Archive | August, 2012

Bright Idea

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Climate Change Creativity

Posted on 14 August 2012 by Jerry

While there is still no clear roadmap for dealing with climate change, we should have optimism about all the effort being invested in ways to reverse or adapt to it.  Proposed solutions include technologies that range from how to remove and store CO2 from the environment and from emissions at conventional power plants, to chemical or material alterations of the atmosphere, to changing the soft technologies of how and where we live and farm.

Examples of experimental technologies currently being trialed are efforts underway at The Technology Centre at Mongstad (TCM) Norway.  A collaboration between the Norwegian government, the state owned oil company Gassnova, Statoil, Shell and the South African company, Sasol, the TCM will test CO2 capture on two types of common power plant and refinery emissions.  The plant’s description states that it will test the technologies on emissions from “the existing catalytic cracker facility at the Mongstad Refinery and the other is emissions from the gas-fired combined heat and power plant (CHP), which is under construction.”

The plant will test an amine technology from Aker Solutions and a chilled ammonia technology from Alstom.  Both technologies focus on taking exhaust emissions and filtering them through a chemical solvent that separates the CO2 and provides for future storage.  Both processes work on emissions from a variety of existing plants and energy sources such as coal, gas, etc.  Both technologies are explained in more depth at sites that are linked below.

The planning, which was begun in 2006, has finally culminated in actual construction of the facility.  A link below leads to a film that depicts what is being built.  The Norwegian government has opened the facility to the world and invited all companies to use it to test their alternative technologies to clean up emissions of existing refineries and power plants.  While initial results of both technologies are positive, the question will be whether either or both are proven to be economic as well.  If these technologies work and are economic, they will significantly extend the useful life of conventional plants.

In another development reported in Nature Materials on June 3, 2012, scientists in the UK announced creation of an “interpenetrated metal-organic framework” which represents “a new class of dynamic material that undergoes pronounced framework phase transition on desolvation.” The material, referred to as NOTT-202, works like a sponge which absorbs gases when under high pressure.   Essentially, “These complex molecules (of NOTT-202) can be made to join together in frameworks that leave gaps suitable for capturing gases.”  As the pressure is reduced, CO2 remains captured while other gases are released.  The breakthrough of this new material is its selectivity for CO2 and its potential suitability for long term storage.

This approach of seeking technologies to remove CO2 from the atmosphere or emissions is, in the opinion of many scientists, the best way to immediately fight climate change.  It is one of seven ideas (Air Capture of CO2) which were described in a 2009 report to the UK’s Royal Society and which have been cited in reports by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 2010 and by the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center in 2011.

The report included other ideas such as Cloud Seeding (seeding clouds with a spray of salty ocean water or a water attracting powder) to create small micro-droplets of moisture that reflect sunlight away from the planet’s surface, Aerosols in the Atmosphere which involves releasing tiny particles in the stratosphere to reflect sunlight back into space, and a proposal to create Sun Space Shields which reflect the sun’s radiation away from Earth.  Speeding up Weathering suggests we try to take advantage of silicate rocks which degrade in the weather leaving their silicate free to react chemically with CO2, storing it as carbonate rock.   Making the Desert Shiny is a plan to cover deserts with reflective polyethylene-aluminum sheets to boost the Earth’s reflection of radiation.  The final proposal was for Ocean Fertilization or seeding ocean waters with nutrients to encourage the growth of algae which represents a natural sponge to soak up CO2.  As the algae dies its dead organic matter sinks to the ocean bottom, effectively storing more carbon dioxide in the ocean.

When these proposals are rated against their impact, affordability, timeliness, and safety, Air Capture of CO2 received lower marks on affordability and timeliness than putting Aerosols in the Atmosphere but was given the highest rating as a safe option.  Atmospheric Aerosols was given the most risky rating.  Presumably, it is on this basis that Air Capture of CO2 has received the most attention.

