Monthly Archives: August 2012

British Students Design Hydrogen-Fuel-Cell-Powered Locomotive

Engineering students and staff at the University of Birmingham have designed and built a prototype hydrogen powered locomotive, the first of its kind to operate in the United Kingdom. The locomotive has been trialled successfully at the Stapleford Miniature Railway in Leicestershire.

The locomotive is a hybrid design, equipped with a hydrogen fuel cell that powers the train’s permanent magnet electric motors. The fuel cell also funnels electricity to lead acid batteries that help meet the energy demands of the train during peak operation periods. Over 5,000 litres of hydrogen are stored in a solid state metal hydride tank at relatively low pressure, with the system typically operating at just 5 bar. This was achieved by using one of the ten advanced hydrogen storage units successfully employed on the University’s hydrogen powered canal boat, the Ross Barlow.

The locomotive is able to pull a 400-kilogram load up over 2 ,700 metres. Two additional tanks can also be added to extend the range. It also features regenerative braking to capture energy it produces, and is controlled by a wifi-enabled touchscreen remote.

Dr Stuart Hillmansen, from the University of Birmingham’s School of Electronic, Electrical and Computer Engineering, faculty advisor to the team, said: ‘Our hydrogen powered locomotive is a clean and efficient example of how hydrogen power could work for future trains on non-electrified routes. We hope that our efforts will encourage the rail industry to take a closer look at this exciting technology.’  The team added that the technology, once modified, could be especially suitable, for less power-hungry applications, such as branch lines or tram services.

See how the locomotive runs here


U.S. Carbon Emissions at Lowest Point in 20 Years

In the first quarter of 2012, the amount of carbon dioxide being released into the United States atmosphere has fallen dramatically to its lowest level in 20 years, according to a recent report released by the Energy Information Administration.  With CO2 levels globally still rising,  particularly in China, and coal and energy use still growing rapidly in many countries, the news came as a surprise to many leading climate scientists.  The EIA says the decline is not the result of government policy, but of a mild winter, a reduced demand for diesel and, most significant,  a switch in the use of coal in favour of cheap natural gas.

The report notes that United States carbon emissions from energy use were down by almost 8% in the first three months of 2012,  in comparison to the same period in 2011. Carbon dioxide emissions to the sum of 1,340 million metric tons were produced in the first quarter of this year,  just two million metric tons more than the same three-month period in 1992.  This makes it  the lowest level for the quarter since 1992, the Energy Information Administration reports. In 2004 first-quarter emissions were the highest, with nearly 1,580 million metric tons

Natural gas prices are historically low at present, making it a more attractive alternative to the industry.

The extraction of large deposits of natural gas, via hydraulic fracturing, in the Marcellus Shale has helped cut gas prices by 25% in the four years to 2012.

Supporters of the gas industry argue that America’s shale gas boom has delivered environmental benefits by replacing more carbon-intensive coal-fired power. Natural gas does seem an environmentally friendlier option than coal: it produces more kilowatts of power than the equivalent amount of coal and it provides more energy for each carbon dioxide molecule emitted into the atmosphere.  Still, natural gas is not a long-term solution to the CO2 problem. It may burn cleaner than coal, but still emits some CO2.  Also, natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing – or “fracking”, may not be as harmless as people think.  A three-year study by the Colorado School of Public Health, published earlier this year, found a number of potentially toxic petroleum hydrocarbons in the air near fracking sites in western Colorado. These included benzene, ethyl-benzene, toluene and xylene.  These chemicals can cause health problems like difficulty in breathing and headaches.  The report even calculated a higher cancer risks for residents living nearer to the wells as compared to those residing further away.  Research from Cornell University also suggest that when shale gas is taken from the earth  “fugitive methane” can escape into the atmosphere through fissures in the ground.  Methane is a greenhouse gas more than 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide in terms of global warming.  Another study by the US Geological Survey says since the end of the last century there has been a a six-fold increase in small earthquakes in mid-America which may be linked to oil and gas production, including fracking, . Climate scientists and green groups argue that new investment in gas infrastructure will lock the United States into high levels of emissions for decades to come.

Allthough for some the shift away from coal is a reason to be “cautiously optimistic” about potential ways to deal with climate change, the Energy Information Administration warned that it was “difficult to draw conclusions” from data due to the specific factors in 2011. The data showed that some 18% of U.S. energy consumption in 2011 came from sources that do not emit any carbon dioxide including nuclear, hydropower, wind and solar energy. They can provide a longer -term impact on the CO2 problem. President Barrack Obama has aimed to cut the nation’s carbon emissions by 17 % below the 2005 baseline by 2020,  but proposals backed by Obama to restrict carbon emissions have not made it pass Congress. The rival Republican Party are opposed, arguing that climate efforts are too costly and voicing doubt about scientists’ views on climate change.


