Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Global warming and man-made greenhouse gas.

There is a raging debate going on around the world especially in US about the global warming and its causes, among scientists and the public alike. When IPCC released its findings on the connection between greenhouse gas emission and the global warming and its disastrous consequences, there was an overwhelming disbelief and skepticism in many people. In fact many scientists are skeptical even now about these findings and many of them published their own theories and models to prove their skepticism with elaborate ‘scientific explanations’. I am not going into details whether greenhouse gas emission induced by human beings causes the globe to warm or not, but certainly we have emitted billions of tons of Carbon in the form of Carbon dioxide into the atmosphere since industrial revolution. Bulk of these emissions is from power plants fueled by Coal, oil and gas. Why power plants emit so much Carbon into the atmosphere and why Governments around the world allow it in the first place? When the emission of Oxide of Nitrogen and Sulfur are restricted by EPA why they did not restrict Oxides of carbon? The reason is very simple. They did not have a technology to generate heat without combustion and they did not have a technology to generate power without heat. It was the dawn of industrial revolution and steam engines were introduced using coal as a fuel. The discovery of steam engines was so great and nobody was disturbed by the black smoke it emitted. They knew very well that the efficiency of a steam engine was low as shown by Carnot cycle, yet steam engine was a new discovery and Governments were willing to condone Carbon emission. Governments were happy with steam engine because it could transport millions of people and goods in bulk across the country and Carbon emission was not at all an issue. Moreover carbon emission did not cause any problem like emission of oxides of Sulfur because it was odorless, colorless and it was emitted above the ground level away from human sight. However the effect of Carbon is insidious. Similarly, power generation technology was developed by converting thermal energy into electrical energy with a maximum efficiency of 33%.This means only 33% of the thermal energy released by combustion of coal is converted into electricity. When the resulting electricity is transmitted across thousands of kilometers by high tension grids, further 5-10% power is lost in the transmission. When the high tension power is stepped down through sub stations to lower voltage such as 100/200/400V further 5% power is lost. The net power received by a consumer is only 28% of the heat value of the fuel in the form of electricity. The balance 67% of heat along with Greenhouse gases from the combustion of coal is simply vented out into the atmosphere. It is the most inefficient method to generate power. Any environmental pollution is the direct result of inefficiency of the technology. Governments and EPAs around the world ignore this fact.Thanks to President Obama who finally introduced the pollution control bill for power plants after 212 years of industrial revolution. Still this bill did not go far enough to control Carbon emission in its current form. Instead of arguing whether globe is warming due to emission of Carbon by human beings or not, Scientists should focus on improving the science and technology of power generation. For example, the electrical efficiency of a Fuel cell is more than 55% compared to conventional power generation at 33% and emits reduced or no carbon. Recent research by MIT shows that such conversion of heat into electricity can be achieved up to 90% compared to current levels of 35%.Had we developed such a technology earlier, probably we will not be discussing about GHG and global warming now. MIT research group is now focusing on developing new Thermophotovoltaics and according to their press release: “Thermal to electric energy conversion with thermophotovoltaics relies on radiation emitted by a hot body, which limits the power per unit area to that of a blackbody. Micro gap thermophotovoltaics take advantage of evanescent waves to obtain higher throughput, with the power per unit area limited by the internal blackbody, which is n2 higher. We propose that even higher power per unit area can be achieved by taking advantage of thermal fluctuations in the near-surface electric fields. For this, we require a converter that couples to dipoles on the hot side, transferring excitation to promote carriers on the cold side which can be used to drive an electrical load. We analyze the simplest implementation of the scheme, in which excitation transfer occurs between matched quantum dots. Next, we examine thermal to electric conversion with a glossy dielectric (aluminum oxide) hot-side surface layer. We show that the throughput power per unit active area can exceed the n2 blackbody limit with this kind of converter. With the use of small quantum dots, the scheme becomes very efficient theoretically, but will require advances in technology to fabricate.” Ref:J.Appl.Phys. 106,094315c(2009); “Quantum-coupled single-electron thermal to electric conversion scheme”. Power generation and distribution using renewable energy sources and using Hydrogen as an alternative fuel is now emerging. Distributed energy systems may replace centralized power plants in the future due to frequent grid failures as we have seen recently in India. Most of the ‘black outs’ are caused by grid failures due to cyclones, tornadoes and other weather related issues, and localized distribution system with combined heat and power offers a better alternative. For those who are skeptical about global warming caused by man-made greenhouse gases the question still remains, “What happened to billions of tons of Caron dioxide emitted into the atmosphere by power plants and transportation since industrial revolution?”.