Sunday, September 06, 2015

Eat Less Meat to Save Ourselves.

 A report has been released by the U.N., in which it is urged that we reduce consumption of meat and dairy products as a means to mitigate climate change, hunger and fuel poverty  It is stressed that food, transportation and housing must be made more sustainable if we seriously intend to ameliorate biodiversity loss and climate change, and as a matter of urgency. Some 30% of global CO2 emissions is a result of internationally traded goods, while the mining sector uses 7% of the world's energy: a fraction that is expected to increase in line with "growth", which has serious connotations regarding international policy. A doubling of income is predicted to cause an 81% increase in CO2 emissions, which is an alarming prospect in the context of the rising population, predicted to be over 9 billion by 2050. 70% of all the world's freshwater consumption is taken by agriculture, which also accounts for 38% of the total use of land, and 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions. These figures may in fact be optimistically low, since another study reports that some 85% of freshwater is used for agriculture, which either directly or indirectly, is responsible for half of all greenhouse gas emissions. It has been estimated that it will be necessary to increase food production by 70% in 2050 if the population of the world is to be fed, but its expected increase from 7.3 billion now to perhaps 9.6 billion in 2050 will overwhelm any efficiency gains in agriculture. The production of animal products is particularly demanding in terms of land for grazing animals, and water, and a rising global middle class which is increasingly meat-hungry.

The above 70% increase in food production assumes that the western diet will spread to the Global South, with no reduction in consumption by the northern nations. 30-40% of cereals are presently fed to animals, which could rise to 50% if levels of meat and dairy consumption increase as predicted. It has been reckoned that 3.5 billion additional people could be fed if all cereals were given over for human consumption. Some 400 million tonnes of cereals could be made available for human diets, if meat and dairy were restricted to the levels being consumed in the year 2000, and this is sufficient to feed an extra 1.2 billion people. Moreover, it would be a better option to take meat into our diet from animals not fed on cereals, but grazed on grass, which is not a viable food source for humans. This would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially of nitrous oxide, primarily from nitrogen fertilizers: 74% of N2O emissions in the U.S. are from agricultural soils.

It has been concluded that it is possible to provide a healthy and sustainable diet for 9 billion people in 2050, giving each person a daily 3,000 kcal, of which 500 kcal is from animals. This would require less meat and dairy being eaten by wealthier consumers, while allowing those in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa more such protein sources. Food waste is another critical issue, since in the U.K. we import 40% of the food we eat, and yet half of what is made available to us is discarded. Typically 280-380 kg of food goes to waste in the U.S. and Europe, but a more modest 125-165 kg in poorer parts of the Global South.  It is thought that global demand for food could be cut by 25% through measures to curb food waste, while across the world, more varied and healthful diets could be provided.

The soil itself has been described as being our "silent ally" in the "2015 International Year of Soils" programme, launched by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which emphasises that healthy soil is essential and underpinning in providing food, fuel fibre, and even medicine. As the FAO stresses: 'soils are also essential to our ecosystems, playing a key role in the carbon cycle, storing and filtering water, and improving resilience to floods and droughts, and yet we are not paying enough attention to this important “silent ally”.' In regard to climate change, soils provide the largest pool of organic carbon, and hence it is vital not to degrade soil organic matter through unsustainable agricultural practices; soils are furthermore essential in the storage and distribution of water, meaning that degradation of the soils can only exacerbate the problems of heavily water stressed regions such as the Middle East.

It is reckoned that some 33% of all soil resources are degraded, and that "Unless new approaches are adopted, the global amount of arable and productive land per person will in 2050 be only one-fourth of the level in 1960." This level of degradation is a combined result of erosion, compaction, soil sealing, salinization, depletion of soil organic matter and nutrients, acidification, and pollution, which are mainly caused by land management practices that are patently non-maintainable.

