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Showing posts with label Carbon cycle. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Carbon cycle. Show all posts

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Water and Energy are two sides of the same coin

Water and energy are two critical issues that will determine the future of humanity on the planet earth. They determine the security of a nation and that is why there is an increasing competition among nations to achieve self-sufficiency in fresh water and clean energy. But these issues are global issues and we need collective global solutions. In a globalised world the carbon emission of one nation or the effluent discharged into the sea from a desalination plant changes the climate of the planet and affects the entire humanity. It is not just a problem of one nation but a problem of the world. The rich and powerful nations should not pollute the earth, air and sea indiscriminately, hoping to achieve self-sufficiency for themselves at the cost of other nations. It is very short sighted policy. Such policies are doomed to fail over a period of time. Next generation will pay the price for such policies. Industrialised countries and oil rich countries should spend their resources on research and development than on weapons and invent new and innovative solutions to address some of the global problems such as energy and water. With increasing population and industrialisation the demand for energy and water is increasing exponentially. But the resources are finite. It is absolutely essential that we conserve them, use them efficiently and recycle them wherever possible so that humanity can survive with dignity and in peace. It is possible only by innovation that follows ‘Nature’s path. The earth’s climate is changing rapidly with unpredictable consequences .Many of us are witnessing for the first time in our lives unusual weather patterns such as draughts, flash flooding, unprecedented snow falls, bush fires, disease and deaths. Although we consider them as natural phenomena there is an increasing intensity and frequency that tells us a different story. They are human induced and we human beings cause these unprecedented events. When scientists point out human beings cause the globe to warm there were scepticism. We never believed we were capable of changing the entire weather system of the globe. We underestimate our actions. By simply discharging effluent from our desalination plants into the sea, can we change the salinity of the ocean or by burning coal can we change the climate of the world? The answer is “Yes” according to science. Small and incremental pollution we cause to our air and water in everyday life have dramatic effects because we disturb the equilibrium of the Nature. In order to restore the equilibrium, Nature is forced to act by changing the climate whether we like it or not. Nature always maintains“equilibrium” that maintains perfect balance and harmony in the world. If any slight changes are made in the equilibrium by human beings then Nature will make sure such changes are countered by a corresponding change that will restore the equilibrium. This is a natural phenomenon. The changes we cause may be small or incremental but the cumulative effect of such changes spanning hundreds of years will affect the equilibrium dramatically. We depend on fossil fuels for our energy needs. These fossils were buried by Nature millions of years ago. But we dig deep into the earth, bring them to surface and use them to generate power, run our cars and heat our homes. Our appetite for fossil fuels increased exponentially as our population grew. We emitted Carbon into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels for hundreds of years without many consequences. But the emissions have reached a limit that causes a shift in Nature’s equilibrium and Nature will certainly act to counter this shift and the consequences are changes in our weather system that we are currently witnessing. The only way to curtail further Carbon emission into the atmosphere is to capture the current Carbon emissions and convert them into a fuel so that we can recycle them for further power generations without adding fresh fossil fuel into the system while meeting our energy demands. We can convert Carbon emissions into a synthetic natural gas (SNG) by using Hydrogen derived from water. That is why I always believe ‘Water and energy are two sides of the same coin’. But cost of Hydrogen generation from water will be high and that is the price we will have to pay to compensate the changing climate. Sooner we do better will be the outcome for the world. In other word the cost of energy will certainly go up whether we price the Carbon by way of trading or impose Carbon tax or pay incentives for renewable energy or spend several billions of dollars for an innovative technology. There is no short cut. This is the reality of the situation. It will be very difficult for politicians to sell this concept to the public especially during election times but they will have no choice. Similarly serious shortage for fresh water in many parts of the world will force nations to desalinate seawater to meet their growing demand. Saudi Arabia one of the largest producers of desalinated water in the world is still planning for the highest capacity of 600,000m3/day. This plant will discharge almost 600,000 m3/day of effluent back into the sea with more than double the salinity of seawater. Over a period of time the salinity of seawater in the Gulf region has increased to almost 40% higher than it was a decade ago. What it means is their recovery of fresh water by desalination will decrease or their energy requirement will further increase. Any increase in salinity will further increase the fossil fuel consumption (which they have in plenty) will increase the Carbon emission. It is a vicious cycle and the entire world will have to pay the price for such consequences. Small island nations in pacific will bear the brunt of such consequences by inundation of seawater or they will simply disappear into the vast ocean. Recent study by NASA has clearly demonstrated the relationship between the increasing salinity of seawater and the climate change. According to Amber Jenkins Global Climate Change Jet Propulsion Laboratory: “We know that average sea levels have risen over the past century, and that global warming is to blame. But what is climate change doing to the saltiness, or salinity, of our oceans? This is an important question because big shifts in salinity could be a warning that more severe droughts and floods are on their way, or even that global warming is speeding up... Now, new research coming out of the United Kingdom (U.K.) suggests that the amount of salt in seawater is varying in direct response to man-made climate change. Working with colleagues to sift through data collected over the past 50 years, Peter Stott, head of climate monitoring and attribution at the Met Office in Exeter, England, studied whether or not human-induced climate change could be responsible for rises in salinity that have been recorded in the subtropical regions of the Atlantic Ocean, areas at latitudes immediately north and south of Earth’s tropics. By comparing the data to climate models that correct for naturally occurring salinity variations in the ocean, Stott has found that man-made global warming -- over and above any possible natural sources of global warming, such as carbon dioxide given off by volcanoes or increases in the heat output of the sun -- may be responsible for making parts of the North Atlantic Ocean more salty. Salinity levels are important for two reasons. First, along with temperature, they directly affect seawater density (salty water is denser than freshwater) and therefore the circulation of ocean currents from the tropics to the poles. These currents control how heat is carried within the oceans and ultimately regulate the world’s climate. Second, sea surface salinity is intimately linked to Earth’s overall water cycle and to how much freshwater leaves and enters the oceans through evaporation and precipitation. Measuring salinity is one way to probe the water cycle in greater detail.” It is absolutely clear that the way we generate power from fossil fuels and the water we generate from desalination of seawater cannot be continued as business as usual but requires an innovation. New technologies to generate power without emitting Carbon into the atmosphere and generating fresh water from seawater without dumping the highly saline effluent back into the sea will determine the future of our planet. Discharge of concentrated brine into sea will wipe out the entire fish population in the region. The consequences are dire. Oil rich countries should spend on Research and Developments and find innovative ways of desalinating seawater with zero discharge of effluent instead of investing massively on decades old technologies and changing the chemistry of the ocean and the climate forever.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Renewability and Sustainability

