Energy and Global Warming News for April 30: Carbon, nitrogen link may provide new ways to mitigate pollution; Break-through MIT battery maker betting U.S. manufacturing can rise again

Carbon, Nitrogen Link May Provide New Ways to Mitigate Pollution Problems

A new study exploring the growing worldwide problem of nitrogen pollution from soils to the sea shows that global ratios of nitrogen and carbon in the environment are inexorably linked, a finding that may lead to new strategies to help mitigate regional problems ranging from contaminated waterways to human health.

The University of Colorado at Boulder study found the ratio between nitrates — a naturally occurring form of nitrogen found in soils, streams, lakes and oceans — and organic carbon is closely governed by ongoing microbial processes that occur in virtually all ecosystems. The team combed exhaustive databases containing millions of sample points from tropical, temperate, boreal and polar sites, including well-known, nitrogen-polluted areas like Chesapeake Bay, the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.

“We have developed a new framework to explain how and why carbon and nitrogen appear to be so tightly linked,” said CU-Boulder doctoral student Philip Taylor, lead author on the new study. “The findings are helping us to explain why nitrate can become so high in some water bodies but remain low in others.”

A paper by Taylor and CU-Boulder ecology and evolutionary biology Professor Alan Townsend is being published in the April 22 issue of Nature. The study was funded in part by the National Science Foundation. Both Taylor and Townsend also are affiliated with CU-Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research.

While the vast majority of nitrogen gas is abundant in the atmosphere, it is nonreactive and unavailable to most life, said Townsend. But in 1909 a process was developed to transform the nonreactive gas into ammonia, the active ingredient of synthetic fertilizer. Humans now manufacture more than 400 billion pounds of fertilizer each year — much of which migrates from croplands into the atmosphere, waterways and oceans — creating a suite of environmental problems ranging from coastal “dead zones” and toxic algal blooms to ozone pollution and human health issues.

Break-through MIT Battery Maker Tries ‘Made in USA’ — Betting U.S. Manufacturing Can Rise Again

Yet-Ming Chiang relishes his 20-mile drive to work. His hybrid car  gets more than 100 miles per gallon, recharges by plugging into a regular wall outlet, and purrs so quietly that it’s his favorite place for making important phone calls.

But what makes Chiang’s ordinary-looking beige Toyota Prius even more special is that it’s powered by a break-through battery he invented himself and is working to turn into the kind of high-tech, green, “Made in America” product that many see as the key to the nation’s economic future.

Safer and more long-lasting than conventional lithium-ion car batteries, the 52-year old MIT professor’s invention packs 600 cells into a case the size of an airplane carry-on bag. His technology has already transformed the batteries used in many cordless power tools.

So why are Chiang and his company, A123 Systems, having trouble moving to full-scale commercial production and creating thousands of new American jobs with his better mousetrap?

The answer is a story of both the current obstacles to a rebirth of U.S. manufacturing – and of the tantalizing possibilities if such a rebirth could be achieved.

The obstacles are rooted in the sad history of manufacturing’s decline in the United States: Despite the promise of Chiang’s batteries, many in Wall Street and Silicon Valley were incredulous when he and other leaders at A123 asked for capital to build factories in America – Asia, yes, but Michigan, why would you want to?

Even more daunting, virtually all of the world’s battery manufacturing industry is now in Asia, where plants can be built faster and supplies and equipment are much easier to get than in the United States These days, it’s hard to find Americans who even know how to build a battery factory.

That’s why A123 had to give in and build its first plants in China – where the company could move into production quickly to show auto industry customers that it could deliver on future contracts.

“Without question, we would rather have done it all in the U.S.,” said Chiang, who left Taiwan as a six-year-old with his family, earned degrees at MIT and has been a materials science professor there since the mid-1980s. “I’m an American citizen,” he adds. “We’re an American company. It’s an American-born technology.”

Despite the obstacles, A123 and a handful of other advanced battery producers are building plants in Michigan and other states – thanks massive government support that has offset Wall Street’s skepticism. A123 alone is getting a whopping $250 million in aid from Obama’s stimulus program as well as tax incentives from Michigan.

Germany, Mexico trying to push climate talks ahead

Five months after the troubled United Nations conference in Copenhagen, Germany and Mexico are teaming up in an effort to break the deadlock in negotiations on a global climate deal.

They will co-host a three-day meeting in Bonn starting Sunday of representatives from a selected 45 countries with hopes of building trust and clearing some of the rubble left from Copenhagen, German Environment Minister Norbert Roettgen said this week.

“The most important thing is to get the process moving again,” he said.