Soil degradation also threatens biodiversity, since the soil food web contains perhaps one quarter of all the biodiversity on Earth - within the earth, which covers its surface as a "fragile, living skin". The living organisms that make up the soil food web, including earthworms, "the tractors of the soil"; bacteria, nematodes and other microbes; the plant roots, and their associated mycorrhizal fungi, are the vanguard for the recycling of nutrients, and enhance the growth of plants through their greater absorption of nutrients. By supporting this hidden biodiversity below the ground, the more visible biodiversity above the ground is further buttressed. If we avoid treating the soil "like dirt", we may nurture the essential organisms that are critical in the ability of soil to absorb carbon and water, and attenuate the acceleration of climate change.

Friday, September 04, 2015

Cleaning the Earth Nature's Way - Phytoremediation.

Phytoremediation1,2 may be defined as the treatment of environmental problems by using plants in situ so to avoid the need to excavate the contaminant material for disposal elsewhere. It can be applied to the amelioration of contaminated soils, water, or air, using plants that can contain, degrade, or eliminate metals, pesticides, solvents, explosives, crude oil and its derivatives (refined fuels), and related contaminating materials. Phytoremediation has been used successfully for the restoration of abandoned metal-mine workings, and cleaning up sites where polychlorinated biphenyls have been dumped during manufacture, and for the mitigation of on-going coal mine discharges. Phytoremediation uses the natural ability of particular plants (“hyperaccumulators”, described below) to bioaccumulate, degrade, or otherwise reduce the environmental impact of contaminants in soils, water, or air. Those contaminants that have been successfully mitigated in phytoremediation projects worldwide are metals, pesticides, solvents, explosives, and crude oil and its derivatives, and the technology has become increasingly popular and has been employed at sites with soils contaminated with lead, uranium, and arsenic. A major disadvantage of phytoremediation is that it takes a relatively long time to achieve, because the process rests upon the ability of a plant to thrive in an environment that is not normally ideal for plants.

Advantages and limitations of phytoremediation.
  • Advantages:
    • In terms of cost, phytoremediation is lower than that of traditional processes both in situ and ex situ.
    • The plants can be easily monitored.
    • There is the possibility of the recovery and re-use of valuable metals (by companies specializing in “phyto-mining”).
    • It is potentially the least harmful method because it uses naturally occurring organisms and preserves the environment in a more natural state.
    • Trees may be used in phytoremediation, since they grow on land of marginal quality, have long life-spans and a high flood tolerance. Willows and poplars are most commonly used, and can grow 6-8 feet (ca 2 metres) per year. For deep contamination, hybrid poplars with roots extending 30 feet deep have been used, which penetrate microscopically sized pores in the soil matrix and each tree can cycle 100 L of water per day, functioning almost as a solar powered and self-contained pump and treatment system.
    • Phytoscreening is possible, in which plants may be used as biosensors for particular types of contaminants, thus giving a signal of underlying contaminant plumes, e.g. trichloroethene has been detected in the trunks of trees.
    • Genetic engineering may confer improvements to phytoremediation, e.g. genes encoding a nitroreductase from a bacterium, when inserted into tobacco, increased the resistance of the plant to the toxic effects of TNT and the uptake of the material. Plants may be genetically modified to grow in soils even when the pollution levels in the soil are lethal for non-treated plants, and to absorb a greater concentration of the contaminant.
  • Limitations:
    • Phytoremediation is limited to the surface area and depth occupied by the plant roots.
    • Slow growth and low biomass require a long-term commitment.
    • Using plants, it is not possible to prevent entirely the leaching of contaminants into the groundwater (without the complete removal of the contaminated ground, which in itself does not resolve the problem of contamination).
    • The survival of the plants is affected by the toxicity of the contaminated land and the general condition of the soil.
    • Bio-accumulation of contaminants, especially metals, into the plants which then pass into the food chain, from primary level consumers upwards, or requires the safe disposal of the affected plant material, i.e. the plants might be eaten by animals.
    • The procedure is slow.
Hyperaccumulators and biotic interactions. 
If a plant is able to concentrate a particular contaminant, to a given minimum concentration (> 1000 mg/kg of dry weight for nickel, copper, cobalt, chromium or lead; or > 10,000 mg/kg for zinc or manganese), it is categorized as a hyperaccumulator. This capacity for accumulation is a result of genetic adaptation over many generations in hostile environments. Metal hyperaccumulation can affect various different factors, such as protection, interferences between different species of plants, mutualism (e.g. mycorrhizae, pollen and seed dispersal), commensalism, and biofilm.

