New developments for two companies.

We’ve frequently reported on the progress of NZ company Carbonscape (follow the Carbonscape tag) which makes charcoal using a microwave process. They’ve just announced what they describe as a world first in the production of the highly porous charcoal known as Activated Carbon (AC).

“Using its patented continuous-flow microwave technology, Carbonscape™ has produced high-grade and highly-valuable AC in a single processing step using waste pine sawdust.”

What makes it special is the fact that the normal method of production involves many stages of processing and uses relatively exotic materials to open up the tiny pores between carbon atoms. Director and CEO Tim Langley says:

“We have replaced a slow and complex process using exotic materials with a fast, single process using pine sawdust and created a 60% improvement in quality. We have applied for patents. The potential world market for this technology is vast. Each year demand is rising by about 5%. It’s a whole new world.”

Activated Carbon has many uses, but of particular interest in relation to climate change is its potential to massively reduce the emissions from large, single sources of carbon dioxide, such as power stations. AC placed in flue gases can absorb carbon dioxide before it is released into the atmosphere.

Professor Chris Turney is a director of Carbonscape. He says of the announcement:

“This is just the start. We’re now exploring the potential of other waste types for producing Activated Carbon to identify whether they are best for absorbing carbon dioxide or for other applications. It’s an incredibly exciting time.”

Incidentally, Chris Turney, author of Ice, Mud and Blood (reviewed here), and co-author of a recent paper on temperatures and sea level in the last inter-glacial reported here on Hot Topic, is going to be working with fellow scientist Dr Chris Fogwill on the Atlantic-facing part of West Antarctic Ice Sheet during January 2011 investigating how West Antarctica has responded to temperature changes in the recent geological past. He has an interesting account on his blog. We’ll try to keep in touch with any findings.

On the same day as the Carbonscape news another New Zealand company Aquaflow, whose development we have also frequently reported on Hot Topic (follow the Aquaflow tag), made an announcement of a significant advance in their algal technology. They have developed twenty high value chemicals from wild algae. Director Nick Gerritson says the breakthrough shows once again the equivalence of Aquaflow green crude to fossil crude and its diversity of products. He says their technology can now be demonstrated to not only create clean, renewable fuels and to remediate wastewater but also produce high value chemicals.

Both algal and charcoal technologies are the subject of considerable debate and their future is not clear. But it is obviously important that any technologies which could assist the transition away from fossil fuels are thoroughly explored. We may take pleasure in the thought that these two small New Zealand companies are ploughing on with their ventures and wish them well in their respective breakthroughs.

Days of future passed

The idea that a rise in global temperature of no more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels is a safe target for the world to aim for is widely accepted in political forums where the measures needed to stay within that range are considered. Not universally accepted though. The small island states and many others of the least developed countries already impacted by climate change are adamant that 1.5 degrees is the highest rise that should be considered safe.

Indeed one wonders what the reasoning of the more powerful nations has been in settling on the two degree target. When Mark Lynas trawled through predictions in scientific journals for his book Six Degrees (review here) he found plenty to disturb at two degrees, including  possible desertification and abandonment of agriculture over millions of square kilometres in the US, an extremely hot and drought-ridden Mediterranean Europe, an ice-free Arctic ocean with implications difficult to measure, the bleaching and likely death of many coral reefs, major loss of food production in India, serious population displacement in Bangladesh.

Now Chris Turney (pictured) and his University of Exeter colleague Richard Jones have reported their attempt to reconstruct the temperature during the Last Interglacial between 130,000 and 116,000 years ago. Their paper is published in the Journal of Quaternary Science.  Turney explains its significance in his blog, where he writes:

“Temperatures appear to have been more than 5˚C warmer in polar regions while the tropics only warmed marginally; strikingly similar to recent trends. Not only this, but taken together, the world appears to have been some 1.5˚C warmer when compared to the 1961 to 1990 average. If we take into account the rise in temperature that has happened since industrialization, we find the Last Interglacial was around 1.9˚C warmer. Furthermore, this period also shows the warming in the Indian and Southern oceans took place before that of the northern hemisphere, suggesting these regions may cause further global warming beyond that directly forced by increasing greenhouse gas levels.”

It’s important to recognise what impacts that level of temperature rise brought. Turney points out that we know there was a dramatic decrease in polar sea ice coverage while large parts of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets melted. Critically, he says, the warmer temperatures appear to have helped global sea levels become some 6.6 to 9.4 metres higher than today, with a rate of rise of between 60 to 90 millimetres per decade, more than double that recently observed.

Let’s return to today’s “safe target” notion of no more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels.  Here’s one of the key messages from the EU reference document explaining the scientific background for that target:

“Global mean temperature increases of up to 2°C (relative to pre-industrial levels) are likely to allow adaptation to climate change for many human systems at globally acceptable economic, social and environmental costs. However, the ability of many natural ecosystems to adapt to rapid climate change is limited and may be exceeded before a 2°C temperature increase is reached.”

