Researchers find that the coffee pulp is valuable in its own right.
The coffee beans that keep us going don't grow on the vine in bean form. They grow as coffee "cherries," skin and pulp inside of which resides the precious beans. Before coffee beans can be fermented in water as many are, the cherries pass through a machine that extracts the bean from the skin and pulp. Miraculous as coffee beans are, new research suggests that their typically discarded pulp is even more amazing. It can restore tropical forests.
Researchers from ETH-Zurich and the University of Hawaii have found that this waste from coffee manufacturing is a fantastic growing agent after testing it out on some agriculturally depleted land in Costa Rica.
"The results were dramatic," reports lead author of the study Rebecca Cole. "The area treated with a thick layer of coffee pulp turned into a small forest in only two years while the control plot remained dominated by non-native pasture grasses."
Coffee pulp arrivesCredit: Rebecca Cole/British Ecological Society
The researchers delivered 30 dump trucks full of coffee pulp to a 35- by 40-meter parcel on Reserva Biológica Sabalito in Costa Rica's Coto Brus county. The land, previously part of a coffee plantation, is in the process of being reforested.
Starting in the 1950s, Costa Rica experienced rapid deforestation followed by coffee-growing and farming that resulted in a 25% loss of its natural forest cover by 2014.
Before spreading out the coffee pulp into a half-meter-thick layer for their test, the researchers measured the nutrients in the soil. They also catalogued the species living nearby, and made note of the size of woody stems present. The amount of forest ground cover was recorded, and drones were sent aloft to capture the amount of canopy cover.
Reforestation in the blink of an eye
(A) Coffee pulp layer; (B) control area after two years; (C) coffee pulp area after two years; (D) overhead view of canopy in control area, above the red line, and the coffee-pulp area, below the red lineCredits: A, B, and C: R. Cole. D: credit R. Zahawi/British Ecological Society
At the end of the two years, the control area had grown forest covering over 20% of its area. In contrast, 80% of the coffee-pulp section was canopied by trees, and these trees were four times the height of those in the control parcel.
The researchers analyzed the nutrients available in the soil and found significantly elevated levels of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorous, all vital agricultural nutrients. Curiously, potassium, also important for growth, was lower in the coffee-pulp area than in the control section.
The researchers also found that the coffee pulp eliminated invasive pasture grasses that inhibit reforestation. Their removal facilitated the reemergence of tree species whose seeds were introduced by wind or animal dispersal.
A much-needed growth agent
According to Cole, "This case study suggests that agricultural by-products can be used to speed up forest recovery on degraded tropical lands. In situations where processing these by-products incurs a cost to agricultural industries, using them for restoration to meet global reforestation objectives can represent a 'win-win' scenario."
Promising as coffee pulp may be, Cole cautions: "This study was done at only one large site, so more testing is needed to see if this strategy works across a broader range of conditions. The measurements we share are only from the first two years. Longer-term monitoring would show how the coffee pulp affected soil and vegetation over time. Additional testing can also assess whether there are any undesirable effects from the coffee pulp application."
In addition, she notes, the experiment only documents the value of coffee pulp on flat land when delivery of the substance by truck is fairly simple. "We would like," Cole says, "to scale up the study by testing this method across a variety of degraded sites in the landscape."
Just as exciting is the possibility that other such agricultural waste products may be good for reforesting depleted areas. Cole mentions orange husks as a material worthy of investigation.
"We hope," Cole concludes, "our study is a jumping off point for other researchers and industries to take a look at how they might make their production more efficient by creating links to the global restoration movement."
Australian researchers figure out a new way to apply extreme pressure and squeeze out diamonds.
- Diamonds aren't just beautiful, they're also excellent at cutting through most anything.
- Researchers have worked out how to create the gems without the high temperatures that accompany their natural formation.
- The researchers were able to create two different types of diamonds that also occur naturally.
It may not always be cool to admit you were a fan of Superman as a kid, but one thing about Supe that was inarguably cool was that he could close his hands around coal—chunks of carbon—squeeze, and open them up to reveal a brand-new diamond. Now, researchers at Australian National University (ANU) and RMIT University in Melbourne have pretty much worked out the Man of Steel's trick. They've created diamonds from bits of carbon in a lab at room temperature by applying an extraordinary amount of slightly off-axis pressure.
Their research is published in the journal Nano-Micro Small.
They totally crushed it
"Natural diamonds are usually formed over billions of years, about 150 kilometers deep in the Earth where there are high pressures and temperatures above 1,000 degrees Celsius," one of the lead researchers, ANUs Jodie Bradby, told the university.
