The clock is ticking on how fast we can tackle climate change. The issue has become a stark reality. In a year overshadowed by politics, climate change is something that can simply no longer be ignored. As Mary Robinson, UN Special Envoy for Climate Change, said: “Climate change is a fundamental problem that we must solve and not merely pass on to the generations to come … We can’t let our children and grandchildren look back on this critical period in time and say that we failed them.”The Paris Climate Change Agreement marked a significant moment in our history where more than 150 global leaders agreed to cut their countries carbon emissions.
Scientists are continuously working on methods to tackle climate change. Some lesser known approaches seem rather unorthodox and intriguing: fossilized urine of a hyrax (known for urinating in the exact same spot for generations) and Narwhal-mounted sensors to track Arctic water temperatures to name but a few approaches.
“The orbiting solar panels seem to be within technology’s grasp, which could represent a dramatic change in the future of renewable energy”
John C. Mankins is an innovative and successful scientist who spent 25 years working for NASA and CalTech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The physicist is a leader of space technology, who managed the ‘Advanced Concepts Studies’ at NASA for 10 years. There, he was creator and co-creator of many abstract innovations, one of which was the ‘SunTower’, a space solar power system.
The aim of the project was to create solar panels in space that orbit the planet in low to middle latitudes, giving Earth limitless energy provided by the sun. This method of creating terrestrial power was introduced in 1968 by Dr Peter Glaser. The U.S government subsequently began its studies into alternative energies in the 1970s during the energy crisis. Today, with the improvement of modern technology and advancements in science, this concept may be swiftly turned into a reality.
Mankins has since expanded upon this idea, publishing ‘The Case for Solar Power’ in 2014, a summary of the history of the concept and also providing an outline of its future potential. Mankins details how launching a solar panel plant in space can be both cost-effective and doable – the initial start-up costs of the project could be as little as $10 million over the first two years, and costing a further $100 million over the next six years.
He believes that the “first multi-megawatt pilot plant” will be in operation in the next 12 years, and that a pilot plant as large as the International Space Station (ISS) could be launched using current model launch technologies. However, the launch pads used would need to be more environmentally friendly than their current counterparts.
The plant that Mankins has in mind would be far larger than any infrastructure orbiting Earth, including the ISS. The solar panel plant would consist of similar parts and would be far less complex to create than the 400 tonne International Space Station, the largest structure orbiting earth to date.
However, one question must be asked: why has it taken so long to install orbiting solar panels? The answer primarily lies in the costs of the project. According to ‘Discover’ magazine, owing to the fact that the rockets are not reusable, it currently costs “around $4,600 for each kilogram of payload lofted into low orbits”. For the orbiting space solar panels to be economically viable, the cost would have to decrease to $400 per kilogram. Elon Musk, Canadian-American billionaire and inventor, created the company SpaceX with the goal of creating the technologies to reduce space transportation costs and enable the colonization of Mars.
The company’s ‘reusable rocket’ – Falcon 9 – made headlines for all the wrong reasons when it exploded in Cape Canaveral on September 1st 2016. However, on 17 January 2017, the rocket put 10 satellites into orbit around the Earth and landed successfully on a drone ship in the Pacific Ocean off the Californian Coast. This represented a huge breakthrough for science, and reusable rockets should see a drop in cost with the advancement of such space technologies. Falcon 9 already has 4 return journeys booked for February this year.
An assessment needs to be made as to how best to transmit energy using wireless power from Space to Earth in the most cost-effective and eco-friendly way possible. Wireless Transmitting Power was first conceived by Nicolas Tesla over 100 years ago. Serious advancements in this field have been made in the last 10 years. The first completely wireless LCD television was launched at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2010. Nowadays, you can buy wireless chargers in IKEA and can even charge your phone on a table in Starbucks.
With such improvements in wireless technology, Dr Peter Glaser’s concept, birthed in 1968, seems less like science fiction. However, wireless charging only works for very small ranges at the moment. Wireless transmission technology will need to be improved for energy to be transmitted from space.
The orbiting solar panels seem to be within technology’s grasp, which could represent a dramatic change in the future of renewable energy.
CO2 Capture and Sequestration
“The companies drill about 800m into rocks with high porosity such as a sandstone, the CO2 is injected and absorbed into the pores of the rock which will then trap the gas for millions of years”
The idea of Carbon Capture stretches back to 1975 when researchers thought of a possible solution to our reliance on fossil fuels. They posed a question: What if we could capture CO2 emissions and bury them in the ground before they reached the atmosphere? Carbon Capture in power plants today occurs during three stages of production: before, during and after the burning of fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide is first separated from the other emitted gases and then absorbed into a solvent in order to capture it.
The gas is then compressed to about 1500ppm in fluid form and transferred by pipelines or by ship to the site of sequestration, where it is buried underground. CO2 sequestration has become common practice within the oil industry for decades. In order to protect the local environment, oil and gas companies drill millions of tonnes of waste carbon dioxide into the ground annually. The companies drill about 800m into rocks with high porosity such as a sandstone, the CO2 is injected and absorbed into the pores of the rock which will then trap the gas for millions of years.
In 1989, Carbon Capture and Sequestration Technologies Programme began in Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In 1991, Norway put a tax on carbon emissions. Following this, in 1998, a gas company in Norway began the Sleipner project, the first ever carbon capture and sequestration in commercial use. In 2000, Dakota Gasification Company (DGC), a coal burning plant, began its project to bury 96% of its CO2 waste in Weyburn, an oil field in Canada.
In 2003, U.S President George Bush announced the ‘zero emissions’ project, allocating research money to carbon capture and sequestration. Currently the United States is paving the way for carbon capture and possesses 16 of the total 22 capture plants worldwide. Though the U.K government has pledged £1 billion to the plants, as of yet, none are under construction and this is likely to be reassessed in the wake of Brexit. The companies adopting carbon capture and sequestration range from gas companies to some in the manufacturing industries.
Carbon capture has yet to take off, however, and this is again, largely down to finance. It still remains much easier and cheaper to simply let the gas escape into the atmosphere rather than bury it. Norway, a world leader in green energy, has amassed much of its wealth on gas, and as such has been heavily invested in sequestration for many years. On the other hand, China, as the largest global polluter, is still focused on creating cheap energy. In 2011, a carbon capture and sequestration plant was built in Shanghai. Though this indicates a step in the right direction, in a year marked by whirlwind politics, investments in technologies such as this should not be put on the back burner.
There is no mistaking or denying the severity of climate change due to human impact. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have increased by 40% since the industrial revolution (from 280 to 400 parts per million (ppm)), which will continue to rise with 70 million metric tonnes added to the atmosphere daily. Changes to our Earth are happening as you read this article, from melting ice caps to severe storms and droughts. The footprints we make today will certainly last for generations to come.