M-m-m biomass

August 26, 2010

We don’t like generating biofuel from our food, but what about a worker whose food is our waste? That’s exactly what Bristol Robotics Lab in the UK has been doing with a sewage-scavenging robot that metabolizes waste in its artificial gut.

The robot, the Ecobot III, can survive by itself for up to seven days by consuming organic material for its microbial fuel cells (MFCs), bio-electrochemical devices that use bacteria to break down food and generate power. Since, unlike a human digestive system, this organic material could be anything, including sewage (the sewage that the Ecobot III is being fed has already been partially processed). When the waste needs to be expelled, it’s sent out of a gravity-fed peristaltic pump that squeezes unwanted matter out of a tube. That way, the robot’s processing system doesn’t become clogged by unused fuel.

It’s a little gross, but hey: Isn’t the future worth it?

But a robot that eats waste like animals eat food isn’t the only option for autonomous robots powered by biomass. As the New Scientist article linked above mentions, the U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is developing a similar robot powered by an internal combustion engine. Rather than digesting biomass, these robots would take in organic matter and burn it. Though, in an age where we’re increasingly concerned about greenhouse gases, and with a robot that could consume our waste, it seems odd to propose a new model that’s certainly going to release even more emissions.

Either way, the idea of tiny robots scurrying around and taking care of our waste, without so much as a finger lifted by their owners, is definitely appealing. A trash-removing robot powered by the very trash it removes? My apartment could probably use two.

Via New Scientist

A Bright Idea: Keeping Things Dim

July 30, 2010

Since most of us aren’t ready to pack up our belongings and pitch a tent in the middle of the wilderness, the steps we take to reduce our environmental impact tend to be small ones. Government websites like the Office of Energy Efficiency provide a host of energy-saving tips like choosing low-energy lighting fixtures and checking the insulation on our windows, but these tips are still part of a recognizable pattern of energy consumption.

Even carbon offsets, those “get out of jail free” cards of the greenhouse gas world, aren’t 100 per cent effective in reducing emissions — The Christian Science Monitor published a damning six-part series in April 2010 that outlined many of the failings outlined in a similar report by The Suzuki Foundation and Pembina Institute.

But if the steps we’re taking are small, there’s at least some hope that they’re at least larger than we’d thought before. According to a study published in this month’s Energy Policy, the US government (and, therefore, likely the Canadian government as well) may have underestimated the CO2 emission savings of reducing electricity use by as much as 60 per cent. Because plants that burn fossil fuels are generally more able to respond to changes in use than their lower-emission counterparts (nuclear and renewable), lumping the two categories together skews the data. The authors recommend dividing electricity generation between low and emission-free sources and more variable, higher carbon sources, to give a more accurate picture of exactly what volume of emissions are being released.

Precisely estimating the volume of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions continues to be one of the largest problems when trying to estimate the environmental fallout from human activity. The environment is still an incredibly complex system that has both surprised us with its ability to process our emissions, and shocked us with the rapid effects of climate change, such as ocean acidification. It’s hard to get a firm grasp of the large picture, which might explain why we tend to want small changes that we can make in our daily lives. So, knowing that the small might not be so small after all is definitely good news.

Via Science Daily

Burning Food And Fuel

July 6, 2010

Two hungry, hungry sources are responsible for most of the world’s environmental impacts: our mouths and our gas tanks.

According to a report prepared for the “International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management,” convened under the United Nations Environment Programme , food and fuel consumption are taking considerable tolls on the environment that include reducing freshwater supplies, destroying ecosystems and intensifying disease and death rates. It’s not a rosy picture, and one of the report’s more interesting recommendations isn’t any more pleasant for meat eaters: switching to vegetable-based foods over animal-based proteins. (Of course, as far as carbon intensity, not all plants are created equal either).

In Canada, agriculture contributed 8.5 per cent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2008, but energy provided the lion’s share, with 81 per cent. Changing the way we use energy is at the heart of everything we write here at Flow, so there are clear indications across the board that Canadians and Canadian industry are willing to take steps to improve their energy use. From energy efficiency to renewable energy projects, provincial energy strategies show that the entire country recognizes the importance of our energy.

And the agricultural industry has taken notice of its environmental footprint as well. In addition to projects like farm-based methane capture that make better use of existing emissions, techniques like no-till farming are designed to reduce the volume of total emissions by reducing the disturbance of soil. And even more basic methods, like using straw residue to keep nitrogen from escaping into groundwater, are aimed at reducing farming’s environmental impact.

Whether or not the report’s recommendations are followed to the letter, the way the world uses energy and grows its food will certainly change. But it’s also an uphill battle — there aren’t many things we need more than fuel and food.

