Sylvia Earle, Her Deepness

Sylvia Earle. Illustration by João Fazenda

Yesterday’s post got me looking back at our attention to marine science over the years, making me wonder whether we have given that topic its fair share. Yes, probably, but more is needed. I already knew this name because it has appeared in our pages a few times over the years. But just recently I heard her name from two different people who have had the chance to know her personally. One of them, when I mentioned the name, replied with Her Deepness replacing Sylvia Earle’s given name. Thanks to Dana Goodyear, who had me at puma, but who also knows a thing or two about water, now this:

Without Sylvia Earle, We’d Be Living on Google Dirt

The marine biologist and aquanaut evokes a Bond girl with a Ph.D. To save a species, she says, you have to know it.

Do you like to breathe?” This is a question that the marine biologist and deep-sea explorer Sylvia Earle asks frequently. The ocean produces half of the oxygen on Earth. If it dies, humanity can’t survive, so humans better pay attention to it. Continue reading

Critical Mass On Greener Steel

Getty

Greening the production of steel has been the topic of exactly one previous post, which linked to an article by Matthew Hutson from last September that made passing reference to the company featured in the article below. Maybe we are getting closer to critical mass:

Roughly a tenth of global carbon emissions comes from the steel industry. Doing something about that is easier said than done.

In the city of Woburn, Massachusetts, a suburb just north of Boston, a cadre of engineers and scientists in white coats inspected an orderly stack of brick-size, gunmetal-gray steel ingots on a desk inside a neon-illuminated lab space.

What they were looking at was a batch of steel created using an innovative manufacturing method, one that Boston Metal, a company that spun out a decade ago from MIT, hopes will dramatically reshape the way the alloy has been made for centuries. Continue reading

Mosquito GMO News

Biotechnology firm Oxitec ran the first open-air test of genetically modified mosquitoes in the United States by placing boxes of its eggs in selected spots in the Florida Keys. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty

Genetically modified this and that have been concerns of ours for most of the time we have been posting on environmental issues and nature news. This news below may be the best test of how tolerant one might become about a technology that is inherently full of danger–of the unintended consequences variety more than the known in advance variety–and yet could tame some of the greatest natural pests that mankind suffers from:

Biotech firm announces results from first US trial of genetically modified mosquitoes

Oxitec reports that its insects behaved as planned — but a larger trial is needed to learn whether they can reduce wild mosquito populations.

Researchers have completed the first open-air study of genetically engineered mosquitoes in the United States. The results, according to the biotechnology firm running the experiment, are positive. But larger tests are still needed to determine whether the insects can achieve the ultimate goal of suppressing a wild population of potentially virus-carrying mosquitoes. Continue reading

Carbon, Sequestration & Hope

(Brandon Thibodeaux / The New York Times / Redux)

When I read about a promising new technology related to carbon sequestration, I am ambivalent based on the experience of many past false hopes. Carbon is a very large problem. Finding new methods of sequestration is a very challenging puzzle.

I track such developments every week by reading the newsletter that Bill McKibben posts on Substack. Most weeks I post something here from that, and do my best to balance the terrifying and enraging with the more hopeful news he occasionally shares there.

The only other newsletter I read regularly is Robinson Meyer’s newsletter for the Atlantic, called The Weekly Planet. Here is one of his worth reading for a bit of encouragement (when you click the hyperlink it will go to the current newsletter, which until April 20 is this one; after April 20 scroll to find this edition):

The Biggest Investment Ever in Sucking Carbon Out of the Sky

The world’s biggest tech companies are getting serious about carbon removal, the still-nascent technology wherein humanity can pull heat-trapping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Yesterday, an alliance of prominent Silicon Valley companies—including Google, Meta, Shopify, and the payment company Stripe—announced that it is purchasing $925 million in carbon removal over the next eight years. In a world awash in overhyped corporate climate commitments, this is actually a big deal. Continue reading

A New Knife Worthy Of Our Attention

Knives are the oldest type of manufactured tool, and they’re still evolving. Karsten Moran for The New York Times

I last posted on the topic of knives earlier this year, partly because the onetime blacksmith apprentice in me felt compelled to salute the skillset, but mainly because the mission behind the knife-making in that case was worth promoting.

Otherwise, culinary utensils do not get much attention in our pages. Ceiba being the celebrated exception to that general rule–wooden culinary utensils, but no knives. Derrick Bryson Taylor offers us a good reason to revisit this neglect:

Knives are humanity’s oldest tool, dating back millions of years. A group of scientists in Maryland have produced a version made of hardened wood, which they say is sharper than steel.

