"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"
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.
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.
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 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.