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      Utilising technology to combat the greenhouse gases causing climate change

      Published on 21 Sep 2018 | 9 minute read

      What is being developed to reduce, stop or sequester the main greenhouse gases.

      In this article we look at some of the key technologies that are being developed to reduce, stop or sequester the main greenhouse gases contributing to climate change.

      The technological and innovative solutions to new manufacturing processes and transportation developed since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century have had a transformational and beneficial economic and social impact on human society. However, as society has permanently moved away from an agrarian lifestyle in its embrace of an industrially dominated one, it transitioned with little or no regard to the negative impact such a monumental change would have on the environment – until now!

      150 years after the Industrial Revolution began the negative impact that increased industrialization (i.e. energy production, manufacturing and transportation) has had on the environment around the world is finally becoming realised. In addition to the degradation and pollution of the oceans and the earth, there has also been a steady increase in the emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere which stops (traps) heat from escaping, leading to global warming. Since 1880 the average global temperature has increased by nearly 1° Celsius, the majority of which has occurred in the last 40 years. 

      Global warming and climate change now affects all regions around the world and is now one of the most complex and pressing issues facing the world today. If left unchecked global warming will continue to melt the ice shields, raising the level of the sea, as well as propagate extreme weather events (with more rainfall in some areas and heat waves and droughts in others).

      Clean technological innovations and solutions that help us meet our energy demands, improve our manufacturing processes and solve our transportation needs in a cost effective and socially responsible manner are required if we want to mitigate, as well as adapt to, climate change.  Intellectual property protection has the potential to spur the innovation needed to encourage the development and creation of climate mitigation solution orientated technologies.

      In this article we look at some of the key technologies that are being developed to reduce, stop or sequester the main greenhouse gases contributing to climate change.  But first, let’s take steps to better understand what the main types of CHGs are and where they originate from.   

       

      Introduction to the four main greenhouse gases damaging the planet

      Gases that trap heat in the atmosphere are called greenhouse gases (GHGs).   The larger the emission of greenhouse gases the higher the concentration in the atmosphere.  Different greenhouse gases have very different heat-trapping abilities and can remain in the atmosphere for different amounts of time, ranging from a few years to thousands of years.

      The four main greenhouse gases that we are going to discuss in this article (in order of their impact on global warming) are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide(N2O) and fluorinated gases.

       

      Total Emissions in 2016 = 6,511 Million Metric Tons of CO2 equivalent

      Source: Environmental Protection Agency, US  

       

      All of these gases remain in the atmosphere long enough to become well mixed, meaning that the amount that is measured in the atmosphere is roughly the same all over the world, regardless of the source of the emissions.

       

      Greenhouse Gases

      Carbon Dioxide (C02)

      Methane (CH4)

      Nitrous Oxide (N2O)

      Fluorinated gases

      Causes

      The combustion of fossil fuels generates C02, the most significant long-lived greenhouse gas in Earth's atmosphere, and (in combination with increased deforestation) is a chief cause of global warming. It also causes ocean acidification because it dissolves in water to form carbonic acid.

      Whereas the production, transportation and use of fossil fuels creates the most methane, a large amount of methane is released from landfills and agriculture (especially from the digestive systems and excrement of grazing animals).

      Human sources of N20 come from agriculture and the use of fertilizers, fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes. 

      N2O is commonly known as laughing gas and can be used as an anaesthesia (especially during labour and dental surgeries).

      Unlike the other gases which can be natural as well as man-made, fluorinated gases are all man-made and are used inside products such as refrigerators, air-conditioners, foams and aerosol cans as well as for the production of metals and semiconductors.

      Impact

      Human sources of C02, emissions have upset the natural balance by adding extra carbon dioxide to the atmosphere without removing any.

      Accounts for around three-quarters of the warming impact of current human greenhouse-gas emissions.

      A molecule of methane produces more than 20 times the warming of a molecule of CO2.

      Humans are creating methane emissions a lot faster than the Earth can remove them.  Since the Industrial Revolution, methane levels have become 2.5 times larger.

      Nitrous oxide is 300 times more powerful than CO2.

      Increased nitrous oxide emissions of 40-50% over pre-industrial levels have leached their way into the Earth’s soils, water ways and atmosphere.

      CFCs have heat-trapping potential thousands of times greater than CO2. Because CFCs concentrations are much lower than CO2, none of these gases adds as much warmth to the atmosphere as CO2 does.