The scientists were able to make two types of diamonds: the usual kind you'd find in an engagement ring, and Lonsdaleite diamonds. Lonsdaleite diamonds are naturally produced at meteorite impact sites such as Canyon Diablo in the U.S. They're about 58 percent harder than other diamonds, and have a different crystalline structure.
While diamonds form normally as a result of extreme pressure and heat, it turns out that pressure alone can do it if it's applied in the right way, even at room temperature.
The pressure they exerted was considerable—the equivalent of the weight of about 640 African elephants concentrated on a very small area.
The telltale clue
Credit: kento/Adobe Stock
The rest of the team's formula has to do with how the pressure is applied.
Co-leader of the research, Dougal McCullough, and his team working at RMIT used cutting-edge advanced electron microscopy to image slices of experimental diamond samples that provided a peak into their formation.
One revelation was the relationship between the two diamond types. "Our pictures showed that the regular diamonds only form in the middle of these Lonsdaleite veins," says McCulloch. "Seeing these little rivers of Lonsdaleite and regular diamond for the first time was just amazing and really helps us understand how they might form."
"The twist in the story ," says Bradby, "is how we apply the pressure. As well as very high pressures, we allow the carbon to also experience something called 'shear' — which is like a twisting or sliding force. We think this allows the carbon atoms to move into place and form Lonsdaleite and regular diamonds."
The diamonds produced by the team confirm this idea. Bradby recalls, "Seeing these little rivers of Lonsdaleite and regular diamond for the first time was just amazing and really helps us understand how they might form [in nature]."
New diamonds made to order
"Creating more of this rare but super-useful diamond is the long-term aim of this work," says Bradby.
While many may think of diamonds only for their ornamental value, their hardness makes them excellent for cutting through most anything, and they're used in some of the world's most advanced precision cutting systems.
Bradby notes that, "Lonsdaleite [in particular] has the potential to be used for cutting through ultra-solid materials on mining sites."
Next up: flight and x-ray vision. (Joking.)
Researchers evaluated the best and worst ways to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere in a recent report.
- A recent report from International Institute for Applied Systems Science evaluated six land-based methods for removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
- Though they concluded that every technique would be a net positive for the world, some were riskier or costlier than others.
- Among the safest, cheapest, and overall best approaches were restoring the wetlands and soil carbon sequestration.
In 2016, the Paris Climate Agreement set out the ambitious goal of limiting the rise in global temperature to below 2°C above its preindustrial levels, preferably to 1.5°C. These numbers might seem small, but the amount of energy needed to transform the entire world's average temperature is tremendous, and so too are its effects. If, for instance, the global temperature blasts past that 2°C mark and reaches 4°C, then nearly all of the U.S. will turn into an uninhabitable desert.
But focusing too much on the doom-and-gloom that climate change discussions so often revolve around can be pretty exhausting. So, let's focus instead on possible solutions. If we're to stay below 2°C, we'll need to deploy a multifaceted strategy. Part of that has to be finding ways to remove the greenhouse gases already in our atmosphere.
Recently, researchers at the International Institute for Applied Systems Science looked at the top six land-based methods for sucking greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere to evaluate their costs, their benefits, and which might be our best options going forward. While some of them are more risky or higher cost than others, all of them were found to contribute in some way and to effectively remove greenhouse gases from out of atmosphere.
1. Afforestation and reforestation
Between 1990 and 2015, the world lost 290 million hectares of forest. Restoring these depleted reserves (reforestation) and planting in previously un-forested areas (afforestation) is a fairly simple, common-sense approach to fighting climate change. Trees suck CO2 out of the air and store it in their timber — not only that, but they also contribute to food production, help to regulate freshwater, offer habitats to animals, and provide jobs and recreation among other benefits.
On the other hand, afforestation and reforestation require a lot of water usage and take up land that could otherwise be used for farming. Despite this, the researchers estimated that this strategy could remove between 0.5 to 7 gigatons (that's a billion tons) of CO2 from the atmosphere. To put that into context, one estimate provided by Carbon Brief suggests that human beings have released 1,374 gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. We don't have to get rid of all of this extra CO2, fortunately; just enough to keep warming within acceptable bounds.
2. Wetland restoration
Wetlands might seem like an odd candidate for being one of the most beneficial features of the planet, but they have the potential to scrub another 2.7 gigatons of CO2 from the air. In fact, although wetlands cover 9 percent of the planet, they're estimated to deliver 23 percent of the total value offered by the globe's ecosystems.
