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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Human actions have taken a steep toll on whales and dolphins. Some studies estimate that small whale abundance, which includes dolphins, has fallen 87% since 1980 and thousands of whales die from rope entanglement annually. But humans also cause less obvious harm. Researchers have found changes in the stress levels, reproductive health and respiratory health of these animals, but this valuable data is extremely hard to collect.
Researchers work with trained dolphins to learn more about their sensory abilities, seen here testing a dolphin's hearing. Jason Bruck / CC BY-ND
A Lot to Learn From Hormones<p>When sampling the blow, we are looking for hormones in mucus as these can be used to gauge psychological and physiological health. We are specifically interested in <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0114062" target="_blank">hormones like cortisol</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ygcen.2018.04.003" target="_blank">progesterone</a>, which indicate stress levels and reproductive ability respectively, but can also help determine overall health.</p><p>Additionally, blow samples can detect <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1128%2FmSystems.00119-17" target="_blank">respiratory pathogens</a> in the lungs or nasal passages - blowholes evolved from noses after all.</p><p>This health analysis is especially important in areas with oil spills as the chemicals can cause hormonal problems that harm <a href="https://www.carmmha.org/investigating-how-oil-spills-affect-dolphins-and-whales/" target="_blank">development, metabolism and reproduction</a> in dolphins.</p><p>Hormone samples can provide scientists with valuable data, but collecting them from intelligent and unpredictable animals is challenging.</p>
Cetacean Collaborators<p>To build a drone that can stealthily collect spray from moving dolphins, we needed more data on their eyesight and hearing, and this is data that couldn't be collected in the wild nor simulated in a lab.</p><p>We worked with dolphins at facilities like Dolphin Quest in Bermuda, which provides guests opportunities to learn about dolphins while allowing <a href="https://dolphinquest.com/about-us/our-story/" target="_blank">scientists access to animals for noninvasive research</a>. Here the dolphins can swim away if they choose not to work with us, so we had to design the study like a game; the way a kindergarten teacher entertains a class. If the dolphins aren't interested, we don't get to do the science.</p><p>Over the course of hundreds of sessions, we sought to answer two questions: What can dolphins hear and what can they see around their heads?</p><p>To test dolphin hearing, we set up microphones and cameras to record dolphin behavior as we played drone noise in the air. We analyzed the responses to each noise – such as how many dolphins looked at the speaker – and used these as a proxy for their ability to hear the sounds.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5f31daf07a652b8d64a093b993ee4e96"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UjmQeH3vXHI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Robodolphin doesn't look like a real dolphin, but it doesn't need to in order to train our drone pilots. C.J. Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND<p>To build robodolphin, we worked with dolphins trained to "chuff" or sneeze on command to measure spray characteristics. We used high-speed photography to see the dolphins' breath as it moved through the air. Then we conducted high resolution CT scans of a dolphin head and 3D-printed a replica of a nasal passage.</p><p>Now, we have a complete robodolphin and are tweaking its sprays to be nearly identical to the real thing. This will allow us to determine how close we need to get to collect the samples, and therefore, how quiet our drone needs to be.</p>
The replica dolphin blowhole was designed from a scan of a real blowhole passage, and the spray it produces closely matches the real thing. Alvin Ngo, Mitch Ford and CJ Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND
A Bit of Practice, Then Into the Wild<p>In the next few months, we will test flights over robodolphin with existing drones to determine the timing and strategy for collection. From there, we will fabricate a low-noise drone that can fly fast enough and with sufficient maneuverability to capture samples from wild dolphins. Like a video game, we will use the visual field data to develop approach trajectories to stay in the visual blindspots.</p><p>We plan to test our drones on a truck-mounted robodolphin moving down a runway, then using a boat to simulate realistic conditions. The next steps will involve ocean testing with dolphins trained for open ocean swimming. These tests will determine if our devices can catch and hold the hormones as the drone flies back to a researcher's boat.</p><p>Finally, we will deploy the system to collect data on wild dolphins. Our first goal is to test resident dolphins – animals that live on the coasts and deal directly with boat and oil industry noise – which will allow us to learn more about stress resulting from human impacts.</p><p>Those samples are a way off, but if all goes well we will have a specially built drone capable of flying long distances and capturing samples undetected in a few years. The samples collected will allow researchers to do better science with impact on the animals they study.</p>
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Environmental and Health Hazard<p>Experts say e-waste, which is now the world's fastest-growing domestic waste stream, poses serious environmental and health risks.</p><p>Simply throwing away electronic items without ensuring they get properly recycled leads to the loss of key materials such as iron, copper and gold, which can otherwise be recovered and used as primary raw materials to make new equipment, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions from extraction and refinement of raw materials.</p><p>Refrigerants found in electronic equipment such as fridge and air conditioners also contribute to global warming. A total of 98 Mt of CO2-equivalents, or about 0.3% of global energy-related emissions, were released into the atmosphere in 2019 from discarded refrigerators and ACs that were not recycled properly, the report said.</p><p>E-waste contains several toxic additives or hazardous substances, such as mercury and brominated flame retardants (BFR), and simply burning it or throwing it away could lead to serious health issues. Several studies have linked unregulated recycling of e-waste to adverse birth outcomes like stillbirth and premature birth, damages to the human brain or nervous system and in some cases hearing loss and heart troubles.</p><p>"Informal and improper e-waste recycling is a major emerging hazard silently affecting our health and that of future generations. One in four children are dying from avoidable environmental exposures," said Maria Neira, director of the Environment, Climate Change and Health Department at the World Health Organization. "One in four children could be saved, if we take action to protect their health and ensure a safe environment."</p>
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