Researchers in California have reported how carbon sequestration in the ocean can be made 500 times faster, by simply adding a common enzyme to the process.
Scanning electron microscope image of calcite. Credit: Adam Subhas/Caltech
Scientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and the University of Southern California (USC) have found a way to accelerate the slow part of the chemical reaction that helps Earth to safely lock away, or sequester, carbon dioxide into the ocean. Simply adding a common enzyme to the mix can make the rate-limiting part of the process go 500 times faster. Their research appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"While the new paper is about a basic chemical mechanism, the implication is that we might better mimic the natural process that stores carbon dioxide in the ocean," says lead author Adam Subhas, a Caltech graduate student and Resnick Sustainability Fellow.
The team studied calcite – a form of calcium carbonate – dissolving in seawater and measured how fast it occurs at a molecular level. For this, they used isotopic labelling and two methods for measuring isotope ratios in solutions and solids.
"Although a seemingly straightforward problem, the kinetics of the reaction is poorly understood," said Will Berelson, co-author and a Professor of Earth Sciences at USC.
Calcite is a mineral made of calcium, carbon, and oxygen that is more commonly known as the sedimentary precursor to limestone and marble. In the ocean, calcite is a sediment formed from the shells of organisms, like plankton, that have died and sunk to the seafloor. Calcium carbonate is also the material that makes up coral reefs – the exoskeleton of the coral polyp.
With atmospheric carbon dioxide levels having risen past 400 parts per million, ocean surfaces have absorbed more and more of that greenhouse gas. This is part of a natural buffering process – the oceans act as a major reservoir of carbon dioxide, currently holding 50 times as much as the atmosphere.
However, there is a second, slower, buffering process. Carbon dioxide is an acid in seawater, just like in carbonated sodas (which is part of why they dissolve your tooth enamel). Acidified water on the ocean surface will eventually circulate to the deep, where it can react with dead calcium carbonate shells on the seafloor and neutralise the added carbon dioxide. This process takes tens of thousands of years, however, and meanwhile, the ever-more acidic surface waters eat away at coral reefs. But how quickly will the coral dissolve?
"We decided to tackle this problem because it's kind of embarrassing, the state of knowledge expressed in the literature," says Jess Adkins, Professor of Geochemistry and Global Environmental Science at Caltech. "We can't tell you how quickly the coral is going to dissolve."
Earlier methods relied on measuring the changing pH of seawater as calcium carbonate dissolved, and inferring dissolution rates from that (as calcium carbonate dissolves, it raises the pH of water, making it less acidic). Subhas and Adkins instead opted to use isotopic labelling.
Carbon atoms exist in two stable forms in nature. About 98.9% is carbon-12, which has six protons and six neutrons. The other 1.1% is carbon-13, containing one extra neutron. Subhas and Adkins engineered a sample of calcite made entirely of the rare carbon-13, and then dissolved it in seawater. By measuring the change in ratio of carbon-12 to carbon-13 in the seawater over time, they were able to quantify the dissolution at a molecular level. Their method proved to be around 200 times more sensitive than comparable techniques for studying the process.
On paper, the reaction is fairly straightforward: water plus carbon dioxide plus calcium carbonate equals dissolved calcium and bicarbonate ions. But in practice it is more complex. "Somehow, calcium carbonate decides to spontaneously slice itself in half," explains Adkins. "But what is the actual chemical path that reaction takes?"
Studying the process in detail with a secondary ion mass spectrometer (which analyses the surface of a solid by bombarding it with a beam of ions) and a cavity ringdown spectrometer (which determines the 13C/12C ratio in solution), the researchers discovered that the slow part of the reaction is the conversion of carbon dioxide and water into carbonic acid.
"This reaction has been overlooked," says Subhas. "The slow step is making and breaking carbon-oxygen bonds. They don't like to break; they're stable forms."
Armed with this knowledge, they added the enzyme carbonic anhydrase – which helps maintain the pH balance of blood in humans and other animals – and were able to speed up the reaction by orders of magnitude.
"This is one of those rare moments in the arc of one's career where you just go, 'I just discovered something no one ever knew,'" says Adkins.
There is a long way to go before this process could be scaled up (perhaps via a system of pipelines, or underwater delivery drones?), but in the future it could play a part in restoring the health of our oceans.