Renewability and sustainability are two critical factors that will determine the future course of the world. We have to learn from Nature how sun is able to sustain life on earth for millions of years without the slightest hitch. The sun provides light energy for the photosynthesis to generate Carbohydrate using carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and water. The green pigment in the leaves of the plant ‘Chlorophyll’ catalalyses the photosynthesis. The plant grows and serves as a food for animals. After certain period of time both plant and animal die and become carbon. New plants and animals are produced and the cycle continues. The dead plant decays and serves as manure for the new plant. A sequence of combinations of atmosphere, photosynthesis, micronutrients in the soil, absorption of carbon dioxide from air and release of Oxygen into the atmosphere, food production, life sustainenace, death and decay play like a symphony in an orchestra. Microorganisms too play their role in this cycle. It is obvious from the above process that life cycle is based on ‘Renewability’.The death and decay of the old plant gives way to the birth of new plant and new cycle. There is nothing static .It is a dynamic and cyclic process, where ‘Renewability’ is the key. Only with renewability the process can ‘sustain’. Without a cyclic nature, the process will end abruptly. In fact ‘renewability’ and ‘sustainability’ are closely linked. When we try to develop a new source of energy it is absolutely critical that such a source is renewable and available directly from Nature. Sun is the prime source of such energy, though it is also available in other forms such as wind, wave, ocean thermal etc. Such renewability can come only from Nature because human life in intricately linked with Nature such as earth, sun and wind. Everything that happens in Nature is to support life on earth and not to destroy. This is a fundamental issue. When we dig out Carbon from the earth that was deeply buried by Nature and burn them, we release Carbon dioxide as well as Oxide of Nirtogen.Though our primary interest is only heat, we also create by-products such as greenhouse gases that upset the natural equilibrium. Nature can make some adjustments in order to maintain equilibrium; but when this limit exceeds, the equilibrium is upset creating a new environment, which may be alien to human life. This is unsustainable. Nature does not burn organic matter indiscriminately to generate Carbon dioxide to promote photosynthesis. It judiciously and delicately uses atmospheric Carbon dioxide without the slightest disturbance to the equilibrium. Many chemical reactions are irreversible and can cause irreversible damages, similar to ‘radiation’ from a nuclear reaction. Whatever we do in the name of science, we will have to face their consequences, if we fail to understand the process of Nature completely and thoroughly. Fossil fuel sources are limited and burning them away to meet our energy demands is neither prudent nor sustainable. Human greed has no limit. We live in a finite world with finite resources and there is no place for infinite greed and destruction. There is no solution in Science for human greed.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Alternative energy is a myth