      Key Technological Solutions

      To reduce emissions

      Cleaner use of fossil fuels

      Greener transportation options

      Efficient utilization of heat and energy

      Use biosolids to create a special topsoil to cover landfills

      Improve cattle feed nutrition

      Better manure management

      Better irrigation and fertilizer management

      Use less nitrogen fertiliser

      Only use F-gases where no appropriate alternatives are available

      To stop emissions

      Increase use of renewable energy sources (wind, solar, geothermal, tidal and wave power)

      Recycle and repurpose products instead of throwing onto landfills

      Less meat consumption

       

      CFCs have been banned in much of the world because they also degrade the ozone layer

      Restrict use in refrigeration and air-conditioning, insulation foam, aerosols and fire extinguishing agents

      To sequester (capture and Storage) emissions

      Adoption of carbon capture / CSS technologies

      Increase use of collection and processing systems (Energy from waste)

       

       

       


      Technology to the rescue?

      Carbon Dioxide CO2

      Although carbon dioxide (CO2) is naturally present in the atmosphere as part of the Earth’s carbon cycle, human-related emissions since the Industrial Revolution (primarily from the burning of fossil fuels - 80 per cent of global energy comes from coal, natural gas, and oil, solid waste, trees and wood products, etc.) and deforestation (which reduces the amount of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere (or "sequestered") when it is absorbed by plants as part of the biological carbon cycle) have rapidly increased its concentration in the atmosphere by more than a third.  Energy production and transportation are responsible for more than half of all CO2 emissions.

       

      Reducing our carbon footprint

      Whereas most agree that renewable energy (energy that is derived from natural sources such as wind and air) is the future of power generation, stop-gap process and control technologies continue to be developed to reduce the level of CO2 emissions generated from the burning of existing fossil fuels, and increasingly, biomass. These include:

       

      Cleaner transportation: concerted steps are being taken all around the world to introduce cleaner fuels and cleaner vehicles (that have reduced or zero emissions and increased fuel economy standards) as well as cleaner transportation systems.  A multitude of technologies and approaches are being developed to create cleaner, more efficient transportation, including:

      • Aerodynamic designs and systems
      • Lightweight materials
      • Improved powertrain efficiencies and energy recovery systems
      • Advanced transmissions and high efficiency auxiliary systems 
      • Electric and hybrid vehicles
      • Higher combustion efficiency and fuel-optimised engines

       

      Cleaner energy production: new leading technologies for utilising fossil fuels in a cleaner and more sustainable manner include:

      • Chemical Looping: a technology that consumes carbon dioxide during the use of coal, shale gas and biomass as energy sources.
      • The Allam cycle: a supercritical CO2 turbine technology process for converting fossil fuels into mechanical power while capturing the resulting water and CO2 which is reheated and recycled into the combustion unit.
      • Converted coal power plants and fluidised-bed combustors (FBC): used to burn sources of biomass to generate electricity, and in some cases, heat (usually steam) - which can be used for both industrial plants and local heating needs.

       

      Embracing clean energy solutions

      Whereas transitioning away from fossil fuels is likely to be a long process (as fossil fuels continue to provide reliable, accessible and relatively inexpensive energy) advances in technology and public opinion is leading to rapid change. The main sources of sustainable and renewable energy that are being developed to produce electric (as well as heating and cooling services) include:

      • Wind power: the blades on a windmill rotate turbines when exposed to wind. This kinetic energy is converted into mechanical energy which in turn powers generators that create electricity.
      • Solar power: whereas photovoltaic panels can directly convert sunlight into usable energy, concentrated solar power (CSP) power plants seek to use giant arrays of mirrors to reflect highly concentrated solar rays at a boiler to create steam which can drive turbines that create electricity. Solar power is increasingly being combined with energy storage and smart software solutions.
      • Hydroelectric power: uses the energy from flowing water to rotate turbines, which in turn power generators to create electricity.
      • Wave and tidal power: uses the power of the oceans by capturing energy released by the rise and fall of wave and tidal energy with turbines and hydraulic pumps.
      • Nuclear power: can provide stable and large-scale electricity generation but requires major capital investments and secure storage for its high-level waste.
      • Geothermal power: the heat from the earth is used to power turbines and generators, provide hot water, as well as heat and cool buildings

      A number of these sustainable and renewable energy technologies and processes are being deployed alongside traditional power plants to reduce and supplement the amount of fossil fuels required. 

