Atmosphere of Earth

Power-Generating Paint Offers an Unlimited, Clean Fuel Source

Article Image

Unlike fossil fuels, hydrogen fuel doesn’t affect the atmosphere. It’s actually the cleanest energy source of all, at least until nuclear fusion is possible. That could be decades or longer. With hydrogen fuel, the only byproduct is water. What’s cleaner than that? And the technology already exists to utilize it.

Until now, fossil fuels were needed to get at that hydrogen, and the water used within the system had to be distilled. No longer. Now, scientists have created a paint-like substance which can pull hydrogen right out of the air, giving us an unlimited and cheap source of clean energy.

The “solar paint” is made from a new synthetic called molybdenum-sulphide. In some ways, it has the same properties as silica gel. This is a chemical used to absorb moisture. It helps us to store food, and preserve and protect clothing and electronics.

You may have noticed a small, white, paper packet with some crystals in it along hidden in the packaging of say, a new pair of shoes or an electronic device. That little package contains beads of silica gel. It’s meant to keep the item dry thus preserving it. But unlike silica gel, molybdenum-sulphide is also a semi-conductor. It naturally captures water vapor from the air and splits it into hydrogen and oxygen molecules.

Researchers from RMIT University in Australia conducted the study, led by Dr. Torben Daeneke. The results were published in the journal ACS Nano. Hydrogen can be used in internal combustion engines or…

Solar Paint is Cheap, Revolutionary Future for Clean Energy

Researchers have developed a solar paint that can absorb water vapor and split it to generate hydrogen – the cleanest source of energy.

The paint contains a newly developed compound that acts like silica gel, which is used in sachets to absorb moisture and keep food, medicines and electronics fresh and dry.

But unlike silica gel, the new material, synthetic molybdenum-sulphide, also acts as a semi-conductor and catalyses the splitting of water atoms into hydrogen and oxygen.

RELATED: California Sun Produces So Much Power That Electricity Prices Turn Negative

Lead researcher Dr. Torben Daeneke, from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, said: “We found that mixing the compound with titanium oxide particles leads to a sunlight-absorbing paint that produces hydrogen fuel…

This First-Ever Plant Sucks CO2 out to the Air and Feeds It to Vegetables

Article Image

While there are those who wish to debate the causes of climate change and how much humanity has contributed to it, others look to address greenhouse gas emissions through technology. A first-of-its-kind commercial plant started to operate recently in Switzerland that sucks CO2 from the air to sell to buyers.

The Climeworks AG plant near Zurich is the first one to capture CO2 on an industrial scale, selling about 900 tons of the gas per year to help grow vegetables. That’s how much carbon dioxide 200 cars would release.

Climeworks sees this as a first step, with the company’s goal being to capture 1% of the global CO2 emissions by using this kind of negative emissions technology. Their long-term objective can be achieved with an additional 250,000 plants like this one.

The company touts the scalability of its plants as a favorable factor in achieving their goals.

“Highly scalable negative emission technologies are crucial if we are to stay below the 2-degree target of the international community,” said Christoph Gebald, co-founder and managing director of Climeworks.

Preventing temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius is the target set by the Paris agreement on climate change.

The plant is situated atop…

Death by asteroid may come in unexpected ways

asteroid breakup
asteroid breakup

Every now and then a really big rock from space comes careening through Earth’s atmosphere. Depending on its size, angle of approach and where it lands, few people may notice — or millions could face a risk of imminent death.

Concern about these occasional, but potentially catastrophic, events keeps some astronomers scanning the skies. Using all types of technologies, they’re scouting for a killer asteroid, one that could snuff out life in a brief but dramatic cataclysm. They’re also looking for ways to potentially deter an incoming biggie from an earthboard path.

But if a big space rock were to make it to Earth’s surface, what could people expect? That’s a question planetary scientists have been asking themselves — and their computers. And some of their latest answers might surprise you.

For instance, it’s not likely a tsunami will take you out. Nor an earthquake. Few would need to even worry about being vaporized by the friction-heated space rock. No, gusting winds and shock waves set off by falling and exploding space rocks would claim the most lives. That’s one of the conclusions of a new computer model.

It investigated the likely outcomes of more than a million possible asteroid impacts. In one extreme case, a space rock 200 meters (660 feet) wide whizzes 20 kilometers (12 miles) per second into London, England. This smashup would kill more than 8.7 million people, computers estimate. And nearly three-quarters of those expected to die in that doomsday scenario would lose their lives to winds and shock waves.

Clemens Rumpf and his colleagues reported this online March 27 in Meteoritics & Planetary Science. Rumpf is a planetary scientist in England at the University of Southampton.

In a second report, Rumpf’s group looked at 1.2 million potential smashups. Here, the asteroids could be up to 400 meters (1,300 feet) across. Again, winds and shock waves were the big killers. They’d account for about six in every 10 deaths across the spectrum of asteroid sizes, the computer simulations showed.