Finally, from those looking at the softer technologies of how and where we live and farm come suggestions of inevitable steps we must anticipate over the next several decades.  These thoughts include building new “Waterworld” Homes that are floating structures, constructing Underground Cities to shelter populations from the harsher extremes of climate, and creating Floating Farms to help feed the world’s burgeoning population.  Other thoughts are of Smart Energy power grids that are flexible enough to juggle the mix of old and new energy sources but still capable of sending energy where it is needed.  Some have considered the creation of Vertical Farms with many levels of planted crops reaching skyward or even underground.  Finally, there is much interest in Climate Adapted Crops or genetically engineering crops that can resist droughts, floods, heat, cold, and salt.  This is an area that big chemical companies see for future profit and where they are seeking patent protection (a reported 1,633 patents as of 2010 as reported by the ETC Group).

All of these efforts reinforce our underlying optimism that humanity will react to that which threatens us, will respond and adapt.  Our only hope is that our efforts are soon enough and comprehensive enough to avoid the more wrenching changes and threats many fear as a result of runaway climate change.

Use the following links to access more information:

For a video on the Mongstad facility use:


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Ozone, Climate Change: Harbingers and Victims

Posted on 09 August 2012 by Jerry

For many decades canaries in coal mines were used for early warning of carbon monoxide, methane or carbon dioxide which would kill the canary before affecting the miner. It appears that fish may have replaced the canary in providing warning of ozone depletion and effects of these same deadly gasses on climate change.  This is of course, in addition to prescient scientists and climate activists who have provided similar early warnings that have been largely ignored.

A study entitled “Evidence of Melanoma in Wild Marine Fish Populations” in the August 1, 2012 issue of PLoS ONE, describes the first known cases of melanoma skin cancer in wild fish populations, in this case coral trout which inhabit the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP) off Australia.  One hundred and thirty six fish were sampled and photographed and twenty fish, or roughly 15%, showed evidence of skin cancer.  Numerous other affected fish were sighted by divers.  The study however was performed only on fish captured via fishing.

Elaborate tests were performed on the affected tissues attempting to identify likely causes including bacterial, fungal, and ciliates or protozoan agents.  The observed dark growth lesions on the fish were similar in appearance to those reported in laboratory induced melanomas (cancers) using ultraviolet (UV) radiation.  See the identified link below.  In the absence of other identified causes, knowledge that the area is subject to high UV radiation as a result of the Antarctic ozone hole, and that UV radiation penetrates the ocean to a depth of 60 meters (200 feet), the scientists concluded the likely cause of these cancers was environmental exposure to UV radiation as a result of ozone depletion.

Scientists are surprised at the waning interest in depletion of the ozone above the planet.  This is thought to be because the world believed it had dealt with the problem with the signing of the 1987 Montreal Protocol where developed countries agreed to phase out use of chemicals that are damaging to the ozone.  Scientists moved on to study climate change and left ozone depletion as yesterday’s news.  Recent studies of ocean algae, coral, crustaceans and fish larvae and eggs however are showing a steep increase in the marine death rates from UVB radiation.

Moving to the Northern Hemisphere, fish are paying the price extracted by climate change, which accentuates weather highs and lows.  In the midst of the warmest 12 month period on record (see blog April 5, 2012 article “Record Warmest Year in U.S.”) and a nationwide drought with over half of the counties in America declared disaster areas, fish are dying by the thousands as rivers and lakes dry up and there are fatal increases in water temperatures.

Many scientists, who have become intimidated by the climate change deniers of the legacy energy industry and the political right, are reluctant to label this record drought a result of global climate change.  Instead, because of fierce criticism and pressure, they use the politically correct response which is “It is impossible to determine if any single phenomenon is a result of climate change.”   Only a few stalwarts and truthsayers have the courage to stand up to the intimidation.  They are our human harbingers.

A notable example of these brave scientists is James Hansen who directs the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.  In a recent NY Times Op-ed he warned that the Obama administration should oppose any effort of Canada to exploit the oil in its vast tar sands reserves.  He stated we should not cooperate in building a cross country oil pipeline giving Canada access to our Gulf Coast Refining.  He suggested instead that the U.S. and other countries should create incentives that rewarded countries like Canada for leaving their resources in the ground and choosing renewable energy sources instead.

