Cool Ideas to Clean Up Pollution From Cars, Trucks, Ships and Planes
By Marlene Cimons
Nearly a century ago, German engineer Anton Flettner launched a ship into the ocean. "Without sails or steam, like a ghost ship, it moved mysteriously through the water with no apparent means of propulsion," according to a 1925 article that appeared in Popular Science Monthly. The ship cruised in silence, without spewing anything into the air. Curiously, two odd-looking, giant spinning cylinders rose from her deck as "the ship plowed its way through the rough waters of the Baltic, at nearly twice its former speed," the article said.
Flettner used those cylinders — called rotor sails — to power his ship, harnessing the same source that first drove vessels through the sea hundreds of years earlier when they began sailing: the wind. At the time, his invention couldn't compete with steam, coal and, ultimately, the modern diesel engine. But today, as the world copes with climate change, the shipping industry — indeed, the entire world transportation sector — must find ways to wean itself from fossil fuels and transition to cleaner energy. Among these efforts, Flettner's old idea has gained new traction.
Flettner's rotor ship, the Buckau, in 1924.
"Who would have thought that centuries later we would be taking a hard look at how to harness the power of the wind to power ships?" said Bryan Comer, a senior researcher in the marine program of the International Council on Clean Transportation. "In the beginning, all ships were zero emission, using human power — oars — or wind. Now, in an effort to reduce costs and environmental impacts, we're starting to see innovative uses of wind power, including rotor sails. It seems we have come full circle."
The global transportation sector accounts for nearly a quarter of the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases discharged into the atmosphere. Still, energy moves our cars, trucks, buses, trains, ships and airplanes, everything we depend upon to deliver food and consumer goods, to commute to work, to go shopping, to get the kids to school and soccer practice, and to fly the job-weary to a long awaited vacation. People aren't going to abandon their vehicles anytime soon, and if people can't change, then the vehicles must.
Experts agree that the transportation sector must undergo fundamental changes, starting now, if we are to keep warming to 1.5 degrees C, the target set by the Paris Climate Agreement. "We need to start the technological shift in transport immediately and at a very high pace in order not to fall short of the ambitious Paris climate goals," said Johannes Pagenkopf, a scientist and vehicles systems specialist with the German Aerospace Center.
Traffic jam in New Delhi.
Transport today still depends heavily on fossil fuels, with only a small share based on electricity. "We need to profoundly shift our current transport systems towards a carbon-neutral future," said Pagenkopf.
Ships account for around 3 percent of CO2 emissions globally, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation. Experts in the shipping industry think that wind-assisted technologies— rotor sails among them — will help vessels reach emission reduction goals set by the International Maritime Organization. The group has called for lowering carbon emissions by 70 percent by 2050 compared to 2008 levels.
Ships armed with rotor sails wouldn't be fossil fuel-free, but the technology could help curb fuel use and pollution. In addition to rotor sails, ships could also deploy innovations such as a blower to pump air bubbles under the ship and across part of the hull, reducing drag and thus the amount of power needed by the main engines.
The amount of energy used per person per mile by different forms of transport, as measured in metric tons of oil.
Beyond shipping, Pagenkopf believes that other transportation modes must be powered by electricity. To that end, he believes people should rely more on trains instead cars and airplanes, since most railways already use electricity. Someday, he hopes the same will be true of planes and ships. "Battery and fuel cell electric propulsion for short- and medium-range planes and ships will get momentum" he said.
Some short-range airplanes already use battery-derived power for short distance flights that carry only a few passengers. And, "the industry has actually taken to the idea of electric aircraft in many meaningful ways," said Phil Ansell, assistant professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Lots of different industry groups are currently conducting internal research into electric aircraft concepts."
An airplane flying above Chicago.
There are major obstacles to overcome, however, before batteries will routinely power planes, especially on longer flights. Current batteries are too heavy to carry planes very far; research must focus on making them lighter. Because of these drawbacks, scientists are looking at other options, including hybrid systems that pair batteries with fuel.
Xianguo Li, a professor of mechanical and mechatronics engineering at the University of Waterloo, is working on something similar, pairing batteries with fuel cells for use in automobiles. He believes his system will last as much as ten times longer than current fuel cells and can be produced cheaply enough to eventually replace conventional gas engines. The system consists of a battery and three fuel cell units of identical size that shift among themselves, depending on the amount of power needed.
