A British defense technology company, Qinetiq, is testing a new type of lithium-ion battery for hybrids and electric vehicles that could be substantially cheaper and more powerful than existing batteries.
The battery is based on lithium-ion iron-sulfide chemistry, which has a number of advantages over the chemistry of existing batteries, says Gary Mepsted, technical manager for Qinetiq’s power sources group. The new battery would cost half as much as existing vehicle batteries and could last longer and recharge more quickly that other lithium batteries. Mepsted says that compared to standard lithium-ion batteries, the new battery has demonstrated about 1.6 times the energy density (which would extend a plug-in electric’s range) and a 50 percent higher power density (which would let hybrids charge and discharge more rapidly).
Researchers have long viewed lithium-ion batteries as an attractive alternative to the expensive metal-based batteries now used in hybrids. But although standard lithium-ion batteries are relatively cheap and can store about twice as much energy as standard nickel metal hydride cells, developers have had to overcome a number of technological challenges to make them practical for vehicles.
Plug-in electric vehicles need batteries with higher energy densities to extend their range between charges, says Mepsted. And for hybrids, the power density of standard lithium-ion batteries is less than ideal for coping with the rapid charging and discharging that comes with the regenerative braking systems used in hybrids.
Another issue is safety, says Jeff Dahn, a professor of physics and chemistry at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. In small devices like cell phones, this is less of an issue, he says. “But in large cells, it’s hard to remain stable under abuse conditions.” Such conditions include overcharging or collisions, which can cause the batteries to combust or even explode.
Qinetiq’s approach involves making cathodes from lithium-ion iron sulfide instead of the more common lithium-cobalt oxide. Because this chemistry results in two lithium ions for every sulphide, it creates a massive increase in energy density.
Cost is a major issue, says Dahn. “Batteries are about three to five times more expensive than what we want,” he says. But while there are energy and cost advantages to using iron sulfide, it can be problematic to use in manufacturing. “Iron sulfide is stable in air, but when you react it with lithium it loses this stability,” he says.
Qinetiq says it has solved this issue, although the company won’t go into details about how. Based on early estimates, using low volumes of materials, the new batteries should be half the cost of conventional nickel-metal hydride batteries, Mepsted says.
Developed as part of a $3.2 million two-year project in collaboration with Ricardo, based in Warwickshire, the battery has so far been tested under only limited conditions. In the lab, the cell has demonstrated 50 percent improvements in discharge rates. “There needs to be more development in the cell chemistry before it could be considered for production,” says Colin Wren, a researcher at Ricardo. But because it can be tailored for either high energy density or high power density, he says, the technology is suited to both plug-in electrics and hybrids.
Mahe Noor left her village in southern Bangladesh after Cyclone Sidr flattened her family’s home and small market in 2007. Jobless and homeless, she and her husband, Nizam Hawladar, moved to this crowded megalopolis, hoping that they might soon return home.
Two years later, they are still here. Ms. Noor, 25, and Mr. Hawladar, 35, work long hours at low-paying jobs “” she at a garment factory and he at a roadside tea stall. They are unable to save money after paying for food and rent on their dark shanty in Korail, one of the largest slums in Dhaka. And in their village, more people are leaving because of river erosion and dwindling job opportunities.
“We’re trapped,” Ms. Noor said.
Natural calamities have plagued humanity for generations. But with the prospect of worsening climate conditions over the next few decades, experts on migration say tens of millions more people in the developing world could be on the move because of disasters.
Rather than seeking a new life elsewhere in a mass international “climate migration,” as some analysts had once predicted, many of these migrants are now expected to move to nearby megacities in their own countries.
“Environmental refugees have lost everything,” said Rabab Fatima, the South Asia representative of the International Organization for Migration. “They don’t have the money to make a big move. They move to the next village, the next town and eventually to a city.”
Such rapid and unplanned urbanization is expected to put even further strains on scarce water, energy and food resources, said Koko Warner, who works in environmental migration at the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security in Bonn.
In Bangladesh, a largely flat, riverine nation where more than 140 million people live in one of the most densely populated countries in the world, past generations often moved to cities seasonally. They worked to send money home to their villages and usually returned there during planting season.
But in recent years, the moves are more likely to be permanent. More intense storms and floods, salinization damage to crops caused by the encroaching sea and especially worsening river erosion have left many people rootless, Ms. Fatima said.
Dhaka, the capital, is often the only real option in this region. It is the fastest-growing megacity in the world, according to the World Bank. At least 12 million people live in Dhaka, and there are more than 400,000 newcomers each year. The World Bank predicts that the population could grow dramatically by 2020.
Like the rest of Bangladesh, Dhaka is also extremely vulnerable to climate change: It is just a few meters above sea level and is regularly hit by cyclones and floods. The environmental group WWF recently rated it among the megacities most vulnerable to the effects of global warming, after Jakarta and Manila.