For instance, wetlands are the best regulators of water resources out there—they're even sometimes intentionally developed near sewage plants to help filter out pollutants. They also provide habitats for keystone species, can help to produce certain crops (e.g., rice or cranberries), and are extremely resilient to rising sea levels.
Although they tend to release some methane, the amount of CO2 they suck up is well worth it. Regrettably, however, half of the globe's wetlands have been lost, making their restoration a top priority. In addition to being a cheap venture, the researchers also identified virtually no downsides to restoring wetlands.
3. Soil carbon sequestration
Like wetland restoration, soil carbon sequestration — storing carbon in the soil over the long term — presents few downsides. This can take place through a variety of mechanisms, the biggest one being the photosynthesis of plants. But smart crop management, like rotating crops, planting perennial crops (those that don't need to be replanted every year), and so on, can increase how much carbon is stored in the soil. So too can optimizing fertilizer usage, tilling less intensely, improving water management, and many other techniques. Implementing these techniques could result in a reduction of between 2 and 5 gigatons of CO2.
By farming with the conscious goal of sequestering more carbon in the soil, we also gain the benefit of having more useful soil for use in building materials, pharmaceuticals, electronics, and other industrial applications. Plus, it helps to prevent erosion, preserves the landscape, and increases crop yields.
Flickr user Oregon Department of Forestry
Biochar is the result of biomass pyrolysis; simply put, it's charcoal. When biomass is burned in a low- or no-oxygen environment, it becomes carbonized, locking that carbon into the material and preventing its transference to the atmosphere. Biochar stores carbon in a long-term, durable fashion. Typically, biochar is distributed in soil, where it can help improve food production and balance the pH of acidic soil. Microorganisms in soils also emit nitrous oxide, another greenhouse gas, but adding small amounts of biochar significantly reduces these emissions, along with other greenhouse gases other than CO2. Plus, producing biochar can also generate electricity.
However, biochar production has to be done carefully. If produced without following clean guidelines, biochar can actually release more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. But if done correctly, producing biochar could reduce greenhouse gases by up to 2 gigatons of CO2 a year.
5. Terrestrial enhanced weathering
A considerable amount of chemistry is slowly but consistently being conducted beneath our feet. In particular, weathering plays an important role in soil chemistry. As the soil's minerals break down over time, they release nutrients and form secondary minerals, like clay. We can improve this process and encourage desirable soil chemistry by adding crushed silicate rocks rich in calcium and magnesium and low in metal ions like nickel or chromium. Basalt, for instance, would be a good candidate.
Doing so could reduce soil acidity and encourage the transformation of CO2 into bicarbonate ions, or HCO3-. As an added benefit, run-off HCO3- could increase ocean alkalinity, making the ocean more resistant to pH changes. Although it would have some positive effect, the researchers noted that field-scale assessments of this technique's interactions with other approaches — like reforestation — would be necessary to determine exactly how much terrestrial enhanced weathering could contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
6. Bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS)
An engineer walks through the Bailey Bioenergy Facility in Washington, D.C.
Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images
The use of BECCS is something of a one-two punch; it provides energy, avoiding the need to use fossil fuels, and as feedstocks grow for later use as fuel, they suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. Plants like switchgrass or giant reedgrass make for excellent BECCS feedstocks.
Generally, regular bioenergy is a carbon-zero product, since the fuel sequesters CO2 as it grows and releases CO2 as it's burned for energy. But incorporating carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology in this process results in negative emissions. This beats adding CCS technology to fossil fuel processes, since burning fossil fuels starts off by adding emissions to the atmosphere — existing CCS tech can therefore only reduce fossil fuel emissions, rather than turning them negative as is the case with bioenergy.
If BECCS were implemented at a large scale by the year 2100, it could remove 15 gigatons of CO2 per year. However, doing so would be expensive, and the land taken up to grow bioenergy feedstocks could be used instead to grow food. It would also require a greater use of fertilizers and would require a good amount of water to grow.
With the exception of wetland restoration and soil carbon sequestration, all of these approaches for greenhouse gas removal present some kind of downside that we would need to mitigate. The most challenging approaches would be afforestation/reforestation, BECCS, and biochar production, primarily due to their use of land that could otherwise grow food and their water requirements.