Momentum in the drive to control global warming has slowed in some countries. The United States still has not tackled its domestic energy bill, which climate negotiators believe will provide a critical signal about U.S. global intentions; and Australia “” one of the world’s biggest per capita polluters “” put off for as long as two years legislation setting up a carbon trading scheme.

Roettgen said Germany and others have not entirely given up on striking a deal at the next U.N. climate summit in Cancun, Mexico, Nov. 29-Dec. 10.

“We want to pave the way to a good result in Cancun,” he said adding that “nobody wants another big disappointment.”

The Copenhagen conference with representatives from some 190 countries last December was originally intended to produce a new global treaty to cut greenhouse gases and set up mechanisms to deal with the worst effects of global warming. Yet, the two-week meeting came up with far less than hoped, setting back the schedule for action possibly by years.

China Nuclear Sets Up Fourth-Generation Plant Venture

China National Nuclear Corp. set up a venture with local partners in Fujian province to build fourth-generation reactors as the world’s biggest polluting- country turned to clean energy to drive its economy.

China National Nuclear holds a controlling stake in the venture formed on April 28 with Fujian Investment and Development Corp. and the government of Sanming city, where the atomic plant will be located, the Beijing-based company said on its website.

The world’s fastest-growing major economy is developing nuclear energy to help cut reliance on more polluting coal and oil and to meet surging electricity demand. China is emerging as a potential exporter of atomic technology, increasing competition for companies including Areva SA.

China National Nuclear and its partners aim to start building the plant “soon,” according to the statement.

The fourth-generation nuclear technology developed under the China Experimental Fast Reactor program has “noticeable advantages” in increasing the efficiency of uranium use and reducing nuclear waste, China National Nuclear Vice General Manager Yu Jianfeng said in the statement.

16 Responses to Energy and Global Warming News for April 30: Carbon, nitrogen link may provide new ways to mitigate pollution; Break-through MIT battery maker betting U.S. manufacturing can rise again

  1. prokaryote says:

    SAARC Expert Group On Climate Change Established

    Thimpu, Bhutan (AHN) – The 16th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit failed Thursday to reach a commitment on the peaking of emissions as part of the climate change discussion. Therefore, the group decided to set up an Inter-governmental Expert Group on Climate Change.

    This group would work to develop a “clear policy direction and guidance for regional cooperation as envisaged in the SAARC Plan of Action on Climate Change.”

    The point of contention during the gathering, which took place Wednesday and Thursday at Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan, was a commitment over the peaking of emissions. Struggling economies such as Bangladesh and Maldives were in favor of finalizing some kind of pledge towards the carbon footprint. However, established giants like India and China were not favor of such a decision.

    Read more:

  2. John Puma says:

    THE way to mitigate nitrogen pollution is to use nitrogen fixing legumes as “green manure” that provide the carbon/nitrogen balance via plant material and complex nitrogen compounds that are less soluble in irrigation/rain water than are synthetic nitrogen fertilizers.

    The industrial agricultural system is not terribly interested in such beneficial, but long-term strategies, preferring rapidly-working, precisely-managed, chemo-therapy instead.

  3. Bob Wallace says:

    Labor costs are going to increase in China. China is already looking to Africa for some of its more labor intensive manufacturing down the road.

    (Remember, Japan used to be know for cheap labor.)

    Labor costs in the US have dropped. New hires in many previous well-paying plants are not getting the sort of pay and benefits that earlier workers got.

    We need to figure out some way to get back into the game.

    Single payer health insurance would be one help. Take the direct burden off the factory.

    (And I’m not for government run hospitals and doctors who are federal employees. That’s not how we run single-payer Medicare.)

  4. crf says:

    Fourth gen nuclear seems to be having an awful time getting started in the west.

    I think, at the very least, it is a hedge we must have against climate change.

  5. Bob Wallace says:

    crf – There is some very good stuff concerning the cost of nuclear on this site. You might find it interesting reading.

    You could start with this piece…

  6. crf says:

    That study by Severance is about 2nd and 3rd generation nuclear. I’ve also read criticisms of this study. It is hard to get a handle on what costs of new 3+ generation nuclear will be, since there are so few new plants that have been recently built (1.5 plants, both EPRs). Both of those are massively over budget.

    Fourth generation nuclear is a different animal: it’s unclear what its costs will be until serious research is done in how it is to be deployed (eg, what is happening now in China, but not in the west).

    I’ve read nearly every climate progress post for the past 2 years ;) …

  7. Bob Wallace says:

    crf – I’ve read criticisms of Severance’s study as well.

    So far all I’ve found is criticism which boils down to “We don’t like what he says. So we’re just going to declare it wrong.”