More than 60 years ago in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” Julia Child, one of America’s most emulated chefs, described the necessity of decent, reliable kitchen equipment. Continue reading

Nuclear Fusion’s Heat Feat

The interior of the JET, where an experiment generated 59 megajoules of heat, beating the 1997 record of 21.7 megajoules. Photograph: UKAEA

We have no expertise in this specific energy-related subject, but we know that new sources of energy are an important potential contributor to the reduction of global warming. So, we read this news about a new heat record from nuclear fusion as a qualified source of hope:

Nuclear fusion heat record a ‘huge step’ in quest for new energy source

Oxfordshire scientists’ feat raises hopes of using reactions that power sun for low-carbon energy

The prospect of harnessing the power of the stars has moved a step closer to reality after scientists set a new record for the amount of energy released in a sustained fusion reaction. Continue reading

Palm Oil Potential

An oil palm plantation encroaches on a rainforest in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. NANANG SUJANA / CIFOR

Palm oil’s problems, and potential solutions have been catalogued in these pages many times. In this recent story by James Dinneen, writing again for Yale Environment 360, a new potential solution is explored:

Can Synthetic Palm Oil Help Save the World’s Tropical Forests?

Christopher Chuck, a chemical engineer at the University of Bath, is working to produce yeast able to generate more oil from cheaper feedstocks. UNIVERSITY OF BATH

Numerous startups are creating synthetic palm oil in the lab, hoping to slow the loss of tropical forests to oil palm cultivation. But palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil, and producing a synthetic version on a large scale remains a daunting challenge.

Tom Jeffries and Tom Kelleher met at Rutgers University in the 1970s while studying industrially useful microbes. Jeffries went on to run a yeast genomics program at the U.S. Department of Agriculture; Kelleher spent decades in the biomedical industry, working with biologics like insulin, which are produced by genetically modified microbes in giant, fermenting vats. Continue reading

Green Steel On The Horizon

The steel industry produces around two billion tons of it each year, while emitting more than three billion tons of carbon dioxide annually. Photograph by Christine Olsson / Alamy

The ratio of carbon dioxide produced, relative to steel produced, is surprising. The bigger surprise is how to improve that ratio:

The Promise of Carbon-Neutral Steel

A new manufacturing technique could drastically reduce the footprint of one of our dirtiest materials.

Steel production accounts for around seven per cent of humanity’s greenhouse-gas emissions. There are two reasons for this startling fact. First, steel is made using metallurgic methods that our Iron Age forebears would find familiar; second, it is part of seemingly everything, including buildings, bridges, fridges, planes, trains, and automobiles. According to some estimates, global demand for steel will nearly double by 2050. Green steel, therefore, is urgently needed if we’re to confront climate change. Continue reading

Orca On

The video above is the shortest, clearest primer we could find to explain how this machine technology works. With Orca now on we will get the chance to see how much promise this process holds for carbon capture’s machine approach versus the tree approach, which we now know needs some reconsideration:

World’s biggest machine capturing carbon from air turned on in Iceland

Operators say the Orca plant can suck 4,000 tonnes of CO2 out of the air every year and inject it deep into the ground to be mineralised

A worker on a CarbFix carbon injection well in Iceland in 2017. The company is involved in the new Orca plant designed to draw carbon dioxide out of the air and store it as rock. Photograph: Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images

The world’s largest plant designed to suck carbon dioxide out of the air and turn it into rock has started running, the companies behind the project said on Wednesday.

The plant, named Orca after the Icelandic word “orka” meaning “energy”, consists of four units, each made up of two metal boxes that look like shipping containers.

Constructed by Switzerland’s Climeworks and Iceland’s Carbfix, when operating at capacity the plant will draw 4,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the air every year, according to the companies. Continue reading

The New Race In Wind Energy, Between Fixed And Floating Turbines

The world’s first floating wind farm 15 miles offshore of Aberdeenshire, in Scotland. The 30 megawatt installation can power approximately 20,000 households Photograph: Xinhua/Alamy

Wind, of all the alternative energy sources we pay attention to, requires vast areas for generation. So water has become the go-to place to place the turbines. It looks like the new race is whether to have the turbines fixed or floating:

Floating wind turbines could open up vast ocean tracts for renewable power

Technology could help power a clean energy transition if it can overcome hurdles of cost, design and opposition from fishing

In the stormy waters of the North Sea, 15 miles off the coast of Aberdeenshire, in Scotland, five floating offshore wind turbines stretch 574 feet (175 metres) above the water. The world’s first floating windfarm, a 30 megawatt facility run by the Norwegian company Equinor, has only been in operation since 2017 but has already broken UK records for energy output. Continue reading

Carbon Capture Closer

Fans draw air into Climeworks’ direct air capture plant in Zurich, Switzerland. CLIMEWORKS

Our thanks as always to Jon Gertner for this news.  Combining capturing carbon with other goals is not new, but it has been goal-setting elusive of significantly robust results; we are getting closer:

The Dream of Carbon Air Capture Edges Toward Reality

Next month, an industrial facility in Iceland will join a growing number of projects to remove CO2 from the air and put it underground. But major hurdles, including high costs, remain before this technology can be widely deployed and play a key role in tackling climate change.

