The Worst Greenhouse Gasses You Haven’t Heard Of

Carbon dioxide has long drawn the ire of an environmentally-conscious humanity. Released from combustion of fossil fuels, levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are higher now than at any point in the past 400,000 years. With the warming effects this has on the global environment, bringing these numbers down is a primary goal of scientists and policy makers worldwide.

However, this only tells part of the story. Carbon dioxide is not alone in its role as a greenhouse gas, with many others contributing significantly to global temperature rises. As humanity struggles to keep warming below 2 degrees C over the century, strategies will be needed to tackle the problem on all fronts.

There’s A Bad Smell Around Methane

Ruminant animals are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, which is probably no surprise to some.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Methane is a remarkably potent greenhouse gas, having 28 times the warming potential of CO2 by weight over a 100-year period. Historically, it’s mostly been released from natural sources, like bacteria processing organic material in stagnant watercourses, or from thawing permafrost. However, scientists now consider around 60% of methane in the atmosphere to be a direct result of human activity.

Agriculture is a major contributor in this area. Ruminant animals raised for human consumption are major methane emitters, as the microbes in their digestive systems release the gas when breaking down plant material. With the demand for meat and dairy showing no signs of slowing down, this could prove difficult to tackle. There are a variety of other diffuse sources of the gas, too. Landfills and sewage plants have significant methane emissions of their own, and it’s also often released from oil and gas drilling operations, too.

Oil and gas operations release significant quantities of methane into the atmosphere, often due to leaks or plant malfunctions.

Levels of methane in the atmosphere have been low compared to carbon dioxide. Methane also tends to have a short life in the atmosphere, of around 9 years. These factors have meant that methane has historically been of lower concern to environmental organisations. However, after levels plateaued from the 1990s to the mid-2000s, they have once again begun to climb precipitously. Scientists have yet to identify the cause of this rise, and it has the potential to undo hard-fought gains in the fight against global warming on the CO2 front. Theories range from a reduced level of chemicals that break down methane in the atmosphere, to increased livestock production or the rise of the hydraulic fracturing industry.

Whatever the cause of the recent rise, stemming the increase will require significant work. The Environmental Defence Fund is launching MethaneSAT in an attempt to better locate and quantify releases to the atmosphere, aiming to stem easily-fixed leaks in fossil fuel operations. Other ideas include using antibiotics to reduce animal’s methane output, or to capture the emissions from landfills and use them as an energy source. It’s likely a rigorous approach to both monitoring and emissions reduction will be required to keep methane levels in check.

Nitrous Oxide

Fertilizer use is a major contributor to nitrous oxide emissions.

Nitrous oxide isn’t just the favorite gas of the Fast and the Furious. It’s also a potent greenhouse gas, with 300 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide, pound for pound. With plenty of staying power, it sticks around in the atmosphere for 114 years on average. With 40 percent of NOx emissions coming from human activity, it’s a significant player as far as greenhouse gases go.

Fertilizer use in agriculture is the major contributor to nitrous oxide releases into the atmosphere. As farms push for ever-greater yields, there has been a corresponding increase in the use of nitrogen-containing fertilizers. Other lesser sources include fossil fuel combustion and various chemical production processes.

Reducing nitrous oxide emissions to any major degree is a difficult problem. Reducing farm yields is impractical if we wish to continue feeding as many people as possible. Increasing the efficiency of fertiliizer application is instead a more viable way to go. By applying fertilizers in the right way, in the right quantities at the right time, has the benefit of both reducing nitrous oxide emissions as well as cutting costs for farming operations. Other gains in this space can be made by reducing fossil fuel use by switching to renewable energy production, or cleaner burning technologies. The famous catalytic converter, introduced to gasoline-powered vehicles in the 1970s, plays a major role in reducing these emissions, and urea injection does much the same for diesel engines, which we’ve talked about before.

Sulfur Hexa-what now?

Sulfur hexafluoride is used heavily in high-voltage switchgear, as seen here in this hydroelectric installation. This circuit breaker is rated to run at 115 kV, 1200 A.

Recently, sulfur hexafluoride has come under scrutiny. Also known by its chemical formula, SF6, it’s a highly potent greenhouse gas, with a warming potential of over 23,000 times that of CO2. Prized for its performance as a gaseous dielectric medium, it’s used heavily in high-voltage circuit breakers in modern electricity grids. It enables the construction of much more compact switchgear, while remaining safe and reliable in operation.

Concentrations of SFhave begun to tick up in recent times, raising alarm bells. Speculation is that this is down to leaks of the gas from electrical equipment. As the world’s energy mix changes, grids have come to rely on more distributed generation, from sources like wind farms and solar. This mode of generation necessitates many more connections to the grid, which means more switchgear, and thus more SF6 out in the wild.

This graph shows the lifetime equivalent emissions of AirPlus versus SF6 technology. There are major gains to be had, thanks to the low global warming potential of AirPlus.