Via Science Blog

Polluters Pay To Promote Parallel Projects

June 28, 2010

No one’s figured out how to snatch money from thin air, but 30 Alberta companies recently cashed in by doing almost that: reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

From CO2 capturing in Exshaw to solar and wind power installations in 9,000 homes across the province, Alberta’s climate change fund is paying out for the first round of emission-reducing energy projects.

Launched in April 2008, the Climate Change and Emissions Management Fund allows companies annually producing more than 100,000 tonnes of GHG emissions to pay $15 for every tonne over their allowed limit (companies must reduce the intensity of their emissions by 12 per cent). Companies can also buy carbon credits in the Alberta-based offset system, but the fund has proven to be a popular option: to date, it’s collected about $40 million.

Now, the province’s Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation is providing the first round of funding, designed to support projects that will ultimately reduce the same GHG emissions that fuel the fund.

The corporation selected 30 projects from 223 project submissions. These include $8.2 million for a Lethbridge biogas cogeneration plant (ECB Enviro North America Inc.), $3 million for a solar thermal power project (City of Medicine Hat) and $1.8 million to develop a pilot plant to produce biofuel and utilize carbon dioxide (Enerkem Inc.). But the province won’t just be seeing carbon-reducing projects that generate power.

The 30 projects run the gamut from renewable energy generation, like Calgary-based Enmax’s plan to install 9,000 wind- and solar-generation kits in Alberta homes over five years, to energy efficiency and carbon capture and storage (CCS), like a CO2 capture facility at a limestone production facility in Exshaw. It’s a slate of projects that shows the diversity of the province’s carbon mitigation efforts, and the growing interest in unconventional approaches to energy. And even if it’s not exactly magic, pulling project funding out of invisible gases still isn’t a bad trick.

Via CanWest

Go Big Or Go Green Or Both

May 12, 2010

As we’ve seen with project like the United Arab Emirates’ Masdar City, there’s something to be said for raising a city’s energy profile with a splashy public display — like any huge public monument, it definitely makes it hard to look the other way. But when it comes to splashy projects, Rio de Janeiro’s got everyone else beat: Their latest design for the 2016 Olympic Games is nothing less than a giant, artificial waterfall.

Designed with embedded solar panels that provide power for the city and the games’ facilities during the day, the Solar City Tower will use excess energy to pump seawater into its upper recesses, 60 above sea level. At night, this water would be released with the help of turbines, producing even more power. To accommodate guests and tourists, the facility includes an amphitheatre at the tower’s base and an urban plaza with a glass walkway located at its top.

Though the structure’s “urban waterfall” display isn’t intended to be constant (no matter how much renewable power fuels the process, it would be awfully hard to justify building a giant waterfall for nothing but show), the effect it produces is undeniable — like Rio’s iconic Christ the Redeemer statue, it’s hard to look away from something so massive. And that attention, in turns, draws attention back to the city’s larger energy goals.

Greenhouse gas emissions continue to be a major point of discussion for contemporary Olympic Games and Rio de Janeiro has been drawing attention to its emissions since its original bid. When it comes to making big statements about energy use and emissions, it helps to make a big splash.

image RAFAA architecture and design

COP15 Day 2

December 8, 2009

To make sense of all the information coming out of the COP15 confence in Copenhagen, Flow will be running a series of daily blog entries to keep you up-to-date on the latest news from the largest climate change event in the world. Today is day two of the 12-day conference.

Certainly today’s most talked-about Copenhagen moment was US President Barack Obama’s announcement that greenhouse gases would now be considered a health hazard, giving the Environmental Protection Agency the power to to regulate industrial emissions. Given the difficulties of negotiating domestic GHG regulation (let alone on the global scale that the Copenhagen delegates are tackling), the fact that a single body in one of the world’s largest two emitters has the power to drastically affect industrial policy is a major coup. But while the US is certainly one of the most looked-at participants in the conference, it joins 191 other countries in the conference’s meetings.

Among others, today’s meeting topics include “China and the world: Solving climate change through practical, on-the-ground collaboration,” “Trade liberalisation and its role in technology diffusion: A look at the renewable energy, buildings” and “Developing Country Implementation Strategies and Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs)”. Every day of the confernece also includes a variety of side events, including an update from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on its renewable energy reports and a four-part series on low carbon scenarios in Denmark, France, Germany and the UK. Renault’s Zero Emission Transportation – Taking a Step Towards the Future in Copenhagen, will be taking place in parallel with the conference today, highlighting zero-emission vehicles.

COP15 Day 3

Going boldly together where few have gone before

November 30, 2009

treebulbCanada and its 29 partners in the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD) are being challenged by the Paris-based body to have the political moxy to put carbon taxes in place.

OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria threw down the gauntlet during a news conference he called to release the Economics of Climate Change Mitigation, an OECD study which is a key element of preparations for the COP15 in Copenhagen in early December.

Among other things, the report urges developed countries to at least double their targets for reducing greenhouse gases and Gurria said it provides the analytical support and economic rationale to help decision-makers at the Copenhagen summit to strike a practicable deal on climate change.