However, the researchers found that all of these methods for greenhouse gas removal would not only reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but, on balance, they would also make our lives better, either by creating jobs, reducing pollution, contributing food, promoting ecological diversity, or other ancillary benefits. Combating climate change is often presented as a costly venture, but in reality, it's more of an investment. By assessing the costs and benefits of approaches such as these six, we can get a better picture of what our return will be.
Satellite movie shows clouds of carbon monoxide drifting over South America.
- The Amazon fires were captured by the AIRS camera on the Aqua satellite.
- A movie clip released by NASA shows a huge cloud of CO drifting across the continent.
- Fortunately, carbon monoxide at this altitude has little effect on air quality.
You don't need eyes to see the massive fires raging in the Amazon. An infrared camera fitted on a satellite will do.
This movie, based on data collected from 8th to 22nd of August by the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) on NASA's Aqua satellite, shows carbon monoxide (CO) levels at 18,000 feet (5.5 km) above South America.
The colours denote the density of carbon monoxide, from green (approximately 100 parts per billion by volume) over yellow (app. 120 ppbv) to dark red (app. 160 ppbv). Local values can be much higher. Each separate shot is the average of three days' worth of measurements, a technique used to eliminate data gaps.
As the clip shows, the CO plume rises in the northwest part of the Amazon, a massive region covering Brazil's western half. First it drifts further northwest, towards the Pacific Ocean; then, in a more concentrated plume, towards Brazil's southeast.
CO (1) can persist up to a month in the atmosphere and can travel large distances. At the altitude shown in this clip, it has little effect on the air we breathe. However, strong winds can carry it down to inhabited parts, where it can impact air quality.
Deforestation in the Amazon forest, just east of Porto Velho, following the typical 'fishbone' pattern.
Image: Planet Labs, Inc. / CC BY-SA 4.0
The rainforests of the Amazon are often called the 'lungs of the planet', because they absorb large amounts of CO2 and produce roughly one-fifth of the planet's oxygen. In other words: one in every five of the breaths you take you owe to the Amazon.
But the Amazon's respiratory function is impaired by deforestation, a process which continues on a massive scale, both in Brazil and worldwide. In 2018, the planet lost 30 million acres of tree cover (roughly the size of Pennsylvania). This included almost 9 million acres of rain forest (slightly more than the size of Maryland).
Thanks to efforts by Brazil's previous administration, deforestation in the Amazon had slowed down to its slowest paces since records began; but a recession in 2014 again placed economic needs above ecological concerns. The pace of deforestation increased again and it has only accelerated since the election last year of Brazil's new president, Jair Bolsonaro.
850,000 acres lost
Amazon forest fires raging in Brazil's Maranhão state.
Image: Ibama / CC BY 2.0
Mr Bolsonaro's campaign pledge to open larger swathes of the Amazon for exploitation has emboldened local ranchers and farmers. From January to August this year, Brazil's National Institute of Space Research identified more than 40,000 separate forest fires in the country – 35% more than the average for the first eight months of each year since 2010.
Few of these fires occur naturally: most are set in order to increase the land available for crops and pasture. As a result, the Amazon lost more than 850,000 acres of forest cover in the first half of this year alone. That's 39% more than in the same period last year and represents an area the size of Rhode Island.
Strange Maps #986
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
(1) Carbon monoxide (CO) is often confused with carbon dioxide (CO2). Both are gases without colour, smell or taste, both are formed by the combination of carbon and oxygen, both are released during combustion or fire, both can be lethal in high concentrations and both play a role in air pollution and climate change.
CO2 is a very common gas.
- The current average CO2 level in Earth is 400 ppm. It is a natural by-product of respiration, fermentation and combustion, and is required for plant life.
- Although this is the gas that gives divers 'the bends', CO2 poisoning in general is rare.
- CO2 is life-threatening only from 80,000 ppm (8%).
CO, on closer inspection, is quite different.
- It is a by-product of oxygen-starved combustion of fuel. In nature, it occurs only in trace amounts – main sources include volcanic eruptions and forest fires, as currently in the Amazon.
- So, CO is relatively rare component of the Earth's atmosphere. The current average is 0.1 ppm.
- Concentrations of less than 100 ppm can induce headaches and dizziness. By 700 ppm, CO can be deadly.
- Dangerous levels of CO are produced by improperly ventilated ovens, heaters, furnaces and other fuel-burning appliances, as well as car engines without catalytic converters. CO poisoning is the most common type of poisoning in the world.
Controversial map names CEOs of 100 companies producing 71 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions.