Climeworks’ Orca plant under construction near Reykjavik, Iceland. CLIMEWORKS

In early September, at an industrial facility located about 25 miles southeast of Reykjavik, Iceland, the Swiss company Climeworks will mark the opening of a new project named “Orca.” At least in a conventional sense, Orca doesn’t actually make anything. It is comprised of eight elongated boxes that resemble wood-clad tanks. Each of these boxes — known as “collectors” — is roughly the size of a tractor trailer, and each is festooned with 12 whirring fans that draw a stream of air inside. Within the collectors, a chemical agent known as a sorbent will capture CO2 contained in the air wafting through. Continue reading

Making Dams Deliver More

The O’Shaughnessy Dam in Ohio is being repaired and will be providing power to the city of Columbus by mid-2023. CAMERA MEETS BEARD / SHUTTERSTOCK

Thanks to Yale e360 for this story by James Dinneen:

Can Retrofitting Dams for Hydro Provide a Green Energy Boost?

With the era of building big dams over in the U.S., a growing number of existing dams are being modified to produce hydropower. These projects, advocates say, avoid the damaging impacts of new dams and could generate enough renewable electricity for several million homes. Continue reading

Genetic Modification, In Moderation, Appeals

Levon Biss for The New York Times

Our work with coffee farmers in Costa Rica in recent years has convinced me that without hybridization there will not be much of a specialty coffee supply in the near future without it. Climate change and various pests essentially require it. On the other hand, I understand why genetic engineering causes fear. I have suffered mildly from that fear, but still read widely on the subject looking to allay those fears. The main appeal of the technology is obvious, and the reasons to be concerned are plenty, but here are some overlooked observations thanks very much to Jennifer Kahn:

Learning to Love G.M.O.s

Overblown fears have turned the public against genetically modified food. But the potential benefits have never been greater.

Bobby Doherty for The New York Times

On a cold December day in Norwich, England, Cathie Martin met me at a laboratory inside the John Innes Centre, where she works. A plant biologist, Martin has spent almost two decades studying tomatoes, and I had traveled to see her because of a particular one she created: a lustrous, dark purple variety that is unusually high in antioxidants, with twice the amount found in blueberries.

At 66, Martin has silver-white hair, a strong chin and sharp eyes that give her a slightly elfin look. Continue reading

Methane Leaks Plugged With Help From Above

Thanks to Public Broadcasting Service (USA) for this:

Satellites seek out methane leaks from pipelines, oil fields, landfills and farms

Satellite imagery shows a Russian gas pipeline (left) and highlights huge amounts of methane (right) being emitted from the pipeline on September 6, 2019. Kayrros and Modified Copernicus Data, 2019

The threat was invisible to the eye: tons of methane billowing skyward, blown out by natural gas pipelines snaking across Siberia. In the past, those plumes of potent greenhouse gas released by Russian petroleum operations last year might have gone unnoticed. But armed with powerful new imaging technology, a methane-hunting satellite sniffed out the emissions and tracked them to their sources.

Thanks to rapidly advancing technology, a growing fleet of satellites is now aiming to help close the valve on methane by identifying such leaks from space. The mission is critical, with a series of recent reports sounding an increasingly urgent call to cut methane emissions. Continue reading

Choices For Mining Lithium

The Salton Sea is one of numerous new mining proposals in a global gold rush to find new sources of metals and minerals needed for electric cars and renewable energy.

Thanks to the New York Times for this coverage of the choices surrounding how and where to mine a key ingredient of more efficient batteries–a consequential environmental question:

The Lithium Gold Rush: Inside the Race to Power Electric Vehicles

A race is on to produce lithium in the United States, but competing projects are taking very different approaches to extracting the vital raw material. Some might not be very green.

“This is the most sustainable lithium in the world, made in America,” Rod Colwell, the chief executive of Controlled Thermal Resources, said. “Who would have thought it? We’ve got this massive opportunity.”