Different possible phytoremediation methods.
Various processes that are mediated by plants or algae might be used to address environmental problems:
  • Phytoextraction — uptake and concentration of substances from the environment into the plant biomass.
  • Phytostabilization — reducing the mobility of substances in the environment, for example, by limiting the leaching of substances from the soil.
  • Phytotransformation — chemical modification of environmental substances as a direct result of plant metabolism, often resulting in their inactivation, degradation (phytodegradation), or immobilization (phytostabilization).
  • Phytostimulation — enhancement of soil microbial activity for the degradation of contaminants, typically by organisms that associate with roots. This process is also known as rhizosphere degradation. Phytostimulation can also involve aquatic plants supporting active populations of microbial degraders, as in the stimulation of atrazine degradation by hornwort.
  • Phytovolatilization — removal of substances from soil or water with release into the air, sometimes as a result of phytotransformation to more volatile and/or less polluting substances.
  • Rhizofiltration — filtering water through a mass of roots to remove toxic substances or excess nutrients. The pollutants remain absorbed in or adsorbed to the roots. 
In phytoextraction (or phytoaccumulation) plants or algae are used to extract contaminants from soils, sediments or water into harvestable plant biomass (those organisms that take larger-than-normal amounts of contaminants from the soil are called hyperaccumulators). Phytoextraction has been used more often for extracting heavy metals than for organic contaminants. The plants absorb contaminants through the root system which they then contain in the root biomass and/or move them into the stems and/or leaves. A living plant may continue to absorb contaminants until it is harvested. After harvest, a lower level of the contaminant will remain in the soil, so the growth/harvest cycle must usually be repeated through several crops to achieve a significant cleanup. The process can be repeated to affect further decontamination. There are two forms of phytoextraction:
  • Natural hyper-accumulation, where plants take up the contaminants in soil unassisted.
  • Induced (assisted) hyper-accumulation, in which a conditioning fluid containing a chelator or another agent is added to soil to increase metal solubility or mobilization so that the plants can absorb them more easily. In many cases natural hyperaccumulators are metallophyte plants that can tolerate and incorporate high levels of toxic metals.

Examples of phytoextraction:
  • Arsenic, using the Sunflower (Helianthus annuus), or the Chinese Brake fern (Pteris vittata), a hyperaccumulator. Chinese Brake fern stores arsenic in its leaves.
  • Cadmium, using willow (Salix viminalis): willow has a significant potential as a phytoextractor of cadmium (Cd), zinc (Zn), and copper (Cu), as willow has some specific characteristics like high transport capacity of heavy metals from root to shoot and huge amount of biomass production; can be used also for production of bioenergy in the biomass energy power plant.
  • Cadmium and zinc, using Alpine pennycress (Thlaspi caerulescens), a hyperaccumulator of these metals at levels that would be toxic to many plants, although its growth appears to be inhibited by copper.
In phytostabilization the intention is to stabilize, or contain the pollutant over the long-term. There may be a number of contributing factors to this, e.g. the reduction of wind (soil) erosion by the body of the plant, but the roots of the plant can resist water (soil) erosion, immobilize the pollutants by adsorption or accumulation, and provide a zone around the roots where the pollutant can be deposited in an immobilized form. In contrast with phytoextraction, phytostabilization aims mainly to sequester pollutants in soil around the roots but not in the plant tissues. Hence the pollutants are increasingly less bioavailable, such that exposure to livestock, wildlife, and humans is reduced. Mine tailings may be stabilized by growing a vegetative cap.

