Scientists Are Closer to Making Solar-Powered Jets a Reality
By Tim Radford
Swiss scientists are closer to making solar-powered jets a reality. They now know how to make jet fuel out of air, sunlight and water.
With a high temperature solar reactor fashioned from a helpful ceramic, they split carbon dioxide and water to make carbon monoxide and hydrogen, known as syngas or synthetic natural gas, with oxygen as the only exhaust.
They then handed the compressed syngas to chemists in Amsterdam who used a standard industrial process to turn the syngas into kerosene, the fuel that flies jumbo jets around the world.
Aviation is estimated to be responsible for only 2 percent of the emissions that drive potentially dangerous global warming. But while wheeled traffic can function on electricity or hydrogen as fuel, only flight-quality hydrocarbon fuel refined from crude oil can deliver the engine thrust to lift continental and intercontinental commercial flights.
And the latest experiments offer for the first time the chance of a carbon-neutral high-octane aviation spirit.
The initial quantities of syngas from the first trial run are hardly likely to change the world of commercial airlines: 700 liters were shipped from Zurich to Shell Global Solutions in the Netherlands to be turned into kerosene by the Fischer-Tropsch process.
But the trial is yet further evidence of the optimism and ingenuity generated in the world's research laboratories, in search of energy from renewable, or at least neutral, resources.
Scientists have already reported work on vegetable and bacterial agents to deliver a biochemical variant of rocket fuel: this, too, is some way from the launch pad.
But the aviation industry is under pressure to respond to the greenhouse consequences of fossil fuel combustion on a prodigal scale and has been looking for ways to curb emissions from jet engine exhausts.
Phillipp Furler of the Swiss technology institute known as ETH Zurich reports in the journal Energy and Environmental Science that he and colleagues used solar thermochemistry to split water and carbon dioxide at a temperature of 1,500°C.
This technology effectively concentrates sunlight to create great heat which can then be used to generate electricity. In this case, it generated flows of syngas and oxygen from a reactor based on ceria, an oxide of the rare earth cerium.
"Ceria is state of the art material. It has the ability to release a certain amount of its oxygen and then, in the reduced state, it has the capability of splitting water and CO2," Dr. Furler said.
"Our long-term vision, and what we are following, is that we will be extracting the CO2 from the atmosphere. This way, we are able to close the carbon cycle and produce CO2-neutral fuels. The technology is expensive, but commercially available."
The research offers the possibility that tomorrow's air journeys could be driven essentially by sunlight, captured carbon dioxide and water. However, the synthesis process is not likely to be competitive for a while: The researchers hope to triple the efficiency of the process.
But even then, it requires the reflected energy of 3,000 times the power of the sun to achieve the necessary temperatures. Until governments start imposing higher carbon taxes on fossil fuels to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, it is unlikely to compete with kerosene from the oil refineries. But even so, solar-derived jet fuel could be here to stay.
"Oil is a limited resource; at some point you will run out," Dr. Furler said. "What we propose is another route to the same chemical, using solar energy."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Climate News Network.
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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
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<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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