‘Clean Energy and Water Technologies’ is a blog, to create awareness, about clean technologies on water and energy, two fundamental factors, that determines human life on earth. The blog will post articles, opinions, suggestions, and recent developments on such technologies, their sources, and their applications, to suit individuals, business and industries
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Friday, November 14, 2014
Why climate change is irreversible and Science is helpless?
The "intuitive mind" is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant.We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift" - Albert Einstein.
United Nation’s panel on climate change (IPCC) recently confirmed that climate change is real, it is man-made and it is irreversible and if nations do not act now then they will have to face catastrophic climate events in the future. They were categorical and unequivocal in their statements this time.
They have come to this conclusion because science has not demonstrated how to capture carbon emission and sequester them under the earth using current technologies. Scientists neglected carbon emissions while generating power using fossil fuels for decades because they had no idea what would be the consequences of such emissions in the future. It is a clear example how a human mind has a limited capacity to conceive an idea “holistically” but has a capacity to satisfy human needs temporarily without knowing the unforeseeable consequences.
When human beings interfere with Nature in the name of Science there are consequences to face and a price to pay because Nature is nothing but the manifestation of the highest intelligence. A real science can be no further than asserting this truth. Ignorance when combined with greed can be a deadly combination and the consequences will be costly and to be paid dearly by generations to come. Carbon emission and climate change is one such issue. Science has improved human life on earth in so many ways but at the same time they also have created many side effects which can be identified only after decades of their use. When they are identified it is often too late and causes irreversible damage to system or nature. Any irreversible change human beings cause in Nature will have its own consequences. Science has shown Carbon is the backbone of all organic matter on planet earth whether it is DNA of a human being or a glittering diamond from deep under the earth. The same Carbon reveals the age of a skeleton of a Dinosaur buried millions of years ago. Science is a powerful tool but it also has two sides, benign and malign. The power to discriminate between the good and bad is the fundamental pre-requisite of science. Carbon plays an indispensible role in the natural world due to its unique atomic structure and ease with which it can build molecules especially with hydrogen. That is why hydrocarbon is playing such an important role in human civilization and it is not easy to substitute it with another candidate without a long term research and development work. But we have a very short time to discover a substitute for hydrocarbon which can serve our current purposes.
Few nuclear power plants around the world can satisfy the growing demand for the electricity without any carbon emission but their long term consequences are unknown. The result of a thermo-nuclear explosion over Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the grim reminder of such consequences. When earth converts organic matter into a fossil over a period of millions of years deep under the earth, it gives us a clue why Nature has buried them and not left them on the surface of the earth. But that did not deter human beings from digging them out and burning them to generate heat to meet their temporary energy needs without realizing the long term consequences of such actions.
Many technologies have become obsolete over a period of time for various reasons but some of them lingered long enough to create long lasting consequences and there are many evidences in history to emphasize this truth. Power generation using fossil fuel is one such clear example of a technological bungle. It only confirms the inadequacy of human knowledge. It also reveals the temporary nature of such inventions stemming from temporary nature of human life. Science also has changed dramatically in the last few decades and it no longer serves the original purpose of unraveling and understanding the mysteries of Nature but caters and serves to the greed and dominance of selected rich and powerful people and the nations in the world. Science has become a tool to create material wealth and power rather than to understand nature and apply them into our lives in a compatible way and to enrich human life. These experiences have taught one important lesson. Any scientific discovery when applied in real life must be “holistic” and be compatible with Nature and should follow Natural laws.
When science becomes a wealth creating tool then any knowledge born out of such science can only serve to create wealth often at the cost of Nature. That is why rich and powerful corporate and nations spend billions of dollars in such wealth creating discoveries rather than on discoveries that address human problems of the world that may not return their investment in time. The anomaly is more they invest on wealth creating science more damage they cause to earth and human life. Such discoveries serve only one purpose namely “the wealth creation “. Wealth and power has overtaken science and knowledge.
Climate change has become a serious issue and it is absolutely clear that CO2 in the atmosphere has increased to the current level for the first time in millions of years and human beings have contributed greatly to this increase. Yet, nations around the world are unable to come to-gather and agree on how to reduce such emissions. The only way to solve this issue is to use Science as a tool which created this problem in the first place. When steam engine was invented it was considered as the dawn of industrial revolution: when electricity generation using electro-magnetism was invented it was hailed as a land mark in scientific development. When power was generated using fossil fuel to accelerate the industrial growth very little attention was paid to the carbon emission. When huge quantities of sea water was used to cool the cooling towers in fossil fuel powered or nuclear power plants very little attention was paid to the discharge of effluent in to the sea. When large desalination plants were set up to quench the thirst of oil rich countries very little attention was paid to the toxic discharge of effluent in to the sea. What was missing in all the above developments was the negligence of Nature by discharge of emissions or effluents into the Natural world. We have taken Nature for granted and treated her with great indignity and contempt.
Few decades ago Scientists were able to make remarkable discoveries using only their mind as a tool and theorizing certain concepts. They were abstract in nature but were validated whenever applied in practice. There were no big investments by Governments or companies on scientific discoveries, no Intellectual property portfolios, no personal ownership, no disputes on infringement as to who owns and what. Today scientific inventions and intellectual properties are the biggest assets and monopolies of few corporate and nations. Several hundred billions are spent on patents, trademarks and copy rights to stamp their authorities and ownerships. But where such knowledge came from? Who pays for the consequences of ill -conceived scientific discoveries that prove disastrous in the long run? Who can sue them when such technologies are passed on to several generations without knowing their long term consequences?
