Simple way to recycle methane discovered


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Methane flaring from a hydraulic fracking well in Pennsylvania. (WCN/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | February 9, 2018

Scientists have recently discovered a way to simply convert excess methane into the building blocks for plastics, agrochemicals and pharmaceuticals.

A study funded by the Department of Energy by researchers at the University of Southern California has identified a one-step chemical process to change methane into basic chemicals ethylene and propylene. Methane is known to be 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide, especially in terms of short-term greenhouse gas effects. The gas’ sources include hydraulic fracking wells, organic matter breaking down in landfills or large livestock operations.

The U.S. produces more methane than almost any other country, but the new research presents an opportunity to trap and use the gas. Currently, methane must be shipped via large pipelines from release points to processing areas in order to be converted into anything useful. The study’s authors point out that this practice is cost-prohibitive for many producers, but their research offers a solution. The one-step process means that methane can be captured on-site and transformed into ethylene and propylene without costly transportation.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who sued the agency several times before becoming its leader, has spoken about the potency of methane as a greenhouse gas in recent public addresses. He claims the agency will work to address the issue, but government spending plans say otherwise. A 2019 federal budget plan proposes a 72 percent funding cut for the Department of Energy renewable energy and energy efficiency program, the very same program that funded this study.

India makes two clean energy breakthroughs


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The Topaz Solar Farm in California was the largest in the world prior to the completion of southern India’s solar power plant, which has the capacity to generate 648 Megawatts of energy. (Sarah Swenty/USFWS)
Jenna Ladd | January 5, 2017

The south Indian state of Tamil Nadu has recently established two breakthrough clean energy projects.

The first is the world’s largest solar power plant, which was completed in early December. Built in just eight months, the solar plant is expected to power up to 150,000 homes and is comprised of 2.5 million individual solar modules. Located at Kamuthi in Tamil Nadu, the solar plant’s area tops the previous world leader, Topaz Solar Farm in California. The operation has the capacity to generate up to 648 Megawatts of energy.

As a whole, India generates more than 10 Gigawatts of its energy from solar power and is expected to become the world’s third leader in solar power generation, behind only the United States and China.

Just 60 miles away from the solar farm is the world’s first large-scale industrial plant to capture carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and utilize them to make a profit.

The factory, funded by London-based investors, Carbonclean, captures carbon dioxide emissions from its own coal-powered boiler which are then used to make baking soda, and other chemical compounds found in detergents, sweeteners and glass. Carbon Capture and Utilization (CCU) at the 3.1 million dollar plant is expected to keep 60,000 tons out of the atmosphere each year. Previously, CCU was too costly for many business owners.

In an interview with BBC news, Ramachadran Gopalan, owner of the chemical plant, said, “I am a businessman. I never thought about saving the planet. I needed a reliable stream of CO2, and this was the best way of getting it.”

Two young Indian chemists developed the new way to strip carbon dioxide from emissions using a form of salt that binds with carbon dioxide molecules in the boiler’s chimney. According to the inventors, the new approach is less corrosive and much cheaper than conventional carbon capturing methods. Carbonclean expects that systems like these have the potential to offset five to ten percent of the world’s total emissions from burning coal.

These developments follow the presentation of India’s ten solutions for breathable airIndia’s ten solutions for breathable air at the World Sustainable Development Summit in New Dehli during October 2016. The goals are a part of a larger governmental initiative called Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or Clean India Mission.

Human activity, El Niño contribute to record-setting CO2 levels


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Former CGRER graduate outreach assistant, Nick Fetty, interviews Dubuque mayor Roy Buol at the COP21 conference in Paris last December. (KC McGinnis/CGRER)
Jenna Ladd | October 25, 2016

With carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reaching 400 parts per million (ppm), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) recently announced that a new era of “climate change reality” has begun.

Earth’s atmosphere contained 400 molecules of CO2 for every one million molecules for the first time in globally recorded history in 2015, and 2016 is likely to be the first year where global averages exceed this threshold.

Even though human outputs of CO2 remained steady from 2014 through 2015, a particularly strong El Niño in 2015 caused a dramatic increase in greenhouse gas levels. El Niño is a weather phenomenon characterized by especially warm temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific Ocean that have far-reaching weather effects. In 2015, the phenomenon caused drought in tropical regions around the globe, which negatively affected the amount of gases that forests, vegetation, and oceans were able to absorb.

While El Niño heightened the spike of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere last year, human activities like agriculture and industry caused 37 percent of the warming effect due to methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide increase from 1990 through 2015. Petteri Taalas, WMO secretary-general, said, “The El Niño event has disappeared. Climate change has not.” Scientists at the longest-running greenhouse gas monitoring station in the world in Hawaii say that CO2 levels will not drop below 400 ppm for several generations. Carbon dioxide is responsible for around two-thirds of the warming effect that long-lived greenhouse gases have on the atmosphere.

WMO released this report just before the next round of climate talks associated with the Paris Agreement, a climate change mitigation plan signed by 200 nations last December. Participating countries committed to limiting temperature increases to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Taalas said, “The year 2015 ushered in a new era of optimism and climate action with the Paris climate change agreement. But it will also make history as marking a new era of climate change reality with record high greenhouse gas concentrations.”

The 200 nations will meet in Morocco next month to forge a path forward.