 Some plants, e.g. cannas, are able to detoxify organic pollutants - pesticides, explosives, solvents, industrial chemicals, and other xenobiotic substances  - by metabolising them. The metabolic functions of microorganisms living in association with plant roots may also metabolize these substances, as present in soil or water. Due to the complex and recalcitrant nature of many of these compounds, they cannot be broken down entirely (mineralised) to basic molecules (H2O, CO2, etc.) by plants and hence the term phytotransformation represents molecular alterations rather than the complete decomposition of the compound. Phytotransformation may be viewed1 as a "Green Liver" because plants behave analogously to the human liver in processing these xenobiotic compounds, introducing polar groups such as –OH to them. This is known as Phase I metabolism, similar to the way that the human liver increases the polarity of drugs and foreign compounds. In plants, it is enzymes such as nitroreductases which carry out these transformations, whereas in the human liver it is enzymes such as the Cytochrome P450s that perform the task. Phase II metabolism in the second step in phytotransformation, in which the polarity of the xenobiotic molecule is increased by combination with plant biomolecules such as glucose and amino-acids. This is called “conjugation”, and is once more similar to processes such as glucoronidation (addition of glucose) and glutathione addition reactions, catalysed by appropriate enzymes. The effect of the two metabolic steps may serve to detoxify the xenobiotic and aid its mobilization via aqueous channels. In Phase III metabolism, the xenobiotic becomes sequestered, by incorporation in a complex “lignin-type” structure, where it is kept apart from the normal functioning of the plant. The phytotransformation of trinitrotoluene (TNT) has been well studied, and a detailed mechanism proposed for it.

Phytostimulation and rhizoremediation. 
This term identifies the process where compounds released from plant roots enhance microbial activity in the rhizosphere, which is the narrow region of soil around the roots of plants, and associated soil microorganisms. Soil which is not part of the rhizosphere is known as bulk soil. In rhizoremediation, microorganisms degrade soil contaminants in the rhizosphere. It is usual that those soil pollutants which are remediated by this method are highly hydrophobic organic xenobiotics that are hence unable to enter the plant. Rather than the plant being a main protagonist in this process, it creates a haven in which microorganisms in the rhizosphere are able to perform the degradation. The plant acts as a solar-powered pump, which draws in both water and the xenobiotic agent, simultaneously producing substrates (e.g. root exudates and root turnover) that assist the growth of the microbes which act as pollutant degrading agents. Microbial activity is stimulated in the rhizosphere through a number of different routes: (i) exudates, e.g. sugars, carbohydrates, amino acids, acetates, and enzymes, nourish indigenous microbe populations; (ii) root systems bring oxygen into the rhizosphere, meaning that aerobic transformations are supported; (3) the available organic carbon is enhanced through the growth of fine-root biomass; (4) mycorrhizae fungi, which are an essential component of the rhizosphere, provide unique enzymatic pathways lending the capacity to degrade pollutant molecules that would not be degraded by bacteria alone; and (5) the presence of plants (and their roots) creates a domain for microbial populations, which are activated in the rhizosphere. There have been five enzyme systems identified in soils: (i) dehalogenase (which acts in dechlorination reactions of chlorinated hydrocarbons); (ii) nitroreductase (essential for the initial step of nitroaromatic degradation); (iii) peroxidase (a critical catalyst for oxidation reactions); (iv) laccase (able to begin the decomposition of otherwise robust aromatic ring structures); (v) nitrilase (another key factor in oxidation processes). The method is limited in that when there are high concentrations of pollutants present, the plants may be overwhelmed and die. The successful use of phytostimulation has been demonstrated in the remediation of chlorinated solvents from groundwater, petroleum hydrocarbons from soil and groundwater and PAHs from soil. 

Probably, this is the most controversial of the phytoremediation technologies, since it involves the release of contaminants either directly, or in a metabolically modified form, into the atmosphere. Phytovolatilization3 has been used principally for the removal of Hg2+ ions which are transformed into less toxic elemental mercury4. Tritium (3H), a radioactive isotope of hydrogen with a half-life of about 12 years, decaying to helium, has also been removed by phytovolatilization5. A good deal more research is necessary before this strategy becomes mainstream, since there are various negative features to be addressed. For example, mercury that is released into the atmosphere from plants is likely to be recycled by precipitation and thus returned the ecosystem, and the method is restricted both to sites where the concentration of contaminants is toward the low side, and where the contamination is no deeper than the roots of the plants being used. 