The masterplan for an eco-friendly "forest city" in China has been revealed by Italian architecture firm, Stefano Boeri Architetti.
Known as Liuzhou Forest City, the project will be built north of Liuzhou, in a mountainous part of Guangxi Province, in an area that covers 175 hectares along the Liujiang River. The new green city, initially hosting 30,000 people, will feature various residential areas, commercial and recreational spaces, along with two schools and a hospital. It will include electric cars and a connection to Liuzhou through a fast rail line.
Liuzhou Forest City will be self-sufficient in clean energy, utilising geothermal and rooftop solar power. While this may seem impressive enough, an even greater innovation is the widespread use of vegetation covering every building, of all sizes and functions. A total of 40,000 trees (1.3 for every person) and almost a million plants of more than 100 different species will make this a true "forest city".
The diffusion of plants – not only in parks, gardens and along streets, but also over building facades – will greatly improve the air quality, decrease the average air temperature, and create barriers for reducing noise, while improving the biodiversity of living species, generating new habitats for birds, insects and other small animals that inhabit the Liuzhou territory. According to Stefano Boeri Architetti, the city will absorb 57 tons of dust and other pollutants each year, generate 900 tons of oxygen and sequester almost 10,000 tons of CO2 annually. For the residents, being surrounded by so much vegetation may have yet another benefit: studies have repeatedly shown that the presence of trees and plants can significantly improve mental health.
The architects hope that Liuzhou Forest City could serve as a model or template for other cities, both in China and around the world. Given the challenges faced by humanity, perhaps this style of architecture may become necessary, rather than optional, in the not-too-distant future. It would be interesting to see major world cities like New York, London and Paris being transformed into much larger forest cities.
Volvo Cars has announced that every car it launches from 2019 will be either electric or hybrid, marking the historic end of cars that only have an internal combustion engine (ICE) and placing electrification at the core of its future business.
This announcement represents one of the most significant moves by any car maker to embrace electrification. It underscores how, more than a century after the invention of the internal combustion engine, electrification is paving the way for a new chapter in automotive history.
“This is about the customer,” said Håkan Samuelsson, president and chief executive. “People increasingly demand electrified cars and we want to respond to our customers’ current and future needs. You can now pick and choose whichever electrified Volvo you wish.”
Volvo will introduce a portfolio of electrified cars across its model range, embracing fully electric cars, plug-in hybrids and mild hybrid cars. It will launch five fully electric cars between 2019 and 2021, three of which will be Volvo models and two of which will be high performance electrified cars from its performance car arm, Polestar. Full details of these models will be announced at a later date.
These five cars will be supplemented by a range of petrol and diesel plug-in hybrid and mild hybrid 48-volt options on all models – one of the broadest electrified car offerings of any car maker. This means that there will, in the future, be no Volvo cars without an electric motor, as pure ICE cars are gradually phased out and replaced by ICE cars that are enhanced with electrified options.
“This announcement marks the end of the solely combustion engine-powered car,” said Mr Samuelsson. “Volvo Cars has stated that it plans to have sold a total of one million electrified cars by 2025. When we said it, we meant it. This is how we are going to do it.”
The announcement underlines Volvo’s commitment to minimising its environmental impact and making cities of the future cleaner. Volvo is focused on reducing the carbon emissions of both its products as well as its operations. It aims to have carbon neutral manufacturing operations by 2025.
Imagine a city where simply walking on pavements and other flat surfaces can produce usable power. One company has demonstrated just such a concept in London's West End.
PaveGen was founded in 2009 by Laurence Kemball-Cook, a graduate in Industrial Technology and Design from Loughborough University. For the last several years, his company has been developing a tile that converts kinetic energy from pedestrian footsteps into electricity, while collecting data about walking traffic patterns. The exact technology is being kept a trade secret, but is said to involve electromagnetic induction by copper coils and magnets.
For its latest project, PaveGen has worked alongside other tech companies to help transform Bird Street in central London. This has been turned from a previously underutilised outdoor space located off Oxford Street, into a haven of calm where visitors can relax and experience a high street of the future.
