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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By Alexandra Rowles
Oregano is a fragrant herb that's best known as an ingredient in Italian food.
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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