Sustainability News 15 Jan 2021

It's Crazy, but It Just Might Work: 5 Unusual Climate Change Solutions

Crushed rock, odd-looking sails, red bricks, cattle feed, and powdered iron might not come to mind when you think of tools for fighting climate change. Maybe they should.

Artist's rendering of Oceanbird, a sail-powered oceangoing cargo ship design, to illustrate blog post about unusual climate change solutions
Oceanbird, a Swedish consortium, has designed a sail-powered oceangoing automobile carrier (with an auxiliary engine). The wing-shaped, retractable sails would rise 80 meters (262 feet) above the water. Artist’s rendering by Wallenius Marine

At Cloverly, we spend a lot of time rummaging around in technical reports and news releases, keeping up with the latest developments in earth science and technology. It’s our job, and also our passion. Scientists, engineers, and other serious people are testing a lot of strange-sounding ideas—with, so far, quite promising results. Let’s take a closer look.

Enhanced Weathering: Rocking the Farm

In the long run—the very long run—it’s not trees or algae or any other kinds of plants that pull the most carbon out of the air. It’s rocks. Specifically, silicate minerals, which are compounds of silicon and oxygen found in volcanic rocks.

Silicates make up about 15% of Earth’s land surface. When rain splashes on them, the drops carry dissolved carbon dioxide absorbed from the atmosphere. The CO2 reacts with the minerals to form carbon compounds that stay in the ground or get washed into rivers. Rain also washes calcium and magnesium ions from the rocks. Those ions react with dissolved carbon in seawater to form carbonate compounds that sink to the ocean floor.

Photo of lava on the Big Island of Hawaii cooling to form basalt, illustrating a blog post describing the use of crushed basalt on farm fields to sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide
Basalt forms from lava. It can be crushed and spread on farm fields as a fertilizer that sequesters carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Public domain photo of lava from Kīlauea volcano in Hawaii by US Geological Survey

Climate scientists suggest speeding up that natural process through “enhanced weathering.” That simply means exposing more rock surface to the elements. How? By grinding up volcanic rock and spreading it on farm fields.

1 recent study by British and American scientists suggests that adding finely crushed silicate rock, such as basalt, to all cropland soil in China, India, the US, and Brazil could trigger weathering that would remove more than 2 billion tonnes [2.2 US tons] of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year,” said Benjamin Z. Houlton, a professor of global environmental studies. “For comparison, the US emitted about 5.3 billion tonnes [5.8 US tons] of carbon dioxide in 2018.”

Houlton, who was writing for the academic news site The Conversation, directs the John Muir Institute of the Environment at the University of California, Davis. UC Davis is a partner in a consortium called the Working Lands Innovation Center, which is testing the effects of adding rock dust and compost to about 100 acres of cropland in California.

As a bonus, the minerals fertilize the crops. “Our initial results suggest that adding basalt and wollastonite, a calcium silicate material, increased corn yields by 12% in the first year,” Houlton said.

Wind Power: Sailing Back to the Future

Have you heard about the new zero-emission propulsion technology for oceangoing cargo ships? It’s called a sail.

Not the billowy canvas kind. These are high-tech automated devices that you might not recognize as a sail at all. For example, a Finnish company called Norsepower has installed its Rotor Sail on 2 cargo ships and and 2 ferries.

Photo of Maersk Pelican cargo ship with Rotor Sails, illustrating a blog post mentioning that new types of sails are being used to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by cargo ships
Those white columns on the Maersk Pelican are Rotor Sails, made of lightweight composite materials. You can see video of the ship underway here. Photo by Wilsca via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

Rotor Sails are electric-powered rotating columns that propel a ship using the Magnus effect—the same force that makes a spinning baseball curve or a golf ball slice as it moves through the air. They augment a ship’s conventional fossil fuel propulsion systems.

Norsepower installed a pair of 30-meter-tall Rotor Sails on the oil tanker Maersk Pelican in 2018. During the first year of the pilot project, the sails reduced fuel consumption by 8.2% and cut carbon dioxide emissions by about 1,400 metric tons (1,543 US tons). The ship, which traveled everywhere from the tropics to the Arctic, used the rotors about half the time, when winds were favorable.

Other new sail designs resemble telescoping airplane wings that rise from the deck when needed and retract below decks when not. Unlike the Maersk Pelican, some proposed vessels would use sails for primary propulsion, supplemented by an engine.

CowCredit: Reducing Cattle Emissions

Cattle release a significant amount of the potent greenhouse gas methane—mostly through burping (not, as has been reported to the accompaniment of much snickering, flatulence). The average cow belches 220 pounds of methane a year, equivalent to half the greenhouse gas emissions of a passenger car. A couple of new feed additives show promise for reducing that output.

Photo of a cow illustrating blog post about reducing methane emissions from cattle burps through feed supplements
Ruminants (including cattle, sheep, and goats) produce methane as part of their digestive process. Photo by Jimmy Chan on Pexels

A Swiss company called Mootral is selling a supplement based on garlic and citrus extracts. A 2019 study of dairy cows found an average 30% reduction in methane emissions, with a 3-5% increase in milk yield and no decrease in milk quality. The Verra carbon registry was impressed enough to draw up a Verified Carbon Standard methodology to set up rules for carbon offset projects using the Mootral supplement. Farmers can pay for the supplement with the extra income from the carbon credits.

So far, 1 project has been verified and listed in the Verra registry: the UK CowCredit Project. It has enrolled 1 UK dairy farm with 400 cows and hopes to add more.

