It isn’t all doom and gloom

Depressed by climate change and feeling like things are hopeless? PAT PILCHER looks at some positive news in science and for the environment.

Sometimes picking up the newspaper can be harrowing. Confronted with headlines screaming that the earth could soon reach a climate change tipping point where floods, famine and drought could become irreversible is just depressing.

I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of the doom and gloom pushed at us to generate click-through revenues by the media. It peddles helplessness and ignores the fact that some really clever stuff is happening that’ll lessen our impact on the earth.

 

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Fed up with the shitty state of our media, I decided to write something positive. I compiled this quick round-up of cool climate change breakthroughs you’ve probably never heard about.

Before we climb into the cool stuff, what exactly is this climate change thingamajig? According to scientists, it is driven by human activity such as fossil fuel emissions from coal power, cars, boats and planes, plus other human-related activities. These emissions are called greenhouse gases because they trap heat in the atmosphere, causing global temperatures to rise.

While a warmer winter may sound attractive, the devil’s in the detail. The earth’s environment is unbelievably complex, consisting of trillions of moving parts. Change one piece, and you inevitably create a domino effect that results in unforeseen (and sometimes catastrophic) changes elsewhere. These include wildfires and drought, which climatologists see as canaries in the climate change coal mine (bad metaphor, I know).

While the Paris agreement (which aims to limit greenhouse gas emissions) was signed by most nations in 2015, no governments have (yet) achieved its agreed limits. Energy and economic demands see many still heavily reliant on coal and gas power generation.

So, will a post-2030 world look like something apocalyptic out of Mad Max or Planet Of The Apes movies? Talking apes aside, the media makes the future sound unbelievably bleak as greed and money trump long-term common sense, but it isn’t all bad. There’s some clever stuff happening that could help humanity see off global warming.

An example of this is in China. The Chinese have long been actively looking to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and move to cleaner, non-greenhouse gas-emitting energy generation. A big part of this involves a greater reliance on atomic energy. China is currently the biggest consumer of fossil fuels globally, with their CO2 and other fossil fuel-related emissions accounting for a whopping 27% of total global emissions.

With zero greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear fission can play a huge role in fixing this. As of 2021, China has 53 nuclear power plants, generating 55 gigawatts. Plans are afoot to expand Chinese atomic energy generation to 70 gigawatts by 2025. Longer-term, it is expected to reach 150 gigawatts, outpacing nuclear energy generation in the US and EU.

While going down the atomic energy route will result in a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, there are still major problems to be dealt with. Nuclear waste is highly radioactive and deadly. It stays radioactive (and fatal) for up to 16 million years. Given the mind-blowing time frames and dangers of nuclear waste, storing it so that it doesn’t harm future generations over such a vast timescale is a colossal headache. Current estimates say over 22,000 cubic metres of nuclear waste is sitting around. That’s right, humanity has generated a 22km-sized cube of atomic waste) that will be deadly for 16 million years before it is safe to be around.

Putting the sheer scale of the nuclear waste problem into context requires looking at the evolution of written human communications. According to the British Library written communications were “invented at least four times in human history: first in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) where cuneiform was used between 3400 and 3300 BC, and shortly afterwards in Egypt at around 3200 BC. By 1300 BC we have evidence of a fully operational writing system in late Shang-dynasty China. Sometime between 900 and 600 BC writing also appears in the cultures of Mesoamerica”. In a nutshell, written communication was invented 5,221 years ago – a fraction of the timeframe in which atomic waste remains radioactive.

Here’s the kicker.

Outside of a few academics, these early written languages are now unintelligible to most of humanity. With nuclear waste being radioactive over vast periods, who is to say that the now widely understood nuclear symbol will have any meaning to future humans? Add to this seismic issues, flooding and other unforeseen events, and the potential for long-term nuclear catastrophe looms large in earth’s future.

At least that was until China’s Institute of Modern Physics announced a potential game-changer that could help significantly reduce the atomic waste issue.

Their solution uses a proton accelerator to fire protons at a heavy element (indications are that this is likely to be bismuth) encased in atomic waste and thorium and/or uranium. When the protons hit the heavy element target, neutrons are released and absorbed by the nuclear waste. This transforms much of it back into fresh atomic fuel that can be used to create more energy. The resulting waste can then be transmuted back to fuel for use again. Rinse, wash and repeat. Cool eh?