    You found anything with actual numbers rather than fairy dust and random spraying of yellow water?

    As for 4th gen nuclear, here’s the beginning of the Wiki entry.

    “Generation IV reactors (Gen IV) are a set of theoretical nuclear reactor designs currently being researched. Most of these designs are generally not expected to be available for commercial construction before 2030, with the exception of a version of the Very High Temperature Reactor (VHTR) called the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP). The NGNP is to be completed by 2021.”

    Something that is purely experimental until sometime well into the future does us no good right now. We need to get off fossil fuels now, not in the second half of the century. By then is could be way too late.

    (And perhaps you haven’t heard. Not only did South Africa abandon their pebble bed reactor, China has apparently done the same. That’s the thing about research, it sometimes shows one that what sounds like it should work doesn’t.)

  8. fj2 says:

    It would be good to get more information on the environmental catastrophe and how this affects “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico and the potential for accelerating marine ecosystem collapse, an extremely dangerous issue.

    We do not understand all the important services that the world’s ecosystems provide.

    The Caribbean is nice but in actually much of it is already an underwater desert resulting from the extreme heat.

  9. fj2 says:

    From Grist:

    “Back in 2008, after ethanol production soared, the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium reported, “The nitrogen loading to the Gulf of Mexico in May of this year was 37 percent higher than 2007 and the highest since measurements began in 1970.” The group added: “The intensive farming of more land, including crops used for biofuels, has definitely contributed to this high nitrogen loading rate.”

    “Thus like the oil spill, the Dead Zone owes some of its existence to our reliance on auto transportation.”

  10. Bob Wallace says:

    fj2 #11 – Increased nitrogen releases correlated with increased ethanol production might well have happened. But this should serve only as a caution, and not a damnation of biofuel.

    Remember, the ethanol of “2008” was made from corn. Corn is a very heavy feeder and depletes soil fertility. To grow corn is to use lots of high nitrogen fertilizer.

    Other forms of biofuel production (switchgrass, cellulose waste, algae, etc.) do not require the levels of nitrogen needed for corn agriculture.

    And, even with corn, we do not need to be adding nitrogen to our streams. This problem can be controlled at the individual field level. And should be controlled.

  11. fj2 says:

    #12. Bob Wallace, “And, even with corn, we do not need to be adding nitrogen to our streams. This problem can be controlled at the individual field level. And should be controlled.”

    Yes, but is it being controlled not only for nitrogen but problems affecting the food supply? Or, are increased production of biofuels adding more fuel to the environmental crisis?

    Referencing a 2008 report — has much changed since then? — by Lester Brown, April 16, 2008.

    “World Facing New Challenge on Food Front: Business-as-usual Not a Viable Option”

    “The chronically tight food supply the world is now facing is driven by the cumulative effect of several well established trends that are affecting both global demand and supply.”

    ” . . . the recent sharp acceleration in the U.S. use of grain to produce ethanol for cars. Since 2005, this last source of demand has raised the annual growth in world grain consumption from roughly 20 million to 50 million tons.”

    Again, is there new data that the extremely important problem concerning food production has been corrected as well as that other issue of adding nitrogen to critical ecosystems?

  12. Bob Wallace says:

    Have we quit using food to make ethanol? I would guess not.

    Can we create biofuel without using food-quality land? It seems so.

    Keep in mind that we do not need to replace all our oil with biofuel. Most transportation can be fueled with electricity. There are some places where we will most likely need liquid fuels well into the future.

  13. fj2 says:

    14. Bob Wallace, “Have we quit using food to make ethanol? I would guess not.”

    It seems that you have just answered the question and the situation is that we are unnecessarily increasing the environmental crisis instead of reducing it.

    Much worse, the starvation rate has recently increased from a leveling off of about 800 million to about 900 million people annually and expected to go to about 1.2 billion. If it can be shown directly that the production of bioufuels has resulted in say, 10 million people starving to death, this is a terrible price to pay.

  14. prokaryote says:

    Mexico, Germany urge the world to act on climate

    “We need to show the world how serious the threat is,” Mexican President Felipe Calderon said as he opened an international climate change conference in Germany on Sunday.

    German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who also spoke at the opening of the conference co-hosted by both countries and aimed at laying the groundwork for the next U.N. conference on climate change, asked nations around the world for more ambition in their efforts to cut greenhouse gases.

    While scientists believe global temperatures must not rise by more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to pre-industrial times, the world is now headed for a 3 to 4 degree increase, Merkel said.

    “We have to realize that we have quite a long way to go to reach the 2-degree-goal,” Merkel said. “Therefore we have to ascertain how we can reach our goals nonetheless.”