In its report, the OECD says carbon taxes must be part of a broader strategy for Copenhagen. The current average OECD commitment is for a reduction of 8-14 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020, well short of the 25-40 per cent cut the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says is necessary to keep global average temperatures from rising by more than two degrees Celsius.

Calling on OECD member governments to coordinate support for taxes as well as a cap-and-trade approach which would effectively put a price on carbon, the OECD says complaints about costs of carbon taxation are unjustified.

It concedes that a global carbon market would have a four per cent negative effect on global gross domestic product by 2050, but Gurrie pointed out that over the same period, GDP growth is projected to grow by more than 250 per cent.

Gurria said “action to mitigate climate change must be taken at a cost that countries can afford.” That was possible only with “a cost-effective set of policy instruments, with a focus on carbon pricing” applied as broadly as possible to all emission sources. He admitted the unlikelihood of getting a global carbon market overnight but said some countries may need to take the lead despite understandable concerns about their international competitiveness.

He said these first movers also worry about carbon leakage, the risk that emissions reductions in some countries would offset by increases elsewhere. ”Developed countries need to take the lead in reducing emissions, but the most cost-effective way to tackle carbon leakage would be for the largest emitting emerging economies to join them and, later, all developing countries.”

Laying it on thick

October 26, 2009

peanutbutterSo, you’ve heard about oil sands in a documentary or on the news. You’ve heard, perhaps, in conversation or classroom debates, about its impact on the environment. Perhaps you even know some people who have packed their bags and headed to Alberta to get their own nugget of black gold and share in the wealth. But this Texas, er…Alberta tea doesn’t come up from the ground like a bubbling crude as Jed observed in the famous classic, Beverly Hillbillies.

Instead, it comes in the form of bitumen… gummy, gooey and thicker than molasses in January. To make matters worse, it’s mixed right in with the sand, presenting a grueling challenge for industry. How to separate such an unruly brew from the ground is for another story, but this is a tale about the origins of bitumen’s thick skin and how we toil to tame this intractable taffy of the turf.

Thicker than peanut butter, but not quite as tasty, Athabasca bitumen has a viscosity, or resistance to flow, of more than 500,000 centipoise (cP) at room temperature.


Now, with every story you have some sort of conflict, a rising action, a climax and a conclusion. The conflict here is bitumen’s high viscosity, and the implications it has on this resource’s means of production and impact on the environment.

That’s a heavy story man

A penetrating glimpse inside the molecular structure of bitumen reveals the cause behind its thickness. Are you ready for it? Bitumen is thick because… (insert drum roll)… it is heavy.

You may have heard the term “heavy oil” before, but few people know what this actually means. What makes heavy oil heavy? What makes oil sands heavier than conventional oil or methane?

Essentially, when we say a certain oil is heavy, what we’re really saying is that it is carbon heavy, meaning that type of oil has longer and more complex carbon chains than other types of oil. Light crude oil, such as conventional Alberta crude, contains many small, hydrogen-rich hydrocarbon molecules whereas heavy crude oil contains many large carbon-rich hydrocarbon molecules.

As you can see, the antagonist in this particular story is the carbon molecules.

So, in order to bring bitumen to a viscosity that refiners can actually work with, you have to upgrade the bitumen, which essentially means, getting rid of some of the carbon, resulting in a product that is less thick. In fact, when you consider the extra process bitumen has to go through in order to get rid of all that heavy carbon, you can see where the environmental conflict lies. Additional energy is required to separate bitumen from the sands and upgrade it. As well, heavy crude oil requires more refining to transform it into transportation fuels. And of course, more energy equals more greenhouse gas emissions if the energy being used to power the extraction, upgrading and refining processes is natural gas.

So the rising action in this story has everything to do with the rising demand for cheap energy around the world, the important role of oil sands in meeting that demand and the unrelenting challenge of reducing greenhouse gases. The plot starts to thicken as the bitumen thins because at each stage of carbon removal, the viscosity of the bitumen becomes less and less, making it easier to work with. But the overall energy used becomes more and more. It’s really annoying.

Technology is starting to change all that. Scientists are exploring ways to reduce the energy used in oil sands extraction and upgrading. One approach in the pipes is adding bacteria to bitumen deep underground, converting it into methane, which is easier and less energy intensive to extract. Another in-situ approach of extraction is Toe to Heel Air Injection (THAI) which involves injecting air into the ground, causing combustion. As the bitumen heats it becomes less viscous allowing it to flow towards the well. As it flows it leaves some of the heavy carbon behind in a process called “coking”. Coking usually happens above ground as part of the upgrading process but doing it underground results in a lighter product that can be transported through pipelines, is partially upgraded and results in fewer lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, another approach is to use renewable energy to power any or all of these processes. The challenge here is that renewable energy is not as cheap and bountiful. But as society and governments evolve towards increased sustainability, that could soon change.