As many as half of the people in Dhaka live in shantytowns and slums, says Atiq Rahman, a climate change researcher and executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies. Of those, Mr. Rahman and Ms. Fatima estimate that three million people have been displaced by environmental degradation or disasters.
The most destitute people live in clusters of improvised tents made of plastic sheets and discarded bamboo and often erected on private land near markets, railroad tracks and the city’s rivers.
Most poor, working-class families end up in minicities like Korail, where Ms. Noor, the migrant from southern Bangladesh, lives with her husband and two daughters. Ms. Noor’s third child, a son, lives with his grandmother in the family’s village.
Korail sits on public land and is shared by at least 40,000 people crowded into cramped, cockroach-infested rental shanties made of mud, bamboo and corrugated tin.
Barefoot children play with broken marbles on narrow mud lanes filled with garbage and streams of raw sewage. A few enterprising residents have opened vegetable stands, tailor shops, carpentry mills and teahouses in tiny shacks.
Aid groups run primary schools in Korail and other slums, but many children work or stay home to mind younger siblings while their parents work.
Child trafficking and arson are serious problems, experts here say. Ms. Noor says she worries she will come home one day and find her young daughters kidnapped, or worse.
“Every day I hear about a fire or about someone’s child missing,” Ms. Noor said.
Ms. Noor’s next-door neighbor, Aklima Akhter, 22, also lost her home and her family’s small market in her southern Bangladesh village to flooding caused by Cyclone Sidr.
Another neighbor, Mukhles Rahman, 38, and his brother Mohammad Farid Uddin, 56, left their village of Chawlakathi in the division of Barisal eight years ago because of river erosion.
Their family once grew rice, jute, sugar cane, mustard seed and radishes on four hectares, or 10 acres. Over a couple of decades, the Sandhya River washed away the farmland and the family home.
As scientists struggle to predict exactly how global climate change will affect our environment, economists are grappling with another question: How well can humans adapt?
Judging from the history of wheat production in North America, the answer is very well, says Paul Rhode of the University of Michigan. In a paper done together with Alan Olmstead of the University of California-Davis, which he presented Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association, Mr. Rhode looks at how wheat production fared between the mid-1800s and the late 1900s, as production moved into parts of North America with harsher climates. The conclusion: Production adapted successfully as farmers introduced new strains that grew well in the new climates.
“We’ve been there and done that in terms of adjusting wheat production to new climates,” he said.
According to the paper, production proved resilient to temperature changes of as much as two to five degrees centigrade “” similar to the changes scientists expect to occur over the next 90 years as a result of the proliferation of greenhouse gases.
To be sure, the results don’t demonstrate that humans as a whole can be better off in a warmer world, and don’t suggest that measures to combat global warming are unnecessary. For one, the data are limited to wheat production and to North America, where the impact of climate change on agriculture is likely to be less severe than in developing nations such as India. Beyond that, the changes in wheat production happened over a very long period. Farmers and seed breeders could have a much harder time adjusting to more rapid changes in climate.
Still, Mr. Rhode says the research suggests adaptability is a factor “that should not be discounted.”
If Americans really take the plunge and enter a carbon-constrained world, it might look a little like the Stokes family’s home in Falls Church.
Nolan Stokes and Kathy Harman-Stokes — a financial planner and a lawyer with two children in elementary school — are installing a geothermal heat pump in their front yard that will tap the Earth’s constant temperature to warm their home more efficiently. They know precisely how many kilowatts of energy their house is consuming when they wake up each morning. And they’ve cut back on their consumption of meat because they now know it generates significantly more greenhouse-gas emissions than vegetables.
There’s even an official name for the Stokeses, along with three other households in Northern Virginia: They are Climate Pilots, guinea pigs in a Swedish experiment aimed at helping U.S. citizens understand that a lifestyle that curbs greenhouse-gas emissions is not necessarily oppressive, just different. Whether Americans are willing to follow their example is part of the political calculation lawmakers have to make as they consider imposing nationwide limits on emissions in legislation making its way through Congress.
The Climate Pilots program exemplifies the broader dynamics at play in the international climate debate: Europeans impatiently nudging the United States and other countries toward a less carbon-intensive lifestyle.
Many Americans have adopted small eco-friendly measures, such as recycling and installing compact fluorescent light bulbs. A number of Washington area residents have made more significant lifestyle shifts, commuting by public transportation or bicycle and adopting high-efficiency or renewable-energy systems for their homes. But it remains unclear whether there is enough grass-roots support for a dramatic change in U.S. climate policy, especially during an economic crunch, considering that many environmental changes yield long-term, rather than immediate, financial benefits.
Sweden’s deputy prime minister, Maud Olofsson, who visited the Stokeses’ comfortable suburban home in November, told them and the other program participants that their example could change that.