If Turney and Jones’ estimation of the temperature in the Last Interglacial is correct it suggests that  sea levels will rise significantly higher than anticipated. How a sea level rise six to nine metres higher than today could be adapted to “at globally acceptable economic, social and environmental costs” rather beggars the imagination.

So far as Turney is concerned, “The inevitable conclusion is emission targets will have to be lowered further still. Not a popular message.”

It has been apparent for some time that ice sheets are showing signs of less stability than was expected. It is not news that sea level rise this century looks likely to be higher than the IPCC estimates (a possibility recognised in the IPCC report itself). But what Turney and Jones add is evidence that the past may be offering us a specific guide as to what sea level rise we would need to  prepare for if we allowed a two degree temperature rise.

Turney is a geologist whose interest is in researching the past, particularly in relation to climate. His excellent book Ice, Mud and Blood was reviewed on Hot Topic last year. He has continued to figure from time to time on the site because of his connection with the New Zealand firm Carbonscape. We noted his recognition last year by the Sunday Times as one of the modern-day heroes of science and technology.

He finishes his blog with these words:

“Crucially, the scientific and policy implications of the Last Interglacial demonstrate it pays to look back to yesteryear. As the great poet and playwright Thomas Eliot once wrote, ‘Time present and time past, are both perhaps present in time future, and time future contained in time past.’ Fingers crossed these words are heeded.”

Fingers crossed indeed. Against the seemingly unstoppable drive to exploit fossil fuels we need some signs of hope that society’s leaders are going to wake up to the dangers we are heading for. There are glimmers, as I pointed to in my post yesterday, perhaps even gleams if William Hague is representative, but a far wider section of our political and economic leadership needs to become fully acquainted with the lessons from the past.

Gareth adds (because he was going to blog this, but Bryan got his post in first)]: The period that Turney and Jones are considering — the last interglacial (LIG), better known (at least to me, though Turney’s blog provides other names) as the Eemian, is interesting because it provides an example of where we may be heading. During the LIG CO2 peaked at under 300 ppm, and sea levels were 6m to 9m higher than present, with rates of sea level rise of at least 6cm to 9cm per decade. The last time CO2 was at 300 ppm was before Dave Keeling started taking accurate measurements in the late 50s (it was about 312 ppm in 1958, and we’re nudging 390 ppm at present). In other words, the equilibrium response (that is, the long-term — century to millennial scale — response, when the oceans and ice sheets have had a chance to catch up) to the greenhouse gas levels more than 50 years ago is sea level at least 6 metres higher than now — and as Turney and Jones find, a global average temperature 1.9ºC above pre-industrial. The 2ºC “target” being bandied around as “achievable” (50% odds only) at 450 ppm is likely to be a mirage — it might hold true in the short term, but 450 ppm commits us to something well beyond the LIG/Eemian, when, as you will not need reminding, there were crocs and hippos in the Thames. When James Hansen was looking at long term targets, he selected 350 ppm as compatible with a planet with ice sheets at both poles. Turney and Jones synthesis of data on the Eemian suggests that if that’s our goal we need to be looking at 300 ppm — and a much bigger task. Over to Bill

Turney, C. S. and Jones, R. T. (2010), Does the Agulhas Current amplify global temperatures during super-interglacials?. Journal of Quaternary Science, 25: 839–843. doi: 10.1002/jqs.1423

[Moody Blues]

Carbonscape and the new Victorians

Buried among the emails which accumulated while I was in hospital was one from Carbonscape, the NZ company working on biochar, drawing my attention to an article in the UK Sunday Times. It missed proper attention until I tidied up my inbox yesterday, but even a few weeks late I think it’s worth reporting, especially as Hot Topic has posted on Carbonscape previously (here, here and here).

The Sunday Times article contained interviews with a number of people it described as the new Victorians, meaning modern-day heroes of science and technology. Among them, as the new David Livingstone, was Carbonscape director Chris Turney, paleoclimatologist and author of Ice, Mud and Blood (reviewed here). In the interview he speaks of how 125,000 years ago the temperature was 1.7 degrees warmer than before industrialisation got going and the sea levels were 4-6 metres higher than today, suggesting a large number of the ice sheets had melted. Now our stated goal is to keep temperatures less than 2 degrees higher than at the start of industrialisation. The possible implications for ice sheets and sea levels are obvious.

We talk about reducing emissions in the future, but we’ve already got 200 billion tons of carbon in the atmosphere that shouldn’t be there, and that’s what’s driving the changes we see today. We need to get this carbon out of the atmosphere, and fast. This is where Carbonscape’s technology has a part to play. Turney describes it as effectively an enormous microwave with a few tweaks. It turns plants, including waste, into charcoal, which is stable and locks the carbon away permanently. The charcoal can be put in the soil or – and this was a new thought for me – go back down and refill coal mines.