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Scientist Makes Use of Butanol as Biofuel more Appealing

University of Illinois scientist Hao Feng has found a way around the challenges that prevented butanol from being an attractive biofuel to the industry.

Biologically produced alcohols, most commonly ethanol, and less commonly propanol and butanol, are produced either by the action of microorganisms and enzymes through the fermentation of sugar beets, corn, grass, leaves, agricultural waste, or cellulose. The last named is a more difficult process. It can be produced from biomass (“biobutanol”) as well as from fossil fuels (“petrobutanol”). Production of industrial butanol and acetone via fermentation started in 1916, during World War I. A student of Louis Pasture (Chime Wizemann) isolated the microbe that made acetone. England approached the young microbiologist and asked for the rights to make acetone for cordite. Up until the 1920s acetone was the product sought, but for every pound of acetone fermented, two pounds of butanol were formed. A growing automotive paint industry turned the market around, and by 1927 butanol was primary and acetone became the byproduct.

The production of butanol by fermentation declined from the 1940s through the 1950s, mainly because the price of petrochemicals dropped below that of starch and sugar substrates such as corn and molasses. The labor intensive batch fermentation system’s overhead combined with the low yields contributed to the situation. Fermentation-derived acetone and butanol production ceased in the late 1950s. From the 1970s on the primary focus for alternative fuels was on ethanol.

But bio-butanol does has superior properties to bio-ethanol when used as a biofuel. Biobutanol (also called biogasoline) is often claimed to provide a direct replacement for gasoline without modification to the engine or the car. It will produce more energy a better and is less corrosive and less water soluble than ethanol. One promising development came from Tulane University, and announced in the late summer of 2011 – the university’s alternative fuel research scientists discovered a Clostridium-genus bacteria, which they codenamed “TU-103”, that can convert nearly any form of cellulose into butanol, and is the only yet-discovered strain of Clostridium-genus bacteria that can do so in the presence of oxygen.

When making biobutanol through fermitation, the sugars are broken down into various alcohols, which include ethanol and butanol. Unfortunately, a rise in alcohol concentration causes the butanol to be toxic to the microorganisms, killing them off after a period of time. That toxicity limits the amount of fuel that can be made in one batch. This made the fermentation process expensive. The next challenge lies with the separation costs of butanol from the fermentation broth at the high concentrations used by the industry. Hao Feng says both problems have now been solved.

In the study, funded by the Energy Biosciences Institute, Feng’s team successfully tested the use of a non-ionic surfactant, or co-polymer, to create small structures that capture and hold the butanol molecules. “This keeps the amount of butanol in the fermentation broth low so it doesn’t kill the organism and we can continue to produce it,” he said. This process, called extractive fermentation, increases the amount of butanol produced during fermentation by 100 percent or more.

But that’s only the beginning. Feng’s group then makes use of one of the polymer’s properties — its sensitivity to temperature. When the fermentation process is finished, the scientists heat the solution until a cloud appears and two layers form. “We use a process called cloud point separation,” he said. “Two phases form, with the second facing the polymer-rich phase. When we remove the second phase, we can recover the butanol, achieving a three- to fourfold reduction in energy use there because we don’t have to remove as much water as in traditional fermentation.” A bonus is that the co-polymers can be recycled and can be reused at least three times after butanol is extracted with little effect on phase separation behavior and butanol enrichment ability. After the first recovery, the volume of butanol recovered is slightly lower but is still at a high concentration, he said.

According to Feng, alternative fuel manufacturers may want to take another look at butanol because it has a number of attractive qualities.

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Wind Turbines Provide Cods a Place to Grow up

Scientists at Ghent University have sighted young cod swimming around the foundation of a wind turbine in the Belgium part of the North Sea. The discovery could indicate that cod numbers might benefit from wind farms in the sea.

Atlantic cod stocks were severely overfished in the 1970s and ’80s, leading to their abrupt collapse in 1992. Greenpeace added the Atlantic cod to its seafood red list in 2010. This is a list of fish that are commonly sold in supermarkets around the world, and which have a very high risk of being sourced from unsustainable fisheries. Despite mandatory catch quotas the number of cods still remain low. Some scientists plead for a ban on fishing cod.

Ghent scientists have been monitoring the impact of the wind farm on fish stocks since 2008. The cod and the pout (a small fish belonging to the cod family) were being sighted shortly after the installation of the wind turbines. After one year already 30,000 pouts per wind turbine had been sighted on the Thorntonbank wind farm. Recently other species like lemon sole, red mullet and plaice were also encoutered. The young cod now discovered is usually hard to find in this part of the North Sea. This could be an indication that the environment of the wind turbines, which is a no- fishing zone, can serve as a cod nusery.

Sponges, polyps and mussels that all provide food for the fish, grow in abundance on the foundations of the wind turbines. Young fish can grow up there in a sheltered environment and away from their natural predators. The findings are good news for those concerned with the depletion of North Sea fish stocks. Although according to scientists full recovery of cod stocks can not be expected in the short term.

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