In a long term outlook he stated, “Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history.  If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control.  Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities.  Global temperatures would become intolerable.   Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction.  Civilization would be at risk.”

In a subsequent paper presented to the National Academy of Sciences entitled “Perception of climate change” he focused on an element of basic statistics looking at recent higher temperature summer outliers of more than three standard deviations.  He stated “This hot extreme, which covered much less than 1% of Earth’s surface during the base period, now typically covers about 10% of the land area.  It follows that we can state, with a high degree of confidence, that extreme anomalies such as those in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 and Moscow in 2010 were a consequence of global warming because their likelihood in the absence of global warming was exceedingly small.”

We need but look around us and listen to our scientists to know that the negative developments we are seeing are real and do not bode well for our future.  We must react as human beings have always reacted by recognizing the trends and deciding to change our course and minimize future negative outcomes.

Use the following links to access additional information on these topics:

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Chimeric Systems: Living and Non-Living Components

Posted on 06 August 2012 by Jerry

As is often the case, the line between one scientific area and another blurs over time.  A prime example is synthetic biology and its new category called a Chimeric System.  A Chimeric System represents the fusion of synthetic non-living material with living tissue.  Three examples spanning 2010 to 2012 show the intersection of regenerated tissue, stem cells, and synthetic biology in the formation of this new category of chimera.

In 2010 scientists from Yale University used a lung’s collagen support structure with lung cells removed, to provide the base for their experiment.  They then took eight or nine types of existing lung cells, cultured them for eight days, and grew new lung tissue on the collagen infrastructure which was subsequently transplanted to living rats where it functioned normally for about two hours.  This is an example of the use of regenerated tissue to artificially create organ tissue.

Taking the lung experiment one step further, scientists and doctors at Karolinska University hospital in Sweden in 2011 implanted a synthetic trachea in a cancer patient.  The synthetic organ was completely lab-grown using a Y-shaped plastic-like “nanocomposite” polymer material for the underlying support structure.  Upon the structure the physicians grew the patient’s own stem cells over a two day period.  This procedure avoided the risk of rejection by the patient’s immune system because of the use of his own stem cell tissue.  This experiment created one of the first of these Chimeric Systems in that it is composed of a synthetic infrastructure upon which living tissue was grown.

The final example represents the use of silicone and heart muscle tissue from a rat to create an artificial jellyfish.  In a series of experiments to understand the inner workings of muscular pumps like a heart muscle, Kit Parker, a biophysicist at Harvard University, led an effort with two groups at Caltech and Harvard to understand how jellyfish swim.  Janna Nawroth a graduate student at Caltech mapped every cell in the bodies of young moon jellyfish.

A July 22, 2012 article in Nature magazine describes the artificial jellyfish as follows, “Nawroth created a structure with the same properties (as a jellyfish) by growing a single layer of rat heart muscle on a patterned sheet of polydimethylsiloxane.  When an electric field is applied across the structure, the muscle contracts rapidly, compressing the medusoid and mimicking a jellyfish’s power stroke….When placed between two electrodes in water, the medusoid swam like the real thing.”  See the identified link below for a connection to an article with an embedded film that shows the artificial jellyfish swimming.

Beyond the three accomplishments mentioned in our May 2012 post of “Troubling Progress for Synthetic Biology” or the creation of a bacterial living shell, an inventory of synthetic genetic parts, and complex molecules of synthetic nucleotides, enzymes, and proteins, these experiments represent significant advances in a new field within Synthetic Biology.  Unlike what many have called the over-reaching ambition of earlier efforts and the perennial risk of negative use, this new field holds great promise for beneficial future developments.  As in any unregulated, scientifically advanced, new area we need to carefully monitor progress and developments to insure we have good outcomes.

Use the following links to obtain additional information:

See a link in this article to a film of the artificial jellyfish –

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