled.

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According to the the Colorado Springs Gazette, a local inventor has convinced Springs Utilities to invest an unspecified amount to install his pollution-cleaning invention at the Martin Drake Power Plant. According to the Gazette, the inventor, a former Air Force Academy graduate with a PhD in physics, claims that the invention will pull “90 percent of pollutants spewed by the city’s coal-fired electric plants for a fraction of the cost of other processes under development.” As you can imagine, if this works, it’s a very, very big deal. Not only will it dramatically reduce the amount of pollutants emitted into the air by coal-burning power plant, it will do so comparatively inexpensively – scrubbers using existing technologies to do the same clean-up job at the Martin Drake Power Plant would cost about $65 million plus $5 million per year in operational costs.

Dr. David Neumann believes that the technology, based on laser technologies originally developed for the Department of Defense, will also be able to remove carbon dioxide from both coal and natural gas power plants, although that’s further down the line. According to another Gazette story, Dr. Neumann’s first tests over the weekend were not only successful, but exceeded his expectations. Not only did it capture 90% of the sulfur pollutants with straight tap water (instead of water with additives), but it did so repeatedly. Dr. Neumann hopes to be able to capture over 90% of nitrogen oxide and 98% of sulfur pollutants.

If his small-scale tests continue to be successful, then Dr. Neumann will be able to tap into the nearly $1 trillion global market for coal power plant pollution controls, and that’s without reducing carbon emissions. Add carbon emission control and a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system, and the value of his invention could skyrocket. Improved coal cleaning solutions that cost less and use less energy (and effectively increase efficiency at the same time) can only be a good thing.

Good luck, Dr. Neumann.

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A couple of weeks ago, the Carboholic pointed out a story about how Suncor Energy was expanding their tar sands petroleum extraction in Alberta. This week we have a couple of follow up stories to that one.

First, the Chicago Tribune ran a story last week about how the many oil refineries in the Midwest will likely emit more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in the future than they do today. The reason is that they’re starting to purchase crude oil from Canadian tar sands suppliers and refining such heavy crude takes an estimated 15 to 40% more energy, and thus more carbon emissions, than standard crude oil from places like Mexico, Alaska, the North Sea, and the Middle East. According to the Tribune story, the Midwest already emits a quarter of the entire country’s carbon dioxide – adding emissions equivalent of another 320,000 vehicles would not be a good thing.

The second story is from the Montreal Gazette, and it’s about a new study done by Environmental Defense that found tar sands development was emitting huge amounts of carbon and poisoning local water supplies with toxins that may be responsible for a spate of rare cancers downstream from the extraction operations. Tar sands extraction requires large amounts of energy and water, for either strip mining and hot water/solvent extraction or for hot steam injection into the ground. It’s entirely possible that the cancer “hot-spot” could be similar in cause – pollution from energy sources – to the suspected coal ash cancers in Pennsylvania.

One of the few things that might change this unfortunate state of affairs is if the federal government implemented a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system. Since refining Canadian petroleum produces more carbon, increasing the cost of those carbon emissions would likely significantly alter the economic equations underlying the transition to higher carbon fuel sources. On the other hand, we don’t want to force oil companies to continue buying oil from authoritarian or corrupt governments like those of Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and Venezuela. Ultimately, the best solution is to develop efficient alternatives to gasoline and diesel fuel, but that’s a medium to long-term undertaking. Some of the suggestions mentioned in the Tribune story for the short and medium-term include attaching costs to carbon emissions, requiring higher efficiency refining for Canadian petroleum, and requiring low-carbon content fuels instead of high-carbon gasoline. And it’s also a good sign that the Canadian Environment Minister, John Baird, is interested in reading Environmental Defense’s study. Unfortunately, both Alberta and the Canadian federal government are under Conservative Party control and Mr. Baird is no friend to carbon emissions limitations – the Montreal Gazette story quotes Matt Price of Environmental Defense as saying “Politically speaking, the reason we have weak federal standards on climate change is to let the tarsands grow. There’s a tailor-made loophole for the tarsands.”

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bubonic plagueIn the U.S., about the only creature I know about that regularly suffers from bubonic plague is the black-tailed prairie dog (aka “eagle snacks”). I’m sure there’s more, but when you see a flourishing prairie dog town suddenly vanish, either people are planning to develop the land and vacuumed them up or the entire town was wiped out by plague. Human cases are not only extremely rare, they’re also very easily treatable with modern antibiotics. Unfortunately, according to a Time Magazine story, plague is becoming more common, and it appears to be as a result of global heating.

Fundamentally, plague resides in rodents like the aforementioned prairie dog. People catch it when they get bitten by parasites, usually fleas, that have been eating infected rodent blood. According to Nils Christian Stenseth, head of the Center for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis in Oslo, his study of 50 years of plague records in Kazakhstan show that when the number of wild gerbils in the countryside goes up, plague cases also rise, and when winters are warmer, there are more gerbils and thus more plague cases. Since humans have effectively hunted many natural rodent predators to the brink of extinction, the number of rodent carriers for plague is already high. Add to that warmer weather that makes your average rodent’s life a lot easier, and you have perfect conditions for an increase in plague deaths. Now, let’s just hope that it doesn’t start developing antibiotic resistance like tuberculosis….

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I always like seeing new approaches to doing things – addressing new energy sources and solving global heating will need as many people “thinking outside the box” as possible. This week I’d like to report on two of them, one of which I found and another which our commenter Jackpine Savage was nice enough to forward along.

The first is a professor at Australia’s Newcastle University who suggests that citizens buy shares of a coal mine and then leave the coal in the earth instead of mining it. Prof. Glenn Albrecht admits that his idea is a little off the wall, but that paying a coal company to not mine the coal it has the mineral rights to would “remove” more carbon dioxide than planting trees as carbon offsets. This strikes me as an interesting approach in the same vein as The Nature Conservancy buying federal fishing permits specifically to prevent fishing and then leasing one of those permits to a fisherman who is willing to follow the NGO’s stricter conservation standards.

Mixer/injector wind turbine
Image from FloDesign Wind Turbine website.

The second is a new, potentially much more efficient design for a wind turbine. According to the FloDesign Wind Turbine webpage, current wind turbine designs can’t exceed about 59% efficiency due to fundamental restrictions on fluid dynamics, and most existing wind turbines don’t even get close to that. The new design, however, can exceed that limit because it relies on a different dynamic and uses airfoils (ie airplane wing-shapes) to pull more air through the rotors, and thus improve efficiency. I don’t have the time to sit down and learn enough aerodynamics and fundamental physics to really parse the theory, but it’s provided on the site for anyone who wants to do so.

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And finally, the Seattle Post Intelligencer reports on a study to be published in the journal Science that documented hypoxic (low-oxygen) water in the Pacific off the coast of Oregon and Washington state. According to the Seattle P.I. story, researchers from NOAA, Oregon State University, and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife found that strong winds were bringing up deep ocean water into the shallows along the continental shelf. Deep ocean water has a lot of nutrients but not much dissolved oxygen (what fish, crabs, etc. need to survive). All those nutrients enable algae blooms, but when the algae dies and settles to the bottom, what little oxygen there is gets pulled out of the water as the dead algae decays.

Algae blooms aren’t necessarily anything special – they’re both a natural occurrence and spurred on by human pollution, as in the case of the blooms in the Gulf of Mexico. But these effects were predicted, for this part of the Pacific, in the very climate models used to model global heating. In other words, this effect is confirmation that yet another portion of the climate models is accurate, making this yet another fact in opposition to the denier argument that “the model’s aren’t accurate.”

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