Professor Xianguo Li seen here with his fuel cell test vehicle in his lab.
University of Waterloo
"During low speed driving, the battery provides the power," Li said. "One of the three fuel cell units would be activated if the battery energy level is low or battery power is not sufficient, and the fuel cell output would be used partly for driving and partly for charging the battery. If the vehicle speeds, two of the three fuel cells would be activated, and at full load all three fuel cells would be activated." But the fuel cells likely would last longer because a vehicle needs full power only around one-third of the time, he said.
Similarly, Li's Waterloo colleague, Amir Khajepour, has developed a new valve technology that increases the efficiency of conventional internal combustion engines by more than 10 percent. He also has created a battery system that harnesses and stores heat that a vehicle creates when it brakes, but still allows refrigeration units and air conditioners to run during idling.
"Combustion engines will be the horse force of heavy transportations for many years to come," he said. "In addition, the current vehicles especially used in city buses or utility fleets have at least another decade of life span. Any technology that can reduce the fuel consumption and emissions of such vehicles will have a huge impact in making the transportation system greener."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.
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The environmental disaster that Mauritius is facing is starting to appear as its pristine waters turn black, its fish wash up dead, and its sea birds are unable to take flight, as they are limp under the weight of the fuel covering them. For all the damage to the centuries-old coral that surrounds the tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean, scientists are realizing that the damage could have been much worse and there are broad lessons for the shipping industry, according to Al Jazeera.
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Transitioning to renewable energy can help reduce global warming, and Jennie Stephens of Northeastern University says it can also drive social change.
For example, she says that locally owned businesses can lead the local clean energy economy and create new jobs in underserved communities.
"We really need to think about … connecting climate and energy with other issues that people wake up every day really worried about," she says, "whether it be jobs, housing, transportation, health and well-being."
To maximize that potential, she says the energy sector must have more women and people of color in positions of influence. Research shows that leadership in the solar industry, for example, is currently dominated by white men.
"I think that a more inclusive, diverse leadership is essential to be able to effectively make these connections," Stephens says. "Diversity is not just about who people are and their identity, but the ideas and the priorities and the approaches and the lens that they bring to the world."
So she says by elevating diverse voices, organizations can better connect the climate benefits of clean energy with social and economic transformation.
Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.
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If weather is your mood, climate is your personality. That's an analogy some scientists use to help explain the difference between two words people often get mixed up.
Size Matters<p>Climates are a bit like woven tapestries. The big picture is important, no question. But so are all the seemingly minor details found inside the larger whole.</p><p><a href="https://research-information.bris.ac.uk/en/persons/tommaso-jucker" target="_blank">Tommaso Jucker</a> is an environmental scientist at the University of Bristol. In an email, Jucker says he'd define the term microclimate as "the suite of climatic conditions (temperature, rainfall, humidity, solar radiation) measured in localized areas, typically near the ground and at spatial scales that are directly relevant to ecological processes."</p><p>We'll talk about that last bit in a minute. But first, there's another criteria to discuss. According to some researchers, a microclimate — by definition — must differ from the larger area that surrounds it.</p><p><a href="https://www.cfc.umt.edu/research/paleoecologylab/publications/Davis_et_al_2019_Ecography.pdf" target="_blank">Forests</a> provide us with some great examples. "The climate near the ground in a tropical rainforest is dramatically different from the climate in the canopy 50 meters [164 feet] above," says University of Montana ecologist <a href="https://www.cfc.umt.edu/personnel/details.php?ID=1110" target="_blank">Solomon Dobrowski</a> in an email. "This vertical gradient among other factors allows for the staggering biodiversity we see in the tropics."</p><p>Likewise, scientists observed that a 2015 partial <a href="https://animals.howstuffworks.com/insects/bees-stopped-buzzing-during-2017-solar-eclipse.htm" target="_blank">solar eclipse</a> caused the air temperature of an Eastern European meadow to <a href="https://rmets.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/wea.2802" target="_blank">change more dramatically</a> than it did in a nearby forest. That's because trees provide not only shade, but their leaves also reflect solar radiation. At the same time, forests tend to reduce wind speeds.</p><p>All those factors add up. A 2019 review of 98 wooded places — spread out across five continents — found that forests are 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) <a href="https://natureecoevocommunity.nature.com/posts/47363-forests-protect-animals-and-plants-against-warming" target="_blank">cooler on average</a> than the areas outside them.</p><p>Now if you hate the cold, don't worry; there's a cozy exception to the rule. According to that same study, forests are usually 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) warmer than the external environment during the wintertime. Pretty cool.</p>