The Chinese proton accelerator system could lower the risks posed by atomic waste, and accelerators may also make thorium reactors viable. Thorium-232 is seen by many as a strong candidate for nuclear fuel as it is far more abundant on earth than uranium. The problem with thorium is that it needs plutonium or uranium for a sustained nuclear reaction to happen.

Researchers are proposing a reactor in which thorium is placed close to the bottom of a large tank filled with 8,000 tonnes of molten lead or lead-bismuth (which incredibly is the coolant!) A particle accelerator fires a beam of high-energy protons onto a separate target whose neutrons transmute the thorium into protactinium, which then decays into uranium 233, creating a nuclear reaction to generate energy.

The holy grail of nuclear energy, however, is fusion. Unlike fission which splits atoms to create energy, fusion fuses atoms, which releases more power and generates little long-term waste apart from a small amount of ash (which is radioactive for just a few hours). Crucially, the bulk of the fuel needed for fusion can be extracted from seawater.

So, does fusion work? Hell yes. If you need proof, look skyward on a sunny day. The sun’s heat and light result from fusion reactions at the sun’s centre, where hydrogen atoms under intense pressure and heat fuse to form helium. Creating the same extreme pressures isn’t possible on earth, so scientists instead look at significantly more heat to create fusion reactions.

While we’ve long been able to fuse atoms in an uncontrolled process with hydrogen nuclear bombs, safely creating a miniature star on earth whose temperature is measured in the millions of degrees needs huge amounts of energy to start the reaction and contain the incredibly hot plasma. The biggest challenge with atomic fusion has been getting the fusion reaction to generate more power than what was used to start and confine the fusion reaction.

This has proven to be a tough nut to crack, but UK-based First Light Fusion may have an answer. Their solution uses a giant gun to fire a fusion fuel projectile at a target where its ultra-high-speed collision releases fusion energy.

The projectile’s impact creates a pulse of fusion energy absorbed by lithium. So far, early prototypes have produced a small amount of energy. First light says that the simplicity and sheer affordability of the project compared to other fusion attempts make their option an attractive one to scale up. They plan to build a pilot fusion power plant capable of generating 150 megawatts of energy. As the plant would be built using no new materials, or unproven technologies, they say it’d be cheaper to make than other experimental fusion reactors.

The potential for cleaner energy generation is huge, but transport still generates huge amounts of greenhouse gases. Internal combustion cars are starting to be seriously challenged by electric vehicles. Ironically, Tesla might seem ultramodern, but the truth is that electric cars are nothing new. Hybrid petrol-electric cars like the Owen Magnetic were around a whopping 80 years before the Toyota Prius even considered becoming a household name.

We’ve looked at EVs in the past. While they’re an especially compelling option given the skyrocketing cost of petrol, their drawbacks could soon be a thing of the past. One of the biggest problems with EVs is the time it takes to fully charge them. Home charging can take an entire night, while fast charging takes an hour or longer. Charging also causes cumulative wear on batteries, gradually decreasing the EV’s range.

Government incentives and increasing economies of scale have seen the cost of an EV fall dramatically. Battery issues could soon be a thing of the past. Enovix, a Californian battery manufacturer, announced EV batteries that can go from zero to 80% charged in just 5 minutes. They can be fully charged in just 10 minutes (which isn’t much longer than it takes to fill a conventional car with petrol). The batteries also appear to be significantly more durable than the lithium-ion cells currently used in EVs. Even After 1,000 charge/discharge cycles, the batteries had 93% of their original capacity. The upshot of this development is that EVs could become as convenient (and cheaper) than their petrol/diesel counterparts.

So, my parting thoughts are this. Even though the media takes a perverse delight in headlines that scream doom, gloom and Armageddon, this isn’t the first climate crisis humanity has confronted. Remember the ozone hole back in the ’80s? Humanity came together and agreed to fix things. Forty years later, the ozone hole has massively shrunk and is predicted to fully heal in the near future. Human ingenuity knows no bounds. With enough willpower, almost any seemingly insurmountable problems can be overcome, as demonstrated by these cool breakthroughs.

 

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