Bird Street in central London, before and after. Credit: PaveGen
PaveGen installed a 10 sq m (107 sq ft) array of tiles at this location. Each footstep is able to produce an average of three joules – enough to play recordings of bird sounds during the day, while providing ambient lighting in the evening, for an immersive visitor experience. Bluetooth transmitters are also incorporated on the walkway, enabling passers-by to interact with branded apps – for example, rewarding users with discounts, vouchers and education resources for their steps on the PaveGen system. A data feed on the hourly footfall and power generation is available too.
Laurence Kemball-Cook, CEO and founder of PaveGen, commented: "With installations in Washington DC and vital transport hubs including Heathrow, being able to demonstrate how our technology can bring to life the retail shopping experience is a vital step for us. As retailers compete with online, technologies like ours make being in the busy high street more exciting and rewarding for people and brands alike."
Joining PaveGen at Bird Street is Airlabs' ClearAir bench (pictured below), which removes nitrogen dioxide to create a large "bubble" of clean air. According to the Airlabs website, the volume of air filtered by this bench every day is enough to fill more than 100 double decker buses, yet only a small amount of energy is required to do this. The Airlabs clean air system has previously been demonstrated at three bus stop shelters in central London.
Also featured in the new-look Bird Street is coatings company Airlite, who created a paint that purifies the air from nitrogen dioxide, bacteria and other particulate matter. This reduces overall pollution by almost 90% and removes 99.9% of germs, moulds and odours. This coating was applied to the surfaces of the retail units.
With the integration of these green technologies, Bird Street demonstrates the potential for more sustainable destinations in busy urban environments. Pollution is currently a major problem in London, with levels of NO2 near Oxford Street at almost 60 µg/m3, compared to the World Health Organisation's recommended safe exposure limit of 40 µg/m3.
Airlabs' ClearAir bench. Credit: Airlabs
Steven Medway, Managing Director of Trading Environment, New West End Company, said: "Visitors to London's West End expect the ultimate shopping and dining experience and they won't be disappointed. Transforming Bird Street will bring a world first offer to the West End, a space where fashion meets technology with brands set to transform the future of retail as we know it."
Alex Williams, Director of City Planning at Transport for London, said: "It's great to see an innovative 'smart street' scheme delivered on Bird Street, the concepts and ideas of which could easily be adapted across London. I hope we can see further examples of this innovative 21st Century thinking in the future as we work to transform Oxford Street and the surrounding area to make it a world-class public space for all."
Unmitigated climate change will exacerbate inequality in the USA, with southern states losing up to 20% of their income by century's end.
County-level annual damages in the median scenario for 2080 to 2099.
Unmitigated climate change will make the USA poorer and more unequal, according to a study published yesterday in the journal Science. The poorest third of counties could sustain economic damage costing as much as 20 percent of their income if warming proceeds unabated.
States in the South and lower Midwest, which tend to be poor and hot already, will lose the most, with economic opportunity traveling northward and westward. Colder and richer counties along the northern border and in the Rockies could benefit the most as health, agriculture and energy costs are projected to improve.
Overall, the study – led by Solomon Hsiang of the University of California, Berkeley, Robert Kopp of Rutgers University-New Brunswick, Amir Jina of the University of Chicago, and James Rising, also of UC Berkeley – projects losses, economic restructuring and widening inequality.
"Unmitigated climate change will be very expensive for huge regions of the United States," said Hsiang. "If we continue on the current path, our analysis indicates it may result in the largest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in the country's history."
The pioneering study used state-of-the-art statistical methods and 116 climate projections developed by scientists around the world to price the impacts of climate change the way the insurance industry or an investor would – comparing risks and rewards. A team of economists and climate scientists computed the real-world costs and benefits: how agriculture, crime, health, energy demand, labour and coastal communities are likely to be affected by higher temperatures, changing rainfall, rising seas and intensifying hurricanes.
"In the absence of major efforts to reduce emissions and strengthen resilience, the Gulf Coast will take a massive hit," said Kopp, a professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Rutgers. "Its exposure to sea-level rise, made worse by potentially stronger hurricanes, poses a major risk to its communities. Increasingly extreme heat will drive up violent crime, slow down workers, amp up air-conditioning costs, and threaten people's lives."