Technical assessment evaluates compliance with 2012 fuel economy, greenhouse gas standards


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(Mike Mozart/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | July 20, 2016

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a draft of the Technical Assessment Report (TAR) to evaluate the compliance of the automobile industry with the Obama administration’s 2012 fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards.

The standards, finalized in 2012, covered all cars and light weight trucks sold in the United States between 2012 and 2025. The regulations were put in place to save Americans money at the fuel pump, reduce dependency on foreign oil, and to protect the environment. Initial goals required that vehicles get 54.5 miles per gallon and cut greenhouse gas emissions to 163 grams per mile.

EPA, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), and California’s Air Resources Board (CARB) released an in-depth TAR draft earlier this month in order to highlight sustainable automobile advances and to determine reasonable standards for future model year (MY) automobiles. TAR considers fuel-economy advancement cost, technologies, and market-changes in order to provide EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) with necessary information to write updated standards for MY 2022-2025 vehicles.

A recent EPA blog post outlined major findings of the industry assessment.

TAR found that many automakers are meeting fuel-economy and emissions standards several years ahead of schedule. There are upwards of 100 cars, SUVs, and trucks currently on the market that meet 2020 or later standards already. There was evidence that manufacturers can comply with standards “at a similar or even lower cost,” corroborating a 2015 study by that National Academy of Sciences. Finally, TAR concluded that automakers are seeing “record sales and fuel economy levels.” For the first time since the 1920’s, auto sales have increased for six consecutive years leading up to 2015.

A 60 day public comment period for all interested stakeholders has been established.

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Fuel economy standards infographic (The White House)

EU officials set plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions


CO2 and other greenhouse gases billow from a smokestack at a factory in China (Climate and Ecosystems Change Adaptation Research University Network/Flickr)
CO2 and other greenhouse gases billow from a smokestack at a factory in China (Climate and Ecosystems Change Adaptation Research University Network/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | October 24, 2014

Officials with the European Union reached a deal early Friday to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the 28-country pact by at least 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

Additionally, the EU agreed to 27 percent targets for “renewable energy supply and efficiency gains” though some leaders questioned the cost effectiveness of this strategy. This builds upon the EU’s goals for 2020 which aimed for a 20 percent boost in renewables such as solar and wind as well as a 20 percent increase in energy efficiency.

These agreements come on the heels of an international environmental summit which will take place in Paris in November and December of 2015. The 28 countries that comprise the EU account for approximately 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. China produces the greatest amount of greenhouse gases of any single country at 23 percent while the United States accounts for 19 percent. Non-EU member countries such as China and the United States are expected to use these newly set EU goals as a measuring stick when drafting its own plans for reducing carbon emissions.

Earlier this year the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed nationwide goals for reducing greenhouse gases and utilizing more renewable energy in the U.S. by 2030, allowing each state to set and achieve its own goals. Iowa – which ranks second in the country for the amount of wind energy produced – is well on its way to meeting these goals.

Canadian university reduces emissions while levels rise for City


Nick Fetty | June 24, 2014
Ontario Hall (left) and Grant Hall (right) on the Queen's University campus in Kingston, Ontario. Photo by Aidan Wakely-Mulroney; Flickr
Ontario Hall (left) and Grant Hall (center) on the Queen’s University campus in Kingston, Ontario.
Photo by Aidan Wakely-Mulroney; Flickr

Greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 10 percent (compared to 2010 levels) at Queen’s University while emissions for the City of Kingston – home to Queen’s University – have risen.

The 2011-2012 Queen’s University Greenhouse Gas Inventory analyzes greenhouse gas emissions from 2008 to 2012. The report shows that emission levels have decreased by more than 20 percent since 2008 when data was first collected. Aaron Ball – Sustainability Coordinator at Queen’s University – noted out that “the decrease in emissions from 2010 to 2011 is largely due to a cleaner electricity supply in Ontario, while the uptick in 2012 is attributable to the weather.”

The City of Kingston drafted a Climate Action Plan in 2014 which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 350,000 tons by the year 2030. The City has implemented several carbon-reducing measures including: facility retrofits, adopting a green building plan, constructing five LEED facilities, and installing 11 solar projects.

Queen’s University is a public research institute with just over 23,000 students located in Kingston, Ontario, about 100 miles north of Syracuse, New York. Kingston has a population of 123,363 according to the 2011 Census.

Study: More precise fertilizer application will help combat climate change


Nick Fetty | June 11, 2014
Photo via eutrophication&hypoxia; Flickr
Photo via Lynn Betts; Flickr

Farmers can help to combat climate change by applying more precise amounts of nitrogen fertilizer to fields, according to a recent study by researchers at Michigan State University.

The study – published in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – used data from around the world to conclude that emissions from nitrogen oxide – a byproduct of nitrogen fertilizer – contribute to greenhouse gases more than previously expected when application of fertilizer exceeds crop needs. Nitrogen emissions caused by humans has increased significantly in recent years much of what can be attributed to increased nitrogen fertilizer use. Not only will more precise amounts of fertilizer protect the environment but it will also help to save farmers money.

Check out this article about this study published today by R&D.

Also to learn more about the science behind nitrogen fertilizers check out this guide compiled by the Penn State University College of Agricultural Sciences.