World is busy developing alternative to fossil fuel in order to reduce anthropic Greenhouse gas emissions to avoid global warming. In fact all forms of alternative energy sources except nuclear energy are basically ‘solar energy’ from the sun, in one form or another. Sun has been supplying energy from the time earth was born. It has conducted ‘photosynthesis’ by supplying light energy and converted atmospheric carbon dioxide and water into glucose for plants, animals and human beings. The excess carbon from the ‘Carbon cycle’ has become fossil fuels under the earth over a period of time. The fossil fuel is the result of sun’s energy or solar energy. We unearthed fossil fuels and burnt them to extract energy to run our power plants or run our cars. In fact fossil fuel is also a form of ‘Biofuel’ and technically there is no difference between them except fossil fuel formation takes millions of years.Fossil fuel is nothing but a source of Hydrogen with carbon backbone. All forms of alternative energy we are currently trying to develop such as PV solar, solar concentrators, solar thermal, geothermal energy, wind energy and bioenergy etc, originate from solar energy. The word alternative energy is a misnomer because all these energy are fundamentally solar energy in one form or another. Solar energy is a radiation of nuclear fusion reaction of Hydrogen taking place in the sun. Two isotopes of Hydrogen called Deuterium (with one proton and one neutron) combine to form a Helium 3 atom and Neutron with release of large energy. Deuterium is non-radioactive and can be extracted from seawater. But this process could not be duplicated commercially for power generation. It is the safest and cleanest form of energy. In other words, all forms of energy including solar energy come from Hydrogen atom. That is why Hydrogen has become a potential fuel source in the future. However, developing a commercial technology for the production and usage of Hydrogen at a rate cheaper than fossil fuels with zero greenhouse emission has been elusive so far. Generation of Hydrogen from water by Photo electrolysis using a direct sunlight using a Photo catalyst is a promising technology. But duplicating Nature to generate large amount of energy using tiny amount of Hydrogen atom seems to be a distance dream. Nature knows the best. We human beings can use small energy generation technologies such as solar and wind to meet our small energy needs. “There is enough to meets everybody’s need but not everybody’s greed”,Gandhi said. Exponential growth of population and industries has forced us to look for large power generation and fuel usage at the cost of serious environmental degradation and future generations. Only smarter and cleaner technologies will help sustain the future. Politicians and policy makers should understand various technologies and their implications rather than advocating short sighted and popular energy policies.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Carbon and human survival

Carbon is the backbone of an organic life on earth. Every life from the smallest microorganism to human beings is made up of carbon. A cycle called ‘carbon cycle’ that decomposes carbon into carbon dioxide which is used to synthesis Carbohydrates by the process known as ‘photosynthesis’ in presence of water and sunlight, as described in the following equation: 6 CO2 + 6H2O + sunlight → C6H12O6 + 6O2 The oxygen generated during the above process and carbohydrates sustains life of animals and microorganism on earth. These lives consume oxygen and carbohydrates and releases Carbon dioxide by respiration into the atmosphere. The released carbon dioxide breaks down carbohydrates and other organic matters and regenerates carbon dioxide for reuse by animals and other lives. Not all organic matters are decomposed and part of it is stored as carbon biomass in the roots of plants and other organic matters and buried under earth. After millions of years these organic matters turns into fossil fuels under pressure and at elevated temperature. Carbon is distributed on earth, in water and in atmosphere. Due to increase in population and industrial growth over several decades the carbon dioxide increased gradually in soil, water and atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is also released by natural events like volcanic eruptions. But the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increased rapidly after industrialisation, when industries unearthed buried fossil fuels and burnt. In fact we are burning carbon at a faster rate than it is regenerated. It is purely man-made and it increases the presence of carbon dioxide both in atmosphere as well as in oceans. The rapid increase of green house emission started 240 years ago when industrial revolution started. The consequences of this unabated greenhouse gases due to combustion has caused ‘global warming’ with many consequences. As I have mentioned in my previous articles, power generation and transportation are the two major industries that emit bulk of the greenhouse emission. Both industries use age-old technologies of combustion. The world has been complacent about fossil fuels and grossly indifferent to industrial pollution for decades. Global warming is looming as the biggest threat of the twenty first century, yet we are not acting. Politicians deny global warming and they want to carry on the business as usual, at the peril of the future generations. Powerful countries like US, China and India are reluctant to pass a unanimous resolution to set target for carbon emission, while smaller nations remain as powerless onlookers. These powerful nations can drag the rest of the world with them to face the wrath of the Mother Nature with disastrous consequences for their inaction. It is quite obvious that world have no choice but switch to cleaner energy sources and leave the fossil fuels buried deep under the earth. A new paradigm shift in the way we generate energy and use them is the key for the survival of mankind. We need to develop Hydrogen as an alternative fuel source and Government should encourage innovations in such technologies, while they simultaneously price carbon. In the absence of a concrete legislation and mechanism to penalise polluters, industrie will continue to use fossil fuels. A simple cost benefit analysis will indicate that taxing on polluters and simultaneously introducing renewable technologies will benefit the world in the long run.