       

      Capturing carbon and putting it to other uses

      In addition to technologies that seek to limit or stop the emission of CO2 into the atmosphere, technologies are being developed for carbon capture and storage (CCS) purposes. These technologies seek to remove excess CO2 in the atmosphere as well convert it into useful by-products.  These include:

      • Compressing CO2 into fertilizer to grow crops in greenhouses
      • Turning CO2 into a liquid fuel: using extractor fans and a cooling tower to develop a clean fuel for the transport sector.
      • Coal gasification plants: convert solid coal into synthetic natural gas, allowing the coal to be burnt at half the emissions of conventional coal power stations (as it’s much easier to capture CO2 during the gasification stage than the burning stage)

      Other future CCS technologies include:

      • Metal-organic frameworks
      • Nanosponges
      • Hybrid membranes
      • Crystals
      • Turning carbon to rock, fuel and/or fibres

       

      Methane (CH4

      Methane is emitted during the production and transport of coal, natural gas, and oil. Large amounts of ethane emissions also result from livestock and other agricultural practices (especially rice cultivation) and by the decay of organic waste in solid waste landfills.  

      Methane's lifetime in the atmosphere is much shorter than carbon dioxide (CO2), but CH4 is more efficient at trapping radiation than CO2.

       

      Reducing methane output and putting it to good use

      Whereas a lot of the technologies being developed to reduce or stop CO2 emissions will also reduce methane emissions, there are a number of technologies and innovative practices being developed purely to reduce or sequester methane:

       

      In the farming and agricultural sector:         

      Development of new animal feed: Noting that animals (primarily cows) are responsible for 44 percent of all human-caused methane (and is the third largest contributor to global emissions by sector), greater steps are being taken to study and redesign the diet of cows to reduce the production of methane. For example, findings show that feeding seaweed (marine algae) to cows can reduce methane emissions from cattle gut microbes by as much as 99 per cent.

      Converting methane into fuel: Effluent and wastewater from farms (as well as palm oil mills), for example, are collected in covered ponds which generate methane that can be captured and burnt to produce electricity.

       

      In landfills:

      Composting: used as an alternative to landfill as it reduces methane production, as well as provides a series of economic and environmental co-benefits such as less need for fertilizer, water, herbicide and pesticides, and the reduction of soil erosion.  

      Topsoil: Biosolids are used to create a special topsoil to cover decommissioned landfills. ‘This topsoil contains microorganisms that convert methane into carbon dioxide, a much less potent greenhouse gas. This can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from landfills by as much as 95%.’

       

      Nitrous Oxide (N2O)

      Nitrous oxide is a potent greenhouse gas and ozone-layer depleting compound emitted during agricultural and soil cultivation practices (use of commercial and organic fertilizers) as well as industrial activities (gases used for refrigeration and industrial processes), as well as during combustion of fossil fuels and solid waste. Agricultural operations in which nitrogen fertilizers are used on pastures and crops account for 60% of N2O emissions. N2O is 300 times more powerful than CO2.

      Most plans to reduce excess nitrous oxide into the environment involves the development of well-constructed nutrient management plans. The correct use of fertilizers and irrigation, for example, can reduce or eliminate excess soil nitrate, and are the best methods for reducing the amount of nitrous oxide emissions released into the atmosphere from agriculturally managed soils.

      An innovative strategy for capturing nitrous oxide levels is the solar chimney power plant (SCPP) an electricity-producing system that can decompose nitrous oxide from the atmosphere into nitrogen and oxygen with reactive glass.

       

      Fluorinated Gases

      Fluorinated gases (F-gases), such as hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, sulfur hexafluoride, and nitrogen trifluoride, have no natural sources, only come from human-related activities and are emitted from a variety of industrial processes. 

      These synthetic gases are emitted in smaller quantities, but because they are potent greenhouse gases, they are sometimes referred to as High Global Warming Potential gases, as their global warming effect is up to 23 000 times greater than carbon dioxide.

      Most F-gases are now regulated in production and release to their atmosphere by international agreements.

       

      Conclusion

      From transportation to enhanced manufacturing, technology has played its part in climate change. But, technology can also change the course we're on if it's harnessed in effective ways.  But bringing new energy technologies to market is not a simple task.  The time, cost and complexity of developing new ways of harnessing, distributing and consuming large-scale, reliable, affordable, and carbon-free energy means that a switch from fossil fuels to other types of sustainable, renewable and/or low-carbon energy will take time.

      Systematic, long-term policies and regulations that promote the development and deployment of innovative technologies will be fundamental to combatting global warming. Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) are one of the many tools that, if correctly deployed by governments, can encourage and spur the development, transfer and allocation of climate change mitigation technologies to where they are most needed.

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