“We are building something new,” she said, sitting at the Stokeses’ dining room table. “You are the leaders when you say to politicians, ‘Now we are prepared to change.’ We want you to be brave when you make decisions. Then they will do so.”
The gap between American and European attitudes on global warming was on striking display during the recent U.N.-sponsored climate talks in Copenhagen. The Europeans had already decided to impose constraints on themselves and were willing to accept them in an international agreement, while the Obama administration, for all of the president’s interest in the issue, was wary of political backlash at home and pushed for a more modest pact.
Throughout Europe, conservatives vie with liberals to claim the title of “most green,” and European Union rules require everything from energy-efficient building codes to disclosing a home’s overall carbon output when it goes on the market. The oil crisis of the 1970s prompted many European governments to permanently shift direction decades ago, while Americans responded by briefly turning down their thermostats and driving smaller cars, then quickly returning to old ways when oil prices came down.
“It’s about getting it into your blood, your DNA,” explained Niels Christiansen, president and chief executive of Danfoss, a Danish company that produces thermostats and other components used in heating and cooling systems. Incorporating climate change into Danes’ everyday thinking has been “a 35-year-long journey,” he said. “Now, I think it can be done quicker. But I don’t think it can be done overnight.”
It looks like a long road for Americans. In 2005, the United States emitted 23.5 metric tons of greenhouse gases per capita, according to data analyzed by the World Resources Institute, four times the world average. The 27-member European Union emitted 10.3 tons per capita, while Sweden came in significantly lower, at 7.4 tons.
In absolute terms, the United States and China together account for a little more than 40 percent of the world’s carbon output.
Tim Herzog, a climate policy analyst at the World Resources Institute, said the difference stems from two basic things: what we burn for fuel and how much we drive. Fossil fuels account for nearly three-quarters of our fuel mix, according to the Energy Information Administration, compared with just more than half of Europe’s. Over time, Herzog said, the United States could shift its energy sources and driving patterns.
But the Swedes, who have made climate change a central pillar of both their domestic and foreign policy for more than a decade, are trying to speed things up. They’ve already done it in cities of their own such as Kalmar, where 12 Climate Pilots cut their average greenhouse-gas emissions by nearly a third in one year. The entire city aims to be fossil-fuel-free by 2030.
Six months ago, a handful of Kalmar residents started coaching four Virginia families, selected by the Swedish Embassy in Washington, on how they could do the same. Swedish officials found a handful of volunteers connected to the Congressional Schools of Virginia, a private school that goes through the eighth grade, and gave them challenges in four areas: food, leisure activities, energy and travel. Their six-month challenge officially ended Thursday, and their Swedish climate coaches will be giving them a report card with the amount of greenhouse gases they kept out of the atmosphere.
At times, there has been a culture gap. Angela Ulsh, a Climate Pilot who teaches second grade at the school, remembered a video conference call with her Swedish coach in Kalmar, who mentioned he had used his car only three times during the past month.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Ulsh replied. “I’ve used it three times in one day.”
Other challenges were easier: All four households have shifted their eating habits after learning that raising cattle, pigs and poultry generates significantly more greenhouse-gas emissions than growing vegetable crops.
“I found it’s just become second nature to make meatless meals,” said Mya Akin, who teaches second grade alongside Ulsh and lives in Alexandria with her husband, Isaiah.
In Sweden, every community has a climate and energy adviser, and the government launched “study circles” on climate across the nation in the early 1990s.
David Kreutzer, a senior policy analyst in energy economics and climate change at the conservative Heritage Foundation, suggested that the model might not mesh well with this country’s traditional values: “Americans might be more inclined than Swedes to see the programs as unwanted busybody interference with their daily life.”
But try telling that to Nolan Stokes, who extols the virtues of energy meters and thermal leak detectors to his clients and writes about his environmental activities on a local listserv.
“It doesn’t take many adapters to start spreading the word if they’re passionate about it,” he said on the day that he broke ground on his geothermal unit, with Olofsson wielding a shovel alongside him.
The first carbon tax to reduce the greenhouse gases from imports comes not between two nations, but between two states. Minnesota has passed a measure to stop carbon at its border with North Dakota.
To encourage the switch to clean renewable energy Minnesota plans to add a carbon fee of between $4 and $34 per ton of carbon dioxide emissions to the cost of coal-fired electricity, to begin in 2012, to discourage the use of coal power; the greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions.
State officials in North Dakota are mounting a legal battle against Minnesota. State officials argue that this would unfairly discourage coal-powered electricity sales in favor of renewably powered electricity.
Coal has immediate health effects in addition to the well documented long term effects on climate. Coal has been implicated in asthma, diabetes, heart disease and even neurological damage, reducing intelligence levels. North Dakota ranks 8th in toxic metals contaminating its coal waste, with 3,419 tons of toxic metals.