Rhizofiltration6 involves filtering contaminated water through a mass of roots for the extraction of contaminants, or excess nutrients, e.g. phosphorus. The contaminated water can either be collected from a waste site and taken to where plants are being hydroponically cultivated, or the plants may be planted in the area directly. In both cases, the roots draw up the water and its associated contaminants. This process is very similar to phytoextraction in that the contaminants become sequestered in the form of harvestable plant biomass. Then new plants are grown and harvested until a satisfactory degree of decontamination is achieved. It is the concentration and precipitation of heavy metals that is sought principally. While noting these similarities, the fundamental difference between the two approaches is that rhizofiltration is used in aquatic environments, while phytoextraction is applied to the decontamination of soils. There are limitations to rhizofiltration. As usual in phytoremediation methods, any contaminant that is below the rooting depth will not be extracted, and if the level of contamination is too high the plants will not grow. Depending on the type of plant and contaminant, the process may need to be continued over a protracted period, before regulatory levels are achieved. It is generally true that many different kinds of contaminants will be present – in some cases a mixture of organics and heavy metals – and thus the use of rhizofiltration alone is unlikely to succeed. Importantly, the plants chosen should be non-fodder crop to minimize poisoning animals, which might eat them in contaminated form.  That noted, the effective removal of heavy metal cations, e.g. Cu2+, Cd2+, Cr6+, Ni2+, Pb2+, and Zn2+ from aqueous solutions has been demonstrated7, and the removal of low-level radionuclides, from liquid streams8. In that latter application, a “feeder layer” of soil is suspended above the stream through which plants grow, from which the plant roots extend downward into the water. In this way, fertilizer can be used to help the plants to grow, while avoiding adding to the contamination of the stream, while the latter is cleansed of heavy metal cations9. Rhizofiltration is cost-effective when large volumes of water must be treated containing low concentrations of contaminants. Inclusive of the costs of the capital outlay and final waste disposal, the cost of removing radionuclides from water using sunflowers was reckoned (at 1996 prices) at $2─6 per thousand gallons of water treated10.

(1) Burken, J.G. (2004), "2. Uptake and Metabolism of Organic Compounds: Green-Liver Model", in McCutcheon, S.C.; Schnoor, J.L. (Eds.), Phytoremediation: Transformation and Control of Contaminants, A Wiley-Interscience Series of Texts and Monographs, Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley, p. 59, doi:10.1002/047127304X.ch2, ISBN 0-471-39435-1.
(5) Dushenkov, S. (2003) “Trends in phytoremediation or radionuclides.” Plant and Soil, 249, 167. (6)
(7) EPA, (1998) “A Citizen's Guide to Phytoremediation,.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response,” EPA 542-F-98-011, August. 
(8) Dushenkov, V., Motto, H., Raskin, I. and Nanda Kumar, P.B.A. (1995) "Rhizofiltration: the Use of Plants to Remove Heavy Metals From Aqueous Streams." Environmental Science Technology 30, 1239. 
(9) Raskin, I., Smith, R.D. and Salt, D.E. (1997) "Phytoremediation of Metals: Using Plants to Remove Pollutants from the Environment." Current Opinion in Biotechnology. 8, 221. 
(10) Cooney, C. M. (1996) "Sunflowers Remove Radionuclides From Water in Ongoing Phytoremediation Field Tests." Environmental Science and Technology 30, 194.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

A Transition for Humanity Into the Post-Petroleum Age: 10 Commandments.