A Bug's Life<p>When does a microclimate stop being, well, micro? In other words, is there a maximum size we should be aware of when discussing them?</p><p>Depends on who you ask. "In terms of horizontal scale, some have defined 'microclimate' as anything that is less than 100 meters [328 feet] in range," Jucker says. "I'm personally less prescriptive about this."</p><p>Instead, he says the "scale at which we want to measure [a particular] microclimate" ought to be "dictated" by the questions we're trying to answer.</p><p>"If I want to know how temperature affects the photosynthesis of a leaf, I should be measuring temperature at centimeter scale," Jucker explains. "If I want to know if and how temperature affects the habitat preference of a large, mobile mammal, it's probably more relevant to capture temperature variation across [tens to hundreds] of meters."</p><p>For instance, solitary plants have the power to generate itty-bitty microclimates. Just ask <a href="https://www.colorado.edu/geography/peter-blanken-0" target="_blank">Peter Blanken</a>, a geography professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the co-author of the 2016 book, "<a href="https://amzn.to/2XN6FT8" target="_blank">Microclimate and Local Climate</a>."</p>
The urban heat island effect is a good example of how microclimates work. NOAA
Microclimates on a Grand Scale<p>It's no secret that our planet is going through some rough times at the macro level. The global temperature is <a href="https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/global-temperature/" target="_blank">climbing</a>; nine out of the <a href="https://www.noaa.gov/news/2019-was-2nd-hottest-year-on-record-for-earth-say-noaa-nasa" target="_blank">10 hottest years on record</a> have occurred since 2005. And by one recent estimate, roughly 1 million species around the world are <a href="https://ipbes.net/sites/default/files/2020-02/ipbes_global_assessment_report_summary_for_policymakers_en.pdf" target="_blank">facing extinction</a> due to human activities.</p><p>"One of the big questions that ecologists and environmental scientists are trying to answer right now is how will individual species and whole ecosystems respond to rapid climate change and habitat loss," says Jucker. "...To me, [microclimates are] a key component of this research — if we don't measure and understand climate at the appropriate scale, then predicting how things will change in the future becomes a lot harder."</p><p>Developers have long understood the impact small-scale climates have on our daily lives. <a href="https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/urban-heat-island.htm#pt0" target="_blank">Urban heat islands</a> are cities that have higher temperatures than neighboring rural areas.</p><p>Plants release vapors that can moderate local climates. But in cities, natural greenery is often scarce. To make matters worse, plenty of our roads and buildings have a bad habit of absorbing or re-emitting heat from the sun. <a href="https://www.google.com/books/edition/Microclimate_and_Local_Climate/LHUZDAAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=urban%20heat%20island" target="_blank">Vehicle emissions</a> don't exactly help the situation.</p><p>Still, it's not like Boston or Beijing are thermal monoliths. Sometimes, the documented temperatures <a href="https://e360.yale.edu/features/can-we-turn-down-the-temperature-on-urban-heat-islands" target="_blank">within a single city</a> vary by 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit (8.3 to 11.1 degrees Celsius).</p><p>That's where metro parks and city trees come in. They have nice cooling effects on nearby neighborhoods. "Several cities around the world have developed programs to increase urban green spaces," says Blanken. "Tree planting programs and green roof programs, have been shown to lower surface temperatures, decrease air pollution and decrease surface water runoff (urban flash-flooding) in urban areas."</p>
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By Jeff Berardelli
Note: This story was originally published on August 6, 2020
If asked to recall a hurricane, odds are you'd immediately invoke memorable names like Sandy, Katrina or Harvey. You'd probably even remember something specific about the impact of the storm. But if asked to recall a heat wave, a vague recollection that it was hot during your last summer vacation may be about as specific as you can get.
<div id="ecf36" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c2dcc9d48a6cd61f247df1544539a783"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1290959314132361216" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Naming heatwaves is a good idea—making the abstract concrete, the invisible visible. Why should hurricanes and wild… https://t.co/hDWgYb79Ob</div> — Ed Maibach (@Ed Maibach)<a href="https://twitter.com/MaibachEd/statuses/1290959314132361216">1596623660.0</a></blockquote></div>
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