Most of North Dakota’s electricity exports is generated by coal-fired power plants. North Dakota officials argue that the move would place an unfair tax on electricity exports from the state and discourage its use by Minnesota utilities.
The state had set aside $500,000 for legal fees to fight the law back in 2007, and having now exhausted their arguments with Minnesota are preparing to use the funds to take legal action.
Both states, ironically, have abundant wind power resources. North Dakota in particular has been called “the Saudi Arabia of Wind”. Yet, till now it has barely tapped into that clean energy resource, with the first few wind farms only just starting to come online. Basin Electric Coop just completed one project on New Years Eve and Spain’s Iberdrola just completed another a few days ago.
By contrast, North Dakota coal has low energy value.
Slow tsunami-like waves are rolling into the waters off Antarctica. Generated by storms churning as near as the Patagonia coast and as far away as the Gulf of Alaska, these waves jostle the continent’s giant floating ice shelves.
According to a new study appearing in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, the rumbling may account for some of the decade’s most dramatic ice breakups, which may only get worse as the planet’s climate changes.
In 2002 the Larsen B ice shelf, a lid of ice the size of Rhode Island, disintegrated, a shocking example of the environmental change under way in the waters around Antarctica. As if to underscore that this phenomenon was no fluke, a small portion of the giant Wilkins shelf collapsed in March 2008 off the west coast of the Antarctic peninsula.
Warming ocean waters play a major role in these dramatic events. But a new study has found that what scientists call “infragravity waves” could be the triggers behind the breakups, rumbling in underneath shelves and lifting them up to an inch (2.54 centimeters) or so with each swell.
That may not sound like much, but ice shelves can be well over 1,000 feet (300 meters) thick. The ice shelves are essentially immune to the effects of ocean waves. Infragravity waves are another animal, though. They form when waves from a large oceangoing storm crash into shallow waters. Energy from the waves is warped, elongated and cast back out to sea, and can echo for thousands of miles.
“Regular sea swell chips off little icebergs from the edges,” Peter Bromirski of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography said. “Infragravity waves could be affecting a much greater part of the ice shelf.”
Bromirski led a team of researchers who examined seismic rumblings on Antarctica’s biggest shelf, the France-sized Ross Ice Shelf during the southern summer of 2005-2006.
The Ross Ice Shelf is stable, but the team found that winter storms in the north Pacific Ocean sent infragravity waves all the way to Antarctica. The ice rattled noticeably as each wave rolled underneath.
“The key thing is we are not at a position yet to say, ‘Oh my God, infragravity waves are the proximal cause of ice shelf breakup,’” team member Douglas MacAyeal of the University of Chicago cautioned.
However, a large storm did pound the Patagonia coast just before the Wilkins shelf shattered in 2008.
If it’s more than just a coincidence and infragravity waves from the storm did indeed ruffle the Wilkins enough to break it, the implications are sobering.
Predictions for future climate suggest increased storm activity over much of the globe.
“If you have more storms, you have more waves, and you get more impact,” Bromirski said. “It’s a direct connection.”
From shipping routes opening up through the ice of the Baltic Sea to a massive plankton bloom off the coast of Ireland, from diminishing reindeer herds in Finland to the reduction of agricultural land in southeast Georgia, satellite images of the changes global warming is bringing to Europe are being deployed online by the European Environment Agency (EEA), the European Space Agency (ESA), and Microsoft to try and give the public a more vivid understanding of what is at stake in the climate-change debate.
Launched during the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, the interactive online Environmental Atlas of Europe initially focuses on visuals and stories from Denmark, Finland, Georgia, Ireland, Italy, Lapland, Netherlands, Poland, and Russia.
“The atlas stories, told by eyewitnesses across Europe, can help people understand how our world is changing as a result of climate change and — through examples of positive actions taken by governments, communities, and people — inspire them to take action and make a difference,” said Microsoft Chief Environmental Strategist Rob Bernard. The Danish town of Thisted, which has achieved nearly carbon-neutral status, is one of the positive examples highlighted.
“The advantages satellites offer are evident,” added Volker Liebig, the ESA’s Director of Earth Observation. “Only from space do we have a truly global view.”
The software giant and the EEA has previously collaborated on the Eye on Earth platform, which combines scientific information with on-the-ground local observations contributed by millions of users on topics such as water quality at more than 22,000 swimming sites in Europe. The AirWatch application provides real-time data on specific air pollutants from air-quality monitoring stations, as well as user-submitted descriptions of air quality in different areas. Much of the information is available through text messages as well as online.
Future plans for Eye on Earth include tracking ground-level ozone, oil spills, biodiversity, and coastal erosion to create what the partnership calls “a global observatory for environmental change.”