Scientists Accidentally Create Simple Solution to Global Warming
Global warming is largely caused by carbon dioxide. Scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory just figured out a way to change it into something better.
These gray blobs below might not look like much to you, but to chemists they just might be the holy grail of fossil fuel conversion.
A photomicrograph of the ORNL catalyst showing the carbon nanospikes that can convert carbon dioxide into ethanol. Credit: ORNL
The Department of Energy has spent years trying to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, or C02, is released into our atmosphere from both our breathing and as a byproduct of industrial combustion from fossil fuel. It’s also a greenhouse gas, meaning it traps heat and warms the temperature of the planet. In fact, it is “the primary greenhouse gas emitted through human activities,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency. “In 2014, CO2 accounted for about 80.9% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.” That means it’s the biggest culprit of climate change, and the one scientists are trying hardest to stop.
Scientists are trying everything from storing it underground to converting it into a cleaner fuel source. Scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) accidentally figured out a way to do the latter by converting C02 into ethanol – a cleaner, more sustainable fuel source.
Strange as that sounds, carbon dioxide can be chemically converted into fuel. It’s difficult to do, as it is “chemically unreactive,” as the Department of Energy (DOE) reports. Carbon dioxide needs a catalyst, “a particular compound that could make carbon dioxide react more readily. When converting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into a sugar, plants use an organic catalyst called an enzyme,” the DOE continues. The researchers at ORNL used “a catalyst made of carbon, copper and nitrogen and applied voltage to trigger a complicated chemical reaction that essentially reverses the combustion process,” they explain in a press release. In order to activate carbon dioxide at the molecular level, they utilized nanotechnology. Popular Mechanics explains the process as “a new combination of copper and carbon arranged into nanospikes on a silicon surface. The nanotechnology allows the reactions to be very precise, with very few contaminants.” The researchers expected the carbon nanospikes to be the first step in a long process, but were pleasantly surprised to discover it was the only step they needed. They explain the full details in the journal Chemistry Select, but here’s a video version:
"By using common materials, but arranging them with nanotechnology, we figured out how to limit the side reactions and end up with the one thing that we want," researcher Adam Rondinone said in the ORNL press release. He explained the process further to New Atlas, stating that "a process like this would allow you to consume extra electricity when it's available to make and store as ethanol. This could help to balance a grid supplied by intermittent renewable sources."
That is a big deal, because ORNL’s process chemically negates a harmful substance with common materials and only 1.2 volts of electricity – and it works at room temperature, meaning “it can be started and stopped easily with little energy cost,” Popular Mechanics explains. They point out another additional benefit, too: the process could also be used “as temporary energy storage during a lull in renewable energy generation, smoothing out fluctuations in a renewable energy grid.”
ORNL has essentially created a way to remove large amounts of carbon dioxide from our atmosphere in a cheap, efficient, scalable way, which the team hopes could be used to mitigate or completely reverse fossil fuel carbon dioxide production. They’re working on refining their methods to “increase ethanol production rates and to better determine the full mechanism of selective chemical production of the copper/carbon catalyst,” according to New Atlas.
Hopefully, they’ll develop a system that’s easy for industrial producers to use. If they do, and if our government signs off on it, this process might just be the next big step in reducing climate change.
What do we see from watching birds move across the country?
- A total of eight billion birds migrate across the U.S. in the fall.
- The birds who migrate to the tropics fair better than the birds who winter in the U.S.
- Conservationists can arguably use these numbers to encourage the development of better habitats in the U.S., especially if temperatures begin to vary in the south.
The migration of birds — and we didn't even used to know that birds migrated; we assumed they hibernated; the modern understanding of bird migration was established when a white stork landed in a German village with an arrow from Central Africa through its neck in 1822 — draws us in the direction of having an understanding of the world. A bird is here and then travels somewhere else. Where does it go? It's a variation on the poetic refrain from The Catcher in the Rye. Where do the ducks go? How many are out there? What might it encounter along the way?
While there is a yearly bird count conducted every Christmas by amateur bird watchers across the country done in conjunction with The Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently released the results of a study that actually go some way towards answering heretofore abstract questions: every fall, as per cloud computing and 143 weather radar stations, four billion birds migrate into the United States from Canada and four billion more head south to the tropics.
"In the spring," the lead author Adriaan Dokter noted, "3.5 billion birds cross back into the U.S. from points south, and 2.6 billion birds return to Canada across the northern U.S. border."
In other words: the birds who went three to four times further than the birds staying in the U.S. faired better than the birds who stayed in the U.S. Why?
Part of the answer could be very well be what you might hear from a conservationist — only with numbers to back it up: the U.S. isn't built for birds. As Ken Rosenberg, the other co-author of the study, notes: "Birds wintering in the U.S. may have more habitat disturbances and more buildings to crash into, and they might not be adapted for that."
The other option is that birds lay more offspring in the U.S. than those who fly south for the winter.
What does observing eight billion birds mean in practice? To give myself a counterpoint to those numbers, I drove out to the Joppa Flats Education Center in Northern Massachusetts. The Center is a building that sits at the entrance to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and overlooks the Merrimack River, which is what I climbed the stairs up to the observation deck to see.
Once there, I paused. I took a breath. I listened. I looked out into the distance. Tiny flecks Of Bonaparte's Gulls drew small white lines across the length of the river and the wave of the grass toward a nearby city. What appeared to be flecks of double-crested cormorants made their way to the sea. A telescope downstairs enabled me to watch small gull-like birds make their way along the edges of the river, quietly pecking away at food just beneath the surface of the water. This was the experience of watching maybe half a dozen birds over fifteen-to-twenty minutes, which only served to drive home the scale of birds studied.
Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.
- Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
- Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
- Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.