On her blog, "Our Finite World", Gail Tverberg outlines the likely prognosis for humanity, and our best possible choices, as we run up against the Limits of Growth The case she unveils is, to say the least of it, sobering, but I am reminded of an article that I wrote some while ago, which, with a few amendments and reconsiderations, I now re-post here. The original set of 10 commandments provided a simple set of rules for members of a small community to live in reasonable harmony with one another, and that is essentially the requirement for an oil-dependent society that has necessarily fragmented into smaller communities, once its supply of oil has been severely curtailed. At first sight this does seem like a prognosis of "doom and gloom", as indeed it will be if there is no sensible scale-down of oil-fuelled activities. Indeed, a "wall" of fuel dearth will suddenly appear, and we will drive straight into it; or really be abandoned by the wayside of the petrol-fuelled journey of globalisation. So, here are some suggestions (not rules or commandments, but logical consequences and prospects for the era that will follow down the oil-poor side of Hubbert's peak). Overall, it will be necessary to curb our use of oil in the same amount as its rate of declining supply. The world's major 800 oil fields are showing an average production decline rate of -5%/year which determines the size of the "hole" that must be filled by a matching production rate of unconventional oil, just to preserve the status quo, let alone to permit a growth in supply. Clearly the depletion-rate will not be precisely linear, but certain courses of action are indicated.

(1) The real problem is that our society is based around the car. This is particularly so in the U.S., where it is (or has become) necessary to travel over significantly greater distances than in the U.K., and in Europe generally. Fuel is cheap in the U.S., and if it were not, the economy would grind to a halt. I have toured extensively in the U.S., giving lectures on environmental subjects, and indeed when I was scheduled to cover 10 venues in 14 days (on one trip) I needed to fly between almost all of them (except in Houston where I had two engagements in the same city), and was amazed at how much competition exists between airlines with the consequence that I could cover about 1,000 miles for around £30.00 ($50.00). The standard price would be probably four times that in the U.K., say from London to Edinburgh, which is less than 1,000 miles, but you gather my drift. As I have stressed before, in no way are cars part of the solution to the problem of sustainable living in the oil-poor era, which I predict we will see begin to emerge within about a decade from now. I have "done the math", and it seems clear enough that the massive amounts of fuel that we currently use cannot be replaced gallon-for-gallon by biodiesel, biobutanol, bioethanol or indeed biohydrogen - there just isn't enough arable land to grow the crop to make any of this stuff on a sufficient scale, certainly not if we want to keep growing food. A rise in car-share schemes would be a useful first step.

(2) That brings me onto the next vital issue - food production. Most farming will necessarily become organic. It is often argued that growing food organically (fertilized by plant mulch and animal manure, and without using chemical pesticides) requires more land than modern forced agriculture does. However, studies made by the Rodale Institute show that this is not the case Rock-phosphate fertilizer is another issue, since it may be challenging to maintain its supply throughout the present century, and thus there is a real incentive to recycle N and P from agricultural run-off and from human and animal waste, which would also address the problem of eutrophication and algal blooms. Methods of Regenerative Agriculture and Permaculture need also to be introduced as a means for reducing the inputs of artificial fertilizers, pesticides and freshwater into farming

(3) Many urban conurbations can only support a small number of their very large populations. A city the size of London is a good example, with around 8 million people depending on where you draw the borders, which would pose a considerable exercise in relocating most of that number since London itself has insufficient arable land for the purpose of sustaining so many.

(4) Transportation is, of course, a major issue, beyond the availability of the "car". Virtually all goods on shop-shelves are imported - many from other countries, sometimes across the world, and certainly over considerable distances within these shores. Most of that will have to go, and local production will become the norm. Hence there will be an inevitable rise in local economies.

(5) This is a thorny matter, because it means that the accepted mechanisms of retail trade will need overhauling. Massive chain-retail industries, say McDonalds and many others, will have to to work on the local scale if they are to survive. Hence if we had a McDonalds in the village of Caversham, the burgers it sold would be made from locally farmed beef, not imported from Argentina, say. Everything will hence become more expensive, as the monopoly advantage of bulk-buying on an unimaginable scale will be lost. All such mechanisms rely on cheap oil and it is precisely the loss of that which we are planning for.

