Of the many well-known names in science, few have been as reluctant to stick to one particular field as Freeman John Dyson. Born in the UK in 1923, he showed a great interest in mathematics and related fields even as a child. By the time he was 15 he had won a scholarship at Trinity College, in Cambridge, where he studied mathematics. Though the war forced him to work at the Air Force’s Operational Research Section (ORS), afterwards he would return to Trinity to get his BA in mathematics.
His subsequent career saw him teaching at universities in the UK and US, before eventually ending up at Cornell University, where he joined the Institute for Advanced Study at the invitation of its head, J. Robert Oppenheimer. Here he would meet up with such people as Richard Feynman with whom he would work on quantum electrodynamics.
Beyond mathematics and physics, Dyson would also express great interest in space exploration — with Dyson spheres being well-known — and genetics, both in the context of the first formation of life and in genetic manipulation to improve plants to deal with issues today. He also worked on the famous Project Orion, which used nuclear bombs for propulsion.
In this article we’ll take a look at these and other parts of Mr. Dyson’s legacy, as well as the influence of his works today.
With global temperatures continuing to break records in recent years, it’s important to cast an eye towards the future. While efforts to reduce emissions remain in a political quagmire, time is running out to arrest the slide into catastrophe.
Further compounding the issue are a variety of positive feedback loops that promise to further compound the problem. In these cases, initial warming has flow-on effects that then serve to further increase global temperatures. Avoiding these feedback mechanisms is crucial if the Earth is to remain comfortably livable out to the end of the century.
A Multitude of Causes
The issue of climate change often appears as a simple one, with the goal being to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to prevent negative consequences for human civilization. Despite this, the effects of climate change are often diffuse and intermingled. The various climate systems of the Earth interact in incredibly complex ways, and there are many mechanisms at play in these feedback effects that could tip things over the edge.
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
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.
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.
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?
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 SF6 have 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.
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 SF6 in 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.
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.
Data from 2016 pegs it as the hottest year since recording began way back in 1880. Carbon dioxide levels continue to sit at historical highs, and last year the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that humanity has just 12 years to limit warming to 1.5 C.
Reducing emissions is the gold standard, but it’s not the only way to go about solving the problem. There has been much research into the field of carbon sequestration — the practice of capturing atmospheric carbon and locking it away. Often times, this consists of grand plans of pumping old oil wells and aquifers full of captured CO2, but there’s another method of carbon capture that’s as old as nature itself.
As is taught in most primary school science courses, the trees around us are responsible for capturing carbon dioxide, in the process releasing breathable oxygen. The carbon becomes part of the biomass of the tree, no longer out in the atmosphere trapping heat on our precious Earth. It follows that planting more trees could help manage carbon levels and stave off global temperature rises. But just how many trees are we talking? The figure recently floated was 1,000,000,000,000 trees, which boggles the mind and has us wondering what it would take to succeed in such an ambitious program.
This is a solution to global warming. This solution will also produce electricity, produce rain in desertified areas, and transform the Sahara into arable land capable of capturing CO2. How is this possible? It’s simple: all we need to do is build a five-kilometer tall, twenty-meter wide chimney. Hot air, warmed by the Earth’s surface, will enter the base of the chimney and flow through turbines, generating electricity. From there, air will rise through the chimney, gradually cooling and transferring energy from the atmosphere at Earth’s surface to five kilometers altitude. This is the idea behind the Super Chimney, It’s an engineering concept comparable to building a dam across the Strait of Gibraltar, a system of gigantic mirrors in Earth’s orbit, or anything built under an Atoms for Peace project. In short, this is fringe engineering.
This is also, ‘saving the world with wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube men.’
The idea of building tens of thousands of fabric chimneys, placing them all around the globe, and cooling the Earth while sequestering carbon dioxide is fantastic. Ideas are simple, implementation is something else entirely. There are also obvious problems with the physics presented in the Super Chimney presentation, but these problems don’t actually make a Super Chimney impossible. We need more eyes on this, so we’re opening this one up as an Ask Hackaday. What do you think of this audacious scheme, and is it even possible?