Work is afoot to slow this trend before things get out of hand. A replacement has been developed in a collaboration between ABB and 3M, by the name of AirPlus. While the production process releases more CO2, over the lifecycle of an installation, AirPlus-based switchgear should have far lower impact on warming. This is due to the fact that when released into the atmosphere, AirPlus degrades under UV light exposure in just 15 days, versus 3200 years for SF6. Its global warming potential is less than 1, meaning it has less of a warming effect than even CO2, while delivering comparable dielectric performance to SF6. Variants are available for both medium and high voltage applications.

Over time, as goverments work to reduce the prevalance of SFin new installations, its likely that we’ll see AirPlus and other alternatives gain steam. The gas has already been banned in the EU for all non-electrical purposes, since 2014. Industry is typically slow to act unless there’s a strong business case, so government intervention is likely to be the game changer that pushes adoption of newer, cleaner technology in this space.

Other Fluorinated Gases

SF6 is just one of a series of fluorinated gases that have significant global warming potential. Many of these were introduced as replacements for chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which tend to eat a hole in the ozone layer. Thankfully, that problem was largely solved when production of CFCs was tailed off in 1996, but their replacements can still cause further troubles.

With lifetimes in the hundreds to thousands of years in the upper atmosphere, gases like hydrofluorocarbons and perfluorocarbons have an outsized effect on atmospheric warming, thousands of times that of CO2 on a per-molecule basis. They have applications as aerosol propellants, solvents, and fire retardants, but their primary use is as refrigerants in cooling systems. HFC-134a is the most well-known, used widely in air conditioning systems worldwide, and particularly in motor vehicles. This has led to its position as the most abundant HFC in the atmosphere.

Efforts are in place to limit the impact of these chemicals, through precautionary measures. This involves taking more care during the repair and disposal of HVAC systems, as well as designing systems to be more resilient of leaks in the first place. Recycling methods are also beneficial to ensure that where possible, these gases are captured rather then simply vented to the atmosphere. Enforcement on a broad scale remains a challenge.

Automakers are already planning to switch air conditioning systems to use gases that have less global warming potential.
Source: Mercedes Benz

Sometimes, it’s better to avoid the problem entirely. A transition away from using refrigerants like HFC-134a is in progress. The EPA has legislated that all light vehicles manufactured or sold in the USA by model year 2021 must no longer use HFC-134a. Instead, alternatives like HFO-1234yf, HFC-152a, and R-744 will be legal. The first two are mildly flammable, while the latter is simply another name for good old CO2. These refrigerants will require different technology to existing air conditioners. CO2-based systems in particular needing to operate at up to 10 times the pressure of traditional systems. However, progress in technology should allow these gases to take over, reducing the impact these refrigeration gases have on global warming.

The Fight Continues

CO2 is still the primary greenhouse gas, but it’s not the whole story. We’ve looked at a wide variety of chemicals, each with their own important roles and impact on the Earth’s atmosphere. This highlights the fact that there’s no single panacea to heading off global warming; instead, a broad spectrum approach across all aspects of human endeavour is required.

Halting the impacts of these chemicals is difficult, and will require decisive action by both government bodies, as well as cooperation from relevant industries. In some cases, there are additional gains to be had, while in others, the solution comes with high costs and painful changes. We engineered ourselves into this situation, so we can probably engineer ourselves out. Regardless, if humanity is to flourish in the next century, there remains much work to be done.

Building A Geodesic Dome Greenhouse

Greenhouses are a great way to improve conditions for your plants, and are an absolute necessity for any serious gardening in colder climates. When the time came for [gentleworks] to build a new greenhouse, rather than going with a conventional design, they decided to go with a geodesic dome instead.

The greenhouse uses a few techniques that will be unfamiliar to those used to run-of-the-mill carpentry. The individual cedar struts meet at a series of hubs, constructed out of short lengths of Schedule 80 PVC pipe. The struts are attached to the pipe with steel straps, screwed into place. This doesn’t give the strongest of holds, but as most of the loads on the struts are compressive in nature, it works well in practice. Plastic sheeting is used as a covering to help let in plenty of light while keeping the cold out. The greenhouse is also heated, and can maintain a 40 deg F temperature differential with 14,000 BTUs.

It’s a build that has us wanting to throw up a dome or two in our own backyard. We’ve seen other geodesic structures before; if you’re working on one yourself, be sure to drop us a line.

Raspberry Pi Is The Brains Behind Automated Greenhouse

[Asa Wilson] and his wife picked up a 10’x12′ greenhouse from Harbor Freight that for their location required some serious changes, understandable since they’re in Colorado on the western slope of Pike’s Peak where the winds are strong and the normal growing season is short. After assembling it on a concrete footing and adding some steel bracing, they got to work on adding an environment management system based around a Raspberry Pi. Read on for a look at the modifications they made.

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DIY Rocket Mass Heater Build Log For Commercial Greenhouse

[Bigelow Brook Farm] has a cool geodesic dome greenhouse that needs to stay warm in the winter. There are a lot of commercial solutions for greenhouse heating, but if you’re the kind of person who research and develops solutions for aquaponics, a greener solution may have more appeal.