Opinions vary, sometimes fiercely, on the feasibility of charcoal as a means of CO2 sequestration, but there are some well-known names among its supporters, including James Lovelock and Tim Flannery, the latter having joined the Carbonscape Board. It’s still largely unexplored territory, which I presume is why the Sunday Times suggested David Livingstone as Turney’s progenitor. Surely territory worth investigating.

Arctic takes a Turney for the worse

British geologist Chris Turney is just back from fieldwork in Svalbard, the island archipelago situated halfway between Norway and the North Pole. He has written about it in his popular science blog, under the title A Warning From the North. I’ll draw attention to some of his main points here, but first a reminder that he is the author of Ice, Mud and Blood which I reviewed on Hot Topic early this year. He’s also a director of New Zealand company Carbonscape which Hot Topic has featured more than once.

Continue reading “Arctic takes a Turney for the worse”

Ice, Mud and Blood

Ice, Mud and Blood: Lessons from Climates Past

In the recently published Ice, Mud and Blood: Lessons from Climates Past British geologist Chris Turney describes how scientists are building up knowledge of the earth’s climate in the past and what it might mean for our future.  He describes attending a showing of The Great Warming Swindle in Australia in 2007. He remarks on the panel discussion which followed when questions were taken from the audience: “…I suddenly realised that many of my companions were either loonies or had been very badly informed. It struck home just how poor a job we’ve done as scientists in communicating our work.”

I’m not sure that the scientists are altogether to blame, but certainly his book makes amends if they are required.

He selects various periods in the past when the climate changed and reports on the current thinking about what caused those changes. Along the way he provides fascinating stories of how the jigsaws have been assembled from a great variety of pieces of scientific investigation.

His first two periods are very distant. One 55 million years ago, the drastic warming over a period of 160,000 years, known as the Peleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), on which Gareth had a recent post. The second from 540 million to 1000 million years ago when it appears that the globe was almost covered in ice during at least three ice ages. Acknowledging that these events happened when the patchwork of continents was different from our time he moves closer to the present in the remainder of the book. He begins a mere 2.5 million years ago when the earth became locked into the bout of ice ages and inter-glacials which continue to the present. His subsequent chapters narrow the focus to episodes within that period: a warm stretch in the last interglacial from 130,000 to 116,000 years ago; the up and down progression from then  towards the Last Glacial Maximum 21,000 years ago; the tumultuous time which marked the end of that last ice age from 21,000 to 11,700 years ago; and what it has meant to the conditions of life for humans to be in the comparatively settled, but by no means uniformly even, climate of recent millenia.

The book carries intrinsic interest in its accounts of how the changes in the past are reconstructed. The evidence gained from ice cores and ocean bed cores is always astonishing in its detail and complexity. The range of information that can be prised from the shells of foraminifera, ancient ocean-dwelling organisms, is extraordinary.  The sheer excitement of discoveries which confirm other discoveries carries a drama which the author is well capable of communicating. Clearly paleoclimate is an absorbing and rewarding area in which to work.

But Turney is much concerned with its lessons for the present. Understandably, considering the likely causes of past changes. Greenhouse gases are always an important part of his picture. For example the PETM was probably triggered by the release of a vast amount of carbon into the ocean and atmosphere over less than 2000 years, likely to have been methane from ocean sources. This was enough to drive a massive warming over 30,000 years or so.  The warm conditions persisted for another 60,000 years.It then took another 70,000 years before temperatures started to drop and return to what they were before, with the oceans playing a different part at this stage in gradually sucking greenhouse gases out of the air. The implications for us today?  If we exhaust the available fossil fuels we will release more carbon than was released at the beginning of the PETM.

Another lesson from the past is the importance of positive feedbacks in the climate system, when the changes that have occurred trigger new and greater changes than the original cause on its own would account for. There is a warning for us that a cascade of unintended consequences can follow from apparently small beginnings. “A little more greenhouse gas in the air does not cause a little change in climate.”

A further lesson is the rapidity with which changes have sometimes happened in the past as tipping points were reached. Abrupt shifts in the climate system are quite possible, as is illustrated, for example, in his account of the sudden reversals which marked the progress towards the Last Glacial Maximum.

Summaries like this unfortunately obscure the pleasure and interest of the book which lies in the wealth of detail it contains and the cheerful clarity with which it is ordered and conveyed to the reader. The underlying earnestness of the author’s concern about the direction we are headed is unmistakable but there is nothing ponderous about his narrative.

Incidentally the author has spent time in New Zealand and describes being able to correct a faulty carbon-dating of wood in the Franz Josef glacier’s Waiho Loop moraine to show that the glacier surge was 13,100 years old and thus contributory evidence of a southern hemisphere cooling at a time when the northern hemisphere was warming. This phenomenon he discusses in the context of his account of the abrupt veerings which marked the end of the last ice age.  His connection with New Zealand includes a directorship in the new young company Carbonscape which is using a world-first microwaving technology to make charcoal.  I expect to post about that soon.