By 2100, economic damage in the poorest regions could be "many times larger" than the Great Recession and be permanent, according to the study, based on a projected rise of 3-5°C (6-10°F) above pre-industrial temperatures.
"The 'hidden costs' of carbon dioxide emissions are no longer hidden, since now we can see them clearly in the data," said Jina, a postdoctoral scholar in the department of economics at the University of Chicago. "The emissions coming out of our cars and power plants are reshaping the American economy. Here in the Midwest, we may see agricultural losses similar to the Dustbowl of the 1930s."
The study is the first of its kind to price warming using data and evidence accumulated by the research community over decades. From this data, the team estimates that for each one degree Fahrenheit (0.55°C) increase in global temperatures, the U.S. economy loses about 0.7 percent of Gross Domestic Product, with each degree of warming costing more than the last. This metric can help the country manage climate change as it does other systematic economic risks – for example, the way the Federal Reserve uses interest rates to manage the risk of recession.
"We could not have done this study without the ongoing revolution in big data and computing," said Rising, a Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Berkeley, describing the 29,000 simulations of the economy run for the project. "For the first time in history, we can use these tools to peer ahead into the future. We are making decisions today about the kinds of lives we and our children want to lead. Had the computing revolution come twenty years later, we wouldn't be able to see the economic hole we're digging for ourselves."
Research by Cornell University suggests that rising sea levels will displace 1.4 billion people by 2060 and 2 billion by 2100.
In the year 2100, up to 2 billion people – nearly a fifth of the world's population – could become climate change refugees due to rising ocean levels. Those who once lived on coastlines will face displacement and resettlement bottlenecks as they seek habitable places inland, according to Cornell University research.
"We're going to have more people on less land – and sooner than we think," said lead author Charles Geisler, professor emeritus of development sociology at Cornell. "The future rise in global mean sea level probably won't be gradual. Yet few policy makers are taking stock of the significant barriers to entry that coastal climate refugees, like other refugees, will encounter when they migrate to higher ground."
Earth's ballooning population is expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050 and 11.8 billion by 2100, according to the latest UN report. Feeding that population will require more arable land even as swelling oceans consume fertile coastal zones and river deltas, driving people to seek new places to dwell.
By 2060, about 1.4 billion people could be climate change refugees, according to the paper. Geisler extrapolated that number to 2 billion by 2100.
"The colliding forces of human fertility, submerging coastal zones, residential retreat, and impediments to inland resettlement are a huge problem. We offer preliminary estimates of the lands unlikely to support new waves of climate refugees due to the residues of war, exhausted natural resources, declining net primary productivity, desertification, urban sprawl, land concentration, 'paving the planet' with roads and greenhouse gas storage zones offsetting permafrost melt," Geisler said.
The paper describes tangible solutions and proactive adaptations in places like Florida and China, which coordinate coastal and interior land-use policies in anticipation of weather-induced population shifts. Florida has the second-longest coastline in the United States, and its state and local officials have already planned for a coastal exodus, Geisler said, in the state's Comprehensive Planning Act.
Beyond sea level rise, low-elevation coastal zones in many countries face intensifying storm surges that will push sea water further inland. Historically, humans have spent considerable effort reclaiming land from oceans, but now live with the opposite – the oceans reclaiming terrestrial spaces on the planet," said Geisler. In their research, Geisler and Currens explore a worst-case scenario for the present century.
The authors note that the competition of reduced space that they foresee will induce land-use trade-offs and conflicts. In the United States and elsewhere, this could mean selling off public lands for human settlement.
"The pressure is on us to contain greenhouse gas emissions at present levels. It's the best 'future proofing' against climate change, sea level rise and the catastrophic consequences likely to play out on coasts, as well as inland in the future," said Geisler.
The article "Impediments to inland resettlement under conditions of accelerated sea level rise" will be published in the July issue of the journal Land Use Policy but is already available online.
As the price of installation continues to fall, renewable power has set another new record, with 161 gigawatts (GW) being added in 2016 – increasing total global capacity to more than 2 terawatts (TW).
Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (REN21) this week published its Renewables 2017 Global Status Report (GSR), the most comprehensive annual overview of the state of renewable energy.