Many previous studies had suggested tsunamis would be the top killer. But in these analyses, those killer waves claimed only around one in every five of the lives lost.

Even asteroids that explode before reaching Earth’s surface can generate high-speed wind gusts, shock waves of pressure in the atmosphere and intense heat. Space rocks big enough to survive the descent pose far greater risks. They can spawn earthquakes, tsunamis, flying debris — and, of course, gaping craters.

“These asteroids aren’t an everyday concern,” Rumpf observes. Yet clearly, he notes, the risks they pose “can be severe.” His team describes just how severe they could be in a paper posted online April 19 in Geophysical Research Letters.

Previous studies typically considered individually each possible effect of an asteroid impact. Rumpf’s group instead looked at them collectively. Quantifying the estimated hazard posed by each effect, says Steve Chesley, might one day help some leaders make one of the hardest calls imaginable — work to deflect an asteroid or just let it hit. Chesley is a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. (NASA stands for National Aeronautics and Space Administration.) Chesley was not involved with either of the new studies.

Story continues below image.

asteroid Earth
Computer simulations reveal that most of the deaths caused by an earthbound asteroid (illustrated) would come from gusting winds and shock waves.

Land hits would pose the biggest risks

The 1.2 million simulated asteroid impacts each fell into one of 50,000 scenarios. They varied in location, speed and angle of strike. Each scenario was run for 24 different asteroids. Their diameters ranged from 15 to 400 meters (50 to 1,300 feet). About 71 percent of the Earth is covered by water, so the simulations let asteroids descend over water in nearly 36,000 of the scenarios (about 72 percent).

The researchers began with a map of human…

Cool Jobs: Head in the clouds

man looking at clouds
man looking at clouds

Along a sun-drenched coastline, puffy little clouds stretch to the horizon like a vast set of beach umbrellas. Strolling along the sand or splashing in the surf, you probably wouldn’t even notice them.

Paquita Zuidema does, though. She is an atmospheric scientist at the University of Miami in Florida. And she notes that most people don’t appreciate these marine low clouds. “They aren’t very interesting from a weather point of view,” she admits. They’re small. They don’t cause big storms. They barely even produce rain. Yet marine low clouds intrigue her far more than other, flashier ones.

Cloud deck
Marine low clouds are thin. They form extensive “decks” where rising moist air is pressed down by sinking dry air.

In part because there are so many of them, these clouds are very effective at reflecting sunlight, she explains. Layers of the bright white clouds can stretch for miles. By keeping some of the sun’s energy from reaching Earth’s surface, those clouds help keep Earth relatively cool.

When most of us see clouds, we see animal shapes, a chance of rain or maybe a bit of welcome shade. Scientists, such as Zuidema, see much, much more. For these researchers, clouds are an integral part of the planet, transferring water, dust and even life around the globe.

Little clouds that can

As a kid, Zuidema wanted to be a naturalist — a scientist who looks at the natural world in a broad way. She now thinks that was “kind of a romantic vision.” When she got to college, she picked what she thought was a more practical path, studying physics along with public policy. That combination led her to atmospheric sciences.

But Zuidema didn’t really notice low clouds until graduate school at the University of Washington, in Seattle. That city “has a lot of low clouds,” the scientist says. She suddenly realized how important their reflection of heat back into space was for Earth’s climate. She continued studying low clouds at the University of Colorado in Boulder. There she earned her PhD.

Paquita Zuidema
Paquita Zuidema explores how marine low clouds affect Earth’s heat balance, and how they respond to changes such as smoke.

Seattle’s skies may be home to plenty of low clouds, but there are even better places to spot these little puffs. The greatest gatherings tend to occur off the coasts of places like Namibia, in Africa, and northern Chile. These places are home to some of Earth’s driest deserts. At about 430 to 600 meters (some 1,400 to 2,000 feet) above the surface, moist air rising from the ocean cools and condenses into clouds. But instead of growing taller, the clouds are trapped by the dry, sinking air that creates desert conditions. The result is a layer, or deck, of marine low clouds. They can stretch for miles.

“The marine clouds are trying to rise but are being squished down,” Zuidema explains. Though most of these clouds form over oceans, they can be found anywhere warm moist air is pressed down by dry, descending air.

The more Zuidema learns about these little clouds, the more fascinating she finds them. “I’m really interested in the myriad ways these low clouds respond to their environment,” she says. Because there are so many low clouds, and because they help keep Earth cool by reflecting heat, anything that affects them can also affect overall climate. “It feeds back to the whole energy balance of the planet,” she explains.

Lately Zuidema has been exploring how smoke that drifts over decks of marine clouds might change the way that these clouds absorb or reflect sunlight. Such smoke — from burning trees and grasses — can drift thousands of kilometers. If that smoke affects clouds, it might also affect climate. Last year, she spent a month on remote Ascension Island in the South Atlantic Ocean setting up instruments to track the interaction between low clouds there and smoke from southern Africa.