Although renewables are rapidly being embraced across the globe, it is important to recognize the degree to which we depend on oil, even as we make the transition to greener alternatives. Sure we can heat our homes with solar and earth energy, and derive electricity from nuclear, wind and hydro, but there remains a conundrum surrounding our cars. Solar, nuclear, wind and hydro-powered cars are still a long way off. Sure we have hybrids, but for the most part they still run on gasoline and electric cars have very limited ranges and low speeds. As well, a lot of electricity used to power them is coal or natural gas fired thermal electricity.

Now, every good story must have at least a few literary devices, and the most delicious of them is irony. We labour to make bitumen and the resulting crude products less viscous right from the extraction phase (especially with in-situ extracting techniques) through to the upgrading and then refining phase. The most premium petroleum products are the highly refined and less viscous transportation fuels such as jet fuel and gasoline. Ironically, lubricating oil, which is a highly refined product, needs to be more viscous so as not to ruin the engine. So after all this work to make it less viscous, additives are put in to make sure it retains its viscosity.

Because the oil sands and its continually evolving technologies are a work in progress, this story is too. There are yet so many variables that could affect the outcome, such as the direction of the economy, incentive to invest in research and development and carbon pricing laws. While the U.S. is introducing a tough stance on carbon emissions through its Green Energy and Security Act, Canada is waiting to see what happens before coming up with anything definitive.

But the rest of the world isn’t holding its breath. Already the wheels are in motion to come up with a global carbon pricing scheme in an effort to reduce world greenhouse gas emissions and to ensure an even playing field for renewable energy to compete in the global energy market. It may be safe to predict that the outcome of the upcoming conference of world leaders in Copenhagen this December could serve as a climax for this story.

Most importantly, however, is the conclusion and that rests in the hands of energy consumers as well. Mitigating climate change is a heavy topic and while many remain thick headed towards a potentially warming planet, many more are working towards a positive conclusion for the planet – one where energy, the economy, the environment and its inhabitants live happily ever after.

Ethanol regulations

August 25, 2009

biofuel_istockThere are 12 ethanol producers in Canada spanning the country from the Prairie Provinces to Quebec. Doesn’t sound like very many, does it? Maybe not, but these companies are responsible for the production of 1390 million litres a year (MMly) of ethanol. 

From the corn-based ethanol plants in Ontario to the wheat and corn plants in the Prairies, the diversity of raw material reflects the availability of local materials. The smallest of the country’s producers, the Iogen Corporation located in Ottawa produces a mere 2 MMly. The country’s largest producer of ethanol is GreenField, whose four plants in Ontario and Quebec produce a total of 496 MMly. 

Why is this important? 

Recent government regulations are requiring refiners to include at least 5 per cent ethanol in their gasoline by September 2010. This 5-per-cent increase would create a market for approximately two billion litres of ethanol annually, a substantially higher volume than what Canada is currently churning out. 

Building new plants and creating jobs sounds great, but there’s a catch: ethanol can be as ‘dirty’ as gasoline. The biofuel industry has been highly controversial because deforestation and increased land cultivation are causing increased greenhouse gas emissions. 

All Canadian producers use natural gas in their production process, which cause fewer emissions than coal-fired ethanol, which actually creates 34 per cent more emissions per gallon of fuel than gasoline producers over a 30-year period. 

The Canadian government claims that grain-based biofuels can reduce emissions by 40 per cent compared to gasoline. But Natural Resources Canada’s calculations do not include indirect land use emissions. 

Over the longer term, as the one-time impacts of greater land cultivation fade, it is estimated that corn ethanol using natural gas will produce 16 per cent fewer emissions than gasoline. 

So is it worth it? Only time will tell.

Carbon offset market boom

August 24, 2009

In slow economic times, business is booming in the carbon-offset market. Perhaps it’s because the American Clean Energy and Security Act requires greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced 17% by 2020, and 83% by 2050.

Voluntary carbon-offset programs have traditionally been available to major companies, corporations and businesses. Essentially, they’re allowed to exceed emission targets if they buy credits from an “overperforming” company. Now, Joe Consumer can get in the game as well.

My Emission Exchange is a free carbon-offset marketplace where members tally their carbon footprint and actually sell carbon credits to bidding companies, all of which is pocketed by the member. Calculate your current carbon footprint on their handy Express Calculator.


It doesn’t really matter what it is right now; your goal is to reduce it by 10% annually. If you can do that, you earn carbon credits which can be sold at market value. What better way to encourage people to consider the effect their actions has on the environment, than to pay them to correct them? Governments have been slow to realize this, so it took a group of intrepid entrepreneurs to take things into their own hands.

Best of all, the benefits go directly to those doing their best to effect change.

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