Science is now suggesting methods to address carbon emission using various renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, biomass etc. But these methods often use capital intensive equipments to use such energy even though Nature provides them free of cost. Such equipments also require large energy input to produce which again comes from fossil fuel maintaining the level of CO2 in the atmosphere. The investment on renewable energy has come down by nearly 70% according to latest news and many countries are gearing up to step up their fossil fuel production in the name of “energy security” simply because they have become “addicted “to old ways of living. In fact there is too much at stake for these countries and they are stubbornly sticking to old ideas. Science has become useless in addressing climate change because it is no longer about science but about nation’s security and maintaining material wealth of the citizens of a particular nation and the popularity of politicians among the ignorant masses and winning their elections and holding to their power.
Sun is the only source of energy on the planet earth and all other forms of energy such as wind and biomass etc are only by-products of sun. Current power generating technologies heavily depends of conversion of thermal energy into electrical energy and the source of thermal energy is by fossil fuel or nuclear. Recently light energy from sun is converted directly into electrical energy using photovoltaics. They also use thermal energy of the sun using solar concentrators to generate power in conventional way using turbines. But high initial cost, lack of energy storage technologies and intermittent nature of renewable sources increases the cost of energy compared to conventional coal fired power and alternative energy has created an uncertainty in the power industry. Energy industry is now at the cross road and it has divided people into two categories; one group accepts science of global warming and climate change and advocate substituting fossil fuel with carbon free energy sources and another group express skepticism over climate science and support fossil fuel energy sources in order to continue and maintain the industrial growth and employment. If countries like US and Australia who have rich deposits of high grade coal and depend heavily on coal based power plants and industries then they have an option to increase the efficiency of coal utilization by way of emission reduction. For example they can reduce carbon emission substantially using gasification technologies. In fact, under certain special conditions it is possible to generate syngas from coal with highest Hydrogen content (even up to CO: H2 ratio of 20:80).This will increase not only the calorific value of syngas but also reduce carbon emission. Companies like GE, USA are developing special gas turbines for syngas with high hydrogen content. Alternatively conversion of coal into synthetic natural gas (SNG) can reduce the carbon emission without dispensing with coal completely.
Renewable hydrogen is a potential long term substitute for fossil fuel both for power industry and transportation. But it requires special handling due to its high explosive nature and it is often easier to handle it with a mix of hydrocarbon such as Methane or Carbon monoxide. Fuel cell is an emerging technology that can use hydrogen for power generation as well as for transportation. However it requires expensive catalysts and they are currently confined to smaller applications in power industry. Fuel cell opens up a new way to generate electricity by simply stripping electrons from a hydrogen atom with Platinum and allowing the resulting proton exchange by special membranes in a cell converting chemical energy into an electrical energy. It is certainly a breakthrough in power generation but there is a long way to go before commercializing them on larger scale.
It seems Carbon will continue to play an important role for years to come due to its unique nature in the natural world. But high carbon intensity fuel such as coal and current methods of direct combustion will have to be abandoned and substituted with SNG or Syn gas with high hydrogen content by gasifying coal. By this way hydrogen can be introduced into the current energy mix without substantial deviation from using coal while maintaining the carbon emission well within the limit. However a long term strategy will require complete substitution of fossil fuel with renewable hydrogen or with completely a new method of electricity generation such as Fuel cell without using a thermal energy. Electricity is nothing but a flow of electrons and techniques that are currently used in Fuel cell such as proton exchange membrane should be developed using low cost catalyst and materials on a much larger scale to substitute fossil fuel completely. It is clear that power generation technology should be delinked with using carbon source or combustion for that matter. Combustion of hydrogen electrochemically is an elegant solution but lot of research and development is required.
But the stark reality is climate is already changing and the climate change is irreversible and we have to use science to adopt our lives to the changing climate in the future. We cannot capture the carbon and bury them under the earth as Nature does because Nature has not taught us how to do it in a short span of time. The impact of climate change can be minimized or averted depending upon how fast carbon emission is reduced using new technologies. Climate change is an important lesson from which the scientific community should learn how not to interfere with Nature without a complete understanding of it.
Sun shine and clean air are not just for rich and powerful but to the entire humanity on the planet. Any scientific discovery should be “holistic” and compatible with Nature and easily accessible to all human beings. Solar and biomass are emerging as alternative technologies to tackle climate change but these simple and holistic solutions were in fact practiced for decades in rural India. Farmers in India feed their cattle with cellulosic fibers (polysaccharides) as a feed and use their waste in the form of “solar” dried cakes (cow dung cakes) as a fuel that has a calorific value of 2100kj (Wikipedia). They also use the waste to generate Methane by anaerobic digestion. These technologies are not new but the challenge is they should to be built on large commercial scales to meet the demand of the growing population in a holistic way. Industrialized countries are now trying to convert the same cellulose (polysaccharides) into industrial alcohol instead of converting corn starch. When plants grow by photosynthesis using sun, it generates starch, lignin, cellulose as well as fatty acids in oil seeds. It is important to understand that Nature provides them as food for human beings and animals and not as a raw material to generate fuel or energy and that is why “holistic solutions” are the key for the survival of science and technology as well as humanity in the future.