Zuidema appreciates the variety in her work. Besides the occasional trip to distant islands, she also teaches and collaborates with other scientists to better understand Earth’s climate system. Along the way, she’s helping elevate one type of low cloud into the spotlight it deserves.

Catch and release clouds

The ancient West African town of Sidi Ifni sits on the coast of Morocco. Here, on the edge of the bone-dry Sahara Desert, there’s never seems to be enough water to go around. For many women and girls here, carrying water from distant wells has become a day-long chore. As drought has worsened, many villagers have simply left. Today, communities and traditions there are crumbling.

Yet, half the year, water surrounds Sidi Ifni. There’s just one big problem: It’s locked into dense fog — clouds that touch the ground. Sidi Ifni isn’t alone. Thirsty coastal dwellers in Peru, Chile and Namibia also suffer thirst, even as they also are often cloaked in moist fog.

Fog nets
These nets capture precious water from dense fog in a parched coastal area of Morocco. The project helps free women and girls from having to walk kilometers each day to carry water from distant…

NASA Is Developing an Inflatable Greenhouse to Use on Mars

image credit: University of Arizona

When astronauts finally make it to Mars, they’ll need something to eat. And while NASA is working on shelf-stable rations for those eventual missions, astronauts will ideally be able to grow their own plants while exploring other worlds. That’s where the University of Arizona’s inflatable greenhouse comes in, designboom reports.

The University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center is helping the space agency develop a closed-loop system that can provide astronauts with food, clean the air, and recycle waste and water in alien environments. This “bioregenerative life support system” uses plants and LEDs to recreate what’s essentially a miniature Earth environment, according to designboom.

The Lunar Greenhouse prototype is an 18-foot-long, 7-foot-wide cylinder that is designed to take the carbon dioxide that astronauts breathe out and turn it into oxygen through plant photosynthesis. Astronauts would introduce…

Plot twist in methane mystery blames chemistry, not emissions, for recent rise

March hydroxyl distribution
RADICAL THEORY Changes in the concentration of a highly reactive compound in the atmosphere called hydroxyl may be to blame for a rise in global methane levels since 2007, new research suggests. Redder regions in this simulation of a typical March hydroxyl distribution contain higher concentrations of the molecule.

A recent upsurge in planet-warming methane may not be caused by increasing emissions, as previously thought, but by methane lingering longer in the atmosphere.

That’s the conclusion of two independent studies that indirectly tracked concentrations of hydroxyl, a highly reactive chemical that rips methane molecules apart. Hydroxyl levels in the atmosphere decreased roughly 7 or 8 percent starting in the early 2000s, the studies estimate.

The two teams propose that the hydroxyl decline slowed the breakdown of atmospheric methane, boosting levels of the greenhouse gas. Concentrations in the atmosphere have crept up since 2007, but during the same period, methane emissions from human activities and natural sources have remained stable or even fallen slightly, both studies suggest. The research groups report their findings online April 17 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“If hydroxyl were to decline long-term, then it would be bad news,” says Matt Rigby, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Bristol in England who coauthored one of the studies. Less methane would be removed from the atmosphere, he says, so the gas would hang around longer and cause more warming.

The stability of methane emissions might also vindicate previous studies that found no rise in emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, has reported that U.S. emissions remained largely unchanged from 2004 to 2014 (SN Online: 4/14/16).

Methane enters the atmosphere from a range of sources, from decomposing biological material in wetlands…

New tech harvests drinking water from (relatively) dry air using only sunlight

water from air prototype converter
WATER FROM AIR This prototype device captures water from air. Then, when exposed to sunlight, the black-painted layer (top) heats up and releases captured moisture as vapor into a container. A condenser then cools the vapor, converting the water to liquid form.

A new device the size of a coffee mug can generate drinkable water from desert air using nothing but sunlight.

“With this device, you can harvest the equivalent of a Coke can’s worth of water in an hour,” says cocreator Omar Yaghi, a chemist at the University of California, Berkeley. “That’s about how much water a person needs to survive in the desert.”

Though that may not sound like much, its designers say the current device is just a prototype. But the technology could be scaled up to supply fresh water to some of the most parched and remote regions of the globe, such as the Middle East and North Africa, they say.

Previous attempts at low-energy water collection struggled to function below 50 percent relative humidity (roughly the average afternoon humidity of Augusta, Ga.). Thanks to a special material, the new device pulled water from air with as low as 20 percent relative humidity, Yaghi and colleagues report online April 13 in Science. That’s like conjuring water in Las Vegas, where the average afternoon relative humidity is 21 percent.

Drinking water supplies can’t keep up with the rising demands of a growing human population, and shifts in rainfall caused by climate…