The report finds that additions of installed renewable power capacity set new records in 2016, with 161 gigawatts (GW) added, increasing total global capacity by almost 9% over 2015, to nearly 2,017 GW. Solar PV accounted for about 47% of capacity added, followed by wind power at 34% and hydropower at 16%.
In a growing number of countries, renewables are becoming the least cost option. Recent deals in Denmark, Egypt, India, Mexico, Peru and the UAE saw renewable electricity being supplied at $0.05 per kilowatt-hour or less. This is well below equivalent costs for fossil fuel and nuclear generating capacity in each of these countries. Auctions are increasingly able to rely only on the wholesale price of power, without the need for government subsidies.
The inherent need for "baseload" is a myth, according to the report. Integrating large shares of variable renewable generation can be done without fossil fuel and nuclear baseload with sufficient flexibility in the power system – through grid interconnections, sector coupling and enabling technologies such as ICT, storage systems, electric vehicles and heat pumps. This sort of flexibility not only balances variable generation, it also optimises the system and reduces generation costs overall. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the number of countries successfully managing peaks approaching or exceeding 100% electricity generation from renewable sources is on the rise. In 2016, Denmark and Germany, for example, successfully managed peaks of renewables-based electricity of 140% and 86.3%, respectively.
Global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and industry remained stable for a third year in a row, despite 3% growth in the global economy and an increased demand for energy. This can be attributed mainly to the decline of coal, but also to the rapid growth in renewable energy capacity and improvements in energy efficiency.
Other positive trends include:
• Innovations and breakthroughs in storage technology, which increasingly provide additional flexibility to the power system. In 2016, around 0.8 GW of new advanced energy storage became operational, bringing the year-end total to 6.4 GW. As shown in the graph below, grid-connected battery storage grew by 50% to over 1.7 GW.
• Markets for mini-grids and stand-alone systems are evolving rapidly, and Pay-As-You-Go (PAYG) business models, supported by mobile technology, are now exploding. In 2012, investments in PAYG solar companies amounted to only $3 million; by 2016 that figure had risen to over $223 million (up from $158 million during 2015).
"The world is now adding more renewable power capacity each year than it adds in new capacity from all fossil fuels combined," says Arthouros Zervos, Chair of the REN21. "One of the most important findings of this year's GSR, is that holistic, systemic approaches are key and should become the rule rather than the exception. As the share of renewables grows, we will need investment in infrastructure as well as a comprehensive set of tools: integrated and interconnected transmission and distribution networks, measures to balance supply and demand, sector coupling (for example the integration of power and transport networks); and deployment of a wide range of enabling technologies."
Despite these encouraging trends, however, the energy transition is not happening fast enough. To achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement, an even greater acceleration of clean tech will be required. Investment continues to be heavily focused on wind and solar PV – however, all renewable energy technologies need to be deployed in order to keep global warming below 2°C.
Transport, heating and cooling sectors continue to lag behind the power sector. The deployment of renewable technologies in the heating and cooling sector remains a challenge in light of the unique and distributed nature of this market. Renewables-based decarbonisation of the transport sector is not yet being seriously considered, or seen as a priority. Despite a significant expansion in the sales of electric vehicles, primarily due to the declining cost of battery technology, much more needs to be done to ensure that sufficient infrastructure is in place and that they are powered by renewable electricity. While the shipping and aviation sectors present the greatest challenges, government policies or commercial disruption have not sufficiently stimulated the development of solutions.
Fossil fuel subsidies continue to impede progress. Globally, subsidies for fossil fuels and nuclear power continue to dramatically exceed those for renewable technologies. By the end of 2016, more than 50 countries had committed to phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, and some reforms have occurred – but not enough. The ratio of fossil fuel subsidies to renewable energy subsidies is 4:1. For every $1 spent on renewables, governments spend $4 perpetuating our dependence on fossil fuels.
Christine Lins, Executive Secretary of REN21, explains: "The world is in a race against time. The single most important thing we could do to reduce CO2 emissions quickly and cost-effectively, is phase-out coal and speed up investments in energy efficiency and renewables. When China announced in January that it was cancelling over 100 coal plants currently in development, they set an example for governments everywhere: change happens quickly when governments act by establishing clear, long-term policy and financial signals and incentives."