Atop a long-dormant volcano in northern Nevada, workers are preparing to start blasting and digging out a giant pit that will serve as the first new large-scale lithium mine in the United States in more than a decade — a new domestic supply of an essential ingredient in electric car batteries and renewable energy.

The mine, constructed on leased federal lands, could help address the near total reliance by the United States on foreign sources of lithium.

But the project, known as Lithium Americas, has drawn protests from members of a Native American tribe, ranchers and environmental groups because it is expected to use billions of gallons of precious ground water, potentially contaminating some of it for 300 years, while leaving behind a giant mound of waste. Continue reading

Engineering + Imagination = Worthy Of Second Guessing

The Loess plateau, in China, in 2007, left, and transformed into green valleys and productive farmland in 2019. Composite: Rex/Shutterstock/Xinhua/Alamy

The message from Elizabeth Kolbert’s book should sound relevant to you when you read the following:

‘Our biggest challenge? Lack of imagination’: the scientists turning the desert green

In China, scientists have turned vast swathes of arid land into a lush oasis. Now a team of maverick engineers want to do the same to the Sinai

Flying into Egypt in early February to make the most important presentation of his life, Ties van der Hoeven prepared by listening to the podcast 13 Minutes To The Moon – the story of how Nasa accomplished the lunar landings. The mission he was discussing with the Egyptian government was more earthbound in nature, but every bit as ambitious. It could even represent a giant leap for mankind. Continue reading

Ghana, Scaling New Solutions For Plastic Re-Use

An engineer inspects paving blocks made from recycled plastics in a suburb of Accra, Ghana. CRISTINA ALDEHUELA/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

In our Authentica shops we offer some artisanal approaches to plastic re-use, and have been fans of the concept since a visit to Ghana in 2013. But the plastic problem will not be solved this way because the level of re-use it is not at scale with the amount of plastic needing re-use. Thanks to Ann Parson fo showing a new potential demonstrated in Ghana more recently:

How Paving with Plastic Could Make a Dent in the Global Waste Problem

Roads in which waste plastic is melted down and mixed with paving materials are becoming more common around the world. Although for now they remain a niche technology, experts say the roads could become one of a diverse array of uses for discarded plastic.

A road running through Accra, Ghana’s capital, looks like any other blacktop. Continue reading

New Questions For Old Hills

Scenic beauty spot or potential hydropower storage facility? The Dovedale national nature reserve in the Peak District. Photograph: dianajarvisphotography.co.uk/Alamy

Thanks to the Guardian for giving us a different view on one possible part of a solution to the problem posed in yesterday’s post:

Powering up: UK hills could be used as energy ‘batteries’

Engineers explore using gentle slopes rather than steep dams or mountains to store electricity

Hundreds of hills across the UK could be transformed into renewable energy “batteries” through a pioneering hydropower system embedded underground.

Guardian graphic. Source: RheEnergise

A team of engineers have developed a system that adapts one of the oldest forms of energy storage, hydropower, to store and release electricity from gentle slopes rather than requiring steep dam walls and mountains. Continue reading

The Puzzling Fate Of Aging Dams

Engineers have found cracks in the 420-foot-high Kariba Dam on the Zambezi River in Southern Africa. DMITRIY KANDINSKIY/SHUTTERSTOCK

When we lived through the cross-border tensions that were dam-driven we thought cooler heads would eventually prevail. But, it has proven not so easy. And who knew there were 10,000 such puzzles out there? Thanks to Fred Pearce, as always for raising our awareness:

Water Warning: The Looming Threat of the World’s Aging Dams

Tens of thousands of large dams across the globe are reaching the end of their expected lifespans, leading to a dramatic rise in failures and collapses, a new UN study finds. These deteriorating structures pose a serious threat to hundreds of millions of people living downstream.

Who would want to live downstream of the 125-year-old Mullaperiyar Dam, nestled in a seismic zone of the Western Ghats mountains in India? Continue reading

Making A Better Carbon Chain

Animation by Megan McGrew/PBS Newshour

Thanks to Isabella Isaacs-Thomas and PBS Newshour for a look at our carbon chain through the lens of a scientist determined to making that chain more sustainable:

How this chemical engineer is hacking plastic production to promote sustainability

The products many of us purchase on a regular basis — the water bottles, clothes and, perhaps especially in the era of COVID, take-out containers from our local restaurants — are often plastic, disposable and bound to outlive us for generations. But the enormous amount of plastic waste that humans leave behind is a logistical and ecological nightmare, and experts say potential solutions must be approached from multiple angles, both for the planet’s sake and for our own. Continue reading