A rocket mass heater is a combination of a rocket stove and underfloor heating. A rocket stove works by having such a strong draft created by the heat rising up the chimney that the flames can’t crawl up the fuel and burn in the open air, creating a controlled burn zone. Unfortunately, with just a plain rocket stove a lot of heat is lost to the atmosphere needlessly. You only need enough to create the draft.

The mass part solves this. It runs the exhaust under the floor and through radiators. This passively retains a lot of heat inside the space to be heated. It’s a bit of a trick to balance the system so it puts as much heat into the space as possible without stalling, which can be dangerous due to carbon monoxide, among other things. Once the balance is achieved the user gets a stove that can burn fuel very effectively and best of all passively.

[Bigelow Brook Farms] have been working on their heater for quite some time. We really enjoy their test driven development and iteration. They have really interesting autopsies when a component of the heater fails and needs replacing. Right now they have a commercial sized operation heated by their latest iteration and it’s completely passive, being gravity fed. Video after the break.

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Fully Automated Watering Robot Takes A Big Leap Forward Toward Greenhouse Automation

aquarius_robot

Greenhouse owners might find [David Dorhout]’s latest invention a groundbreaking green revolution! [David]’s Aquarius robot automates the laborious process of precision watering 90,000 square feet of potted plants. Imagine a recliner sized Roomba with a 30 gallon water tank autonomously roaming around your greenhouse performing 24×7 watering chores with absolute perfection. The Aquarius robot can do it all with three easy setups; add lines up and down the aisles on the floor for the robot to follow, set its dial to the size of your pots and maybe add a few soil moisture sensors if you want the perfect amount of water dispensed in each pot. The options include adding soil moisture sensors only between different sized plants letting Aquarius repeat the dispensing level required by the first plant’s moisture sensor for a given series.

After also digging through a pair of forum posts we learned that the bot is controlled by two Parallax propeller chips and has enough autonomous coding to open and close doors, find charging stations, fill its 30 gal water tank when low, and remember exactly where it left off between pit stops. We think dialing in the pot size could easily be eliminated using RFID pot identification tags similar in fashion to the Science Fair Sorting Project. Adjusting for plant and pot size as well as location might easily be automated using a vision system such as the featured Pixy a few weeks back. Finally, here are some featured hardware hacks for soil moisture sensing that could be incorporated into Aquarius to help remotely monitor and attend to just the plants that need attention: [Andy’s] Garden sensors, [Clover’s] Moisture control for a DIY greenhouse, [Ken_S’s] GardenMon(itoring project)

[David Dorhout] has 14 years experience in the agriculture and biotech industry. He has a unique talent applying his mad scientist technology to save the future of mankind as seen with his earlier Prospero robot farmer. You can learn more about Aquarius’s features on Dorhout R&D website or watch the video embedded below.

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Large-scale Arduino Controlled Greenhouse Does Some Serious Farming

[Instrument Tek] isn’t messing around with a hobby-sized greenhouse. In fact if it were any bigger we’d call it a commercial operation. But what interests us is the professional-quality greenhouse automation he built around and Arduino board.

The greenhouse is about what you’d expect to see at a nursery, except the footprint is somewhere around 10’x10′. It’s a stick-built frame with walls made of poly. Professional greenhouses monitor and regulate temperature and humidity and this one does just that. The video after the break starts off by showing the controller box. It has temperature, humidity, and light sensors that allow the Arduino to judge growing conditions. If it gets too hot, some slats are opened and a fan exhausts air from the structure. If it gets to cold, a series of light fixtures are energized. They contain heat lamps, as this setup is in northern Alberta, Canada and it can get quite cold some nights. The drip system is also automated, with a solenoid to turn water on and off.

In addition to that 3:26 show-and-tell, we’ve embedded a 27-minute video that shows how to build the controller box. So you can start you plants indoors on the rack, then populate the greenhouse when they get large enough.

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Garden Sensors Measure Soil Moisture And Greenhouse Temperature

[Andy] is getting his garden up and running. This year it’s been pretty cold so he decided to get small plastic domed tunnel which acts as a mini greenhouse. To help monitor that environment he built this sensor array which displays temperature and soil moisture readings.

Temperature is quite simple. He’s using a TMP36 sensor which is held a few inches above the soil. The moisture sensor is of his own design. It uses two building screws embedded in foam. These are pushed into the soil and a resistance reading indicates moisture level. By driving voltage on one screw, and measuring voltage on the other he gets some useful data. It’s not a standardized value, but observation over time will let him know how the scale relates to dry or wet soil.

During the build process he found that he needed a pull-down resistor on the probe used to take the moisture measurement. He also uses an I/O pin to drive the other screw. This gives him a way to shut off the juice when not taking a reading. We just hope he’s either got a current limiting resistor, or is using a transistor to drive it high.