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Giant Floating Solar Farms Could Make Fuel and Help Solve the Climate Crisis, Says Study

Energy
Artist's conception of solar islands in the open ocean. PNAS

Millions of solar panels clustered together to form an island could convert carbon dioxide in seawater into methanol, which can fuel airplanes and trucks, according to new research from Norway and Switzerland and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, PNAS, as NBC News reported. The floating islands could drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on fossil fuels.


The paper argues that the technology exists to build the floating methanol islands on a large scale in areas of the ocean free from large waves and extreme weather. Areas of the ocean off the coasts of South America, North Australia, the Arabian Gulf and Southeast Asia are particularly suitable for mooring these islands.

"A massive reduction in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning is required to limit the extent of global warming. However, carbon-based liquid fuels will in the foreseeable future continue to be important energy storage media. We propose a combination of largely existing technologies to use solar energy to recycle atmospheric CO2 into a liquid fuel," the study authors wrote in PNAS.

The paper suggests floating islands are similar to floating fishing farms. The researchers envision clusters that would consist of approximately 70 circular solar panels, or islands, covering an area of roughly a half of a square mile. The solar panels would produce electricity, which would split water molecules and isolate hydrogen. The hydrogen would then react with the carbon dioxide pulled from the seawater to produce usable methanol, according to NBC News.

The study authors argue that this method will address the hurdles of making renewable energy competitive with fossil fuels on a large scale, as Newsweek reported.

Andreas Borgshulte, a co-author on the paper, said the idea for the solar islands came to the researchers when they were asked by the Norwegian government to push fish farms out to open sea. Those grids needed their own energy. "Energy 'producing' islands had been proposed some time ago," he said to Newsweek. "What remained was to include energy storage." Borgshulte and his team are currently developing floating island prototypes. They estimate that output from 3.2 million floating islands would exceed the total global emissions from fossil fuels.

A single floating solar farm could produce more than 15,000 tons of methanol a year — enough to fuel a Boeing 737 airliner on more than 300 round-trip flights between New York City and Phoenix, according to NBC News reported. "We'd mostly want to use the fuel in airplanes, long-haul trucks, ships and non-electrified railroad systems," said Bruce Patterson, a physicist at the University of Zurich and one of the study's co-authors, as NBC News reported.

Solar floating farms do not address individual actions, which Patterson argues are also necessary to combat the climate crisis. "This is just one of the many things we should be doing to control climate change, along with having better insulation in our homes, having higher efficiency in car engines and driving electric vehicles," he said to NBC News.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.