In the United States, Penn State University researchers have found that another feed additive, based on an organic compound called 3-Nitrooxypropanol (3-NOP), decreased methane emissions by 16-36%. Again, milk yield increased and quality remained unaffected. Royal DSM, a Dutch company that holds a patent on the 3-NOP supplement, has asked regulatory bodies in Europe and the US to approve it.

Bricked: Storing Energy in Your Walls

A storm knocks out power to your brick house. No worries. You just tap your emergency electricity storage system: the bricks themselves.

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis bought ordinary red bricks at the local Home Depot and infused them with a couple of gases. The resulting chemical reactions left the bricks coated with an electricity-conducting polymer called PEDOT. Essential to the chemical processes is the bricks’ red pigment. It’s iron oxide, more commonly known as rust.

The chemical treatment turns a wall of bricks into a supercapacitor. That’s a device that stores electricity—like a battery, except that a battery stores chemical energy that it converts to electricity whereas a capacitor stores an actual electrical charge.

Photo of a light being powered by electrical energy stored in bricks to illustrate a blog post about unusual ways of fighting climate change
A small block of bricks powers an LED light. Photo from D’Arcy Research Lab

“PEDOT-coated bricks are ideal building blocks that can provide power to emergency lighting,” said Julio D’Arcy, an assistant professor of chemistry and a staff member at the university’s Institute of Materials Science & Engineering. At this point, he said, you’d need about 50 bricks. “These 50 bricks would enable powering emergency lighting for 5 hours.”

D’Arcy was quoted in a university news release. He and 6 university colleagues published the results of their experiments in the open-access journal Nature Communications.

The researchers are working to increase the storage capacity and ease of use. “Our goal is to develop bricks that are patterned and ready to be stacked without the need for wires,” he wrote for The Conversation. “We intend to produce devices that can be assembled like Lego blocks.”

Heavy Metal: Burning Iron Powder for Fuel

What if we had a cheap, abundant fuel that could be easily and safely transported and stored, would produce no harmful emissions when burned, and could then be cleanly regenerated back into fuel?

Photo of iron powder, other metal powders, and methane burning, to illustrate a blog post about using iron powder as a clean, renewable fuel source to fight climate change
When powdered, most metals burn readily. Photo by Alternative Fuels Laboratory/McGill University

We do. It’s iron, the 4th most abundant element in Earth’s crust. To turn it into fuel, just grind it into powder. In October, Royal Swinkels Family Brewers became the first industrial user of iron fuel. It installed a demonstration project to provide heat for beer production at its facility in Lieshout, Netherlands.

Swinkels is the second-largest brewing company in the Netherlands, after Heineken. “We are enormously proud to be the first company to test this new fuel on an industrial scale in order to help accelerate the energy transition,” said Peer Swinkels, CEO of the family-owned business, in a company news release. “As a family business, we invest in a sustainable and circular economy because we think in terms of generations, not years.”

You probably have questions. Here are some answers:

  • Yes, iron burns. Burning is oxidation—the process of combining chemically with oxygen. We see slow-motion iron oxidation all the time. We call it rusting.
  • Grinding iron into powder exposes much more surface area to oxygen, making the iron burn much more readily.
  • When iron burns, it produces only heat and iron oxide (again, rust)—no other emissions.
  • Iron oxide can be converted back into iron through a process called reduction. That usually involves a blast furnace and produces carbon dioxide, but there are clean technologies.
  • If those clean technologies can be developed commercially, and if electricity from clean, renewable sources powers the reduction, then the entire burning-reduction-burning cycle produces no harmful emissions.

Iron could substitute for fossil fuels in many industrial applications, including power generation. Wind turbines and solar panels sometimes produce more power than the electrical grid can handle on sunny or windy days, but little or no electricity at night or during calm days. Iron could fill in the gaps. And that excess solar and wind energy generated during favorable conditions could cleanly convert the burned iron oxide back to iron.

“If you would want to back up power for solar and wind energy,” said Jeffrey Bergthorson, an aeronautics engineer at McGill University in Montreal, “you could stockpile metal fuels and burn them in a retrofitted coal-fired power plant.” He was quoted in IEEE Spectrum, the magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Bergthorson and other researchers think of iron powder as an energy storage medium—a substitute for batteries. The lithium-ion batteries currently used for electronic devices and electric vehicles require such scarce materials as cobalt, which is energy-intensive to mine and refine. Iron has almost 20 times the energy density of the most common type of lithium-ion battery, retains its energy during storage, and can be endlessly “recharged.”

Photo of a worker at a Dutch brewery loading powdered iron fuel for blog post about burning iron to fight climate change
A worker at the Royal Swinkels Family Brewers facility in Lieshout, Netherlands, loads a hopper with powdered iron fuel. Photo from Royal Swinkels Family Brewers

Researchers and students at Eindhoven University of Technology in Eindhoven, Netherlands, helped develop the technology that the Swinkels brewery is using. Philip de Goey, a professor of combustion technology, said iron powder could play a major role in achieving a zero-carbon energy mix, alongside such other clean fuels as hydrogen.

“There is no winner or loser,” he told IEEE Spectrum. “We need them all.”

Chan Botter led the Eindhoven student team that worked on the brewery project. “It’s great to see that Swinkels Family Brewers and all of the other affiliated partners believe in this application,” she said. “With everyone we speak to, we notice that we’re beginning to gain more and more traction. That’s exactly what we need! So now we toast with a beer produced by iron fuel.”

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