- Just 100 companies produce 71% of the world's greenhouse gases.
- This map lists their names and locations, and their CEOs.
- The climate crisis may be too complex for these 100 people to solve, but naming and shaming them is a good start.
Editorial note: Big Think has issued a retraction regarding this article. This map was originally based on a July 2017 report entitled The Carbon Majors Database by CDP and all of the names shown may no longer be up to date.
Houston, we have a problem...
Do you carry your shopping home in a reusable bag? Close the tap while you brush your teeth? Well done! But saving the planet will require a more systemic approach.
A new UN-sponsored report (1,500 pages in full — consider the environment before printing!) details how the accelerating decline of biodiversity is threatening humanity's very survival.
It's not the first report of its kind, and despite their increasingly alarmist tones, unlikely to be the last.
What to do?
Between the relative futility of individual do-goodery and the seemingly unstoppable forces degrading earth's ecosystems lies a whole world of despair, paralysis, and tuned-out apathy.
But if those forces seem unstoppable, it's perhaps because they appear to be nameless and faceless. As this map points out, they aren't. The harm that's being done to the planet can be pinpointed, to a very specific list of companies. And those companies have CEOs that can be named and shamed.
The west vs. the rest
The map shows the 100 companies responsible for the biggest share of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, and their CEOs. Countries are inflated to represent their share of CO2 emissions since the beginning of industrialisation.
If we want to make a serious dent in the amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gases we're emitting, this map suggests, it's these companies — and more specifically, these CEOs — we need to hold to account. Naming and shaming them is a first step.
The basis for this map is the Carbon Majors report from 2017 by CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project), listing the top 100 fossil fuel producers in the world, responsible for 71 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.
In fact, more than 50 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions since 1988 can be traced to just the top 25 entities on that list.
Those are, in descending order: China (state coal production), Aramco, Gazprom, National Iranian Oil, ExxonMobil, Coal India, Pemex, Russia (state coal production), Shell, China National Petroleum, BP, Chevron, PDVSA, Abu Dhabi National Oil, Poland Coal, Peabody Energy, Sonatrach, Kuwait Petroleum, Total, BHP Billiton, ConocoPhilips, Petrobras, Lukoil, RioTinto, Nigerian National Petroleum.
The rogue's gallery of Europe
Even oil companies are now turning to invest in sustainable energy — but is it just window dressing?
Image source: Jordan Engel, reused via Decolonial Media License 0.1
If fossil-fuel extraction over the next quarter century continues at the same rate as the previous 25 years, the Carbon Majors report claims we're on course for a 4°C rise in average temperatures by the end of this century — accelerating the loss of biodiversity and the rise of food insecurity, to name but two consequences.
Granted, even oil companies are aware that the wind is blowing from a different direction now and have initiated programmes to produce energy in a more sustainable way. But in many cases, the discrepancy between the size of those programmes and the attention they are given in corporate PR makes them little more than window dressing.
Jakarta beats Beijing as emissions capital
Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, is the wider region's capital of greenhouse gas-emitting companies.
Image source: Jordan Engel, reused via Decolonial Media License 0.1
This overview refocuses the attention on the main issue — the emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. And by naming each company's CEO, the issue is personalized.
That personalization should come with a few caveats.
First, these corporations thrive only because consumers buy their product — although it must be said that demand for energy is fairly inelastic: most people can't do without fuel to get from A to B, or to heat their homes.
Second, in all fairness: the true captains of industry are not the CEOs, but the majority shareholders. It's those shareholders' priorities — profit only or planet also — that drive corporate decision-making.
Those shareholders include large institutional investors, but also national governments. Up to 20 percent of investment in hydrocarbon extraction is done by public funding — i.e. us.
Clean Africa, dirty Middle East
Africa counts relatively little CO2 culprits, while the tally is much higher in the Middle East (as could have been expected).
Image source: Jordan Engel, reused via Decolonial Media License 0.1
On the other hand, we're running into the same problem mentioned above again. Big institutions, even if they include you and me, are nameless/faceless. These CEOs are picked to run and represent their companies. Perhaps they should get used to a new job: being the lightning rod for our growing concern about global warming.
The Decolonial Atlas, which published this map, quotes U.S. folk artist and labor organizer Utah Phillips: "The earth is not dying, it is being killed, and those who are killing it have names and addresses."
On that list is your name and address, and mine; because we could all do a lot more. But not nearly as much as these 100 people. Let this map be an invitation to acquaint ourselves with their intentions, good or otherwise.