(6) Certainly in the U.K., once the world leader in engineering, we now manufacture relatively little because we can buy it more cheaply e.g. from China. However, the cost of imports will necessarily soar, and so if we want particular items (even cars), they will have to be made certainly within the U.K. The same argument applies for the U.S., and maybe even more so. Indeed, there is a certain joy to be had in the death of faceless corporate industries who we believe don't really care too much about individuals. Smaller local businesses do, because their livelihood depends on it. The developing world may be hard-hit, however, if the West no longer wants to buy their goods, and that development may atrophy - but it must in any case, since all of it is underpinned by the declining source of world oil supplies.

(7) The age of "consumerism" per se, is drawing to a close. This will impact on everything, and hard. We will never re-experience the oil-extravaganza of the 20th Century. Hence that kind of manufacture and supply will make its swansong. How indeed we will make anything in the future is a good question since oil and gas have served as both a basic manufacturing material and a fuel for industry. It is certain, however, that an emphasis on more essential items (warm clothes and pots and pans, say) will matter much more than devising novel gadgets for mobile-phones beyond their inaugural purpose of just talking to somebody. The entertainment industry, tourism and the service sector generally will begin to wrap-up.

(8) Having seen a huge reorganisation of education in the U.K., we will see far more, and maybe a return to some of the original technical colleges that have now become universities, and this might end much of the current pretence that the nation is better educated than ever before. With the fall of the intrinsic manufacturing industry (which was based on first coal and then oil), and high levels of unemployment in the 1980's, a whole generation of new universities was established and a general re-jigging of the system to fit the bums-on-seats funding policy. Hence some universities will offer whatever courses can swell their entry numbers, and so we see a rise in pharmacy while the real science of chemistry has declined sharply. The title "professor" needs to be looked at too, when in some universities a professor (that's "Full Professor" in the U.S., not lecturer) may have no scholarship in the subject he is allegedly a professor of!

How indeed can such an individual profess? Real knowledge and real levels of literacy and numeracy should be instilled from school levels and this does not seem to be the case even though we have never had more "university graduates". Indeed some companies e.g. Zeneca, in exasperation, are now training their own staff, taking them at age 16, rather than training poorly educated graduates. This is indeed how industry used to gain its ultimately senior staff (they worked their way up), and it would avoid the mandatory "student debt" that has been enforced on the young by vastly expanding the numbers of university places but then removing the maintenance grant system, which now would be absurdly expensive for the government to fund. My novel "University Shambles" satirises some of the absurdities that have come about in the hastily expanded British university system

(9) The high-tech medical system will also be unable to survive. Most of modern medicine depends on oil and gas, at the simplest level to get hospital staff to work in the mornings. Even bandages and dressings, drugs and high-tech equipment such as heart monitors and devices to jolt an arrested heart back into life depend on oil as a manufacturing feedstock along with a stable electricity supply to run them. There will likely be less cosmetic surgery, and organ transplants too. The NHS in the U.K. was set-up primarily to fight infectious diseases, and this might be more effectively done working on a smaller community scale, than in confronting a highly mobile world population with the means to transport diseases too. That knowledge gained in the successful control of much infection should be prized and taught as part of the new physicianship.We may see the return of the "cottage hospital" which like a local farm, attends to the needs of a fairly small community, rather than massive city hospitals and health centres. Preventative medicine will come to the fore, since prevention is indeed much more effective (and less demanding of resources) than cure.

(10) This, the final item, is a round-up of what has already been alluded to. Life will necessarily become more locally focussed. If people are unable to move around so freely, they will tend to stay where they are. A likely successful outcome for we humans in the imminent oil-poor era will be met through thinking and planning on the scale of small communities. Some regions will naturally have certain advantages over others and disadvantages too, e.g. whether there is access to transport/energy from a river or plenty of crop-land or woodland. That said, the internet should not be lost, otherwise we will become hidden from one another in small isolated community pockets, and that would be a seriously retrograde step. Optimistically, this may be a good time to think about setting up your own local business in wherever it is you choose to settle. Now that is an important choice to make, as you may find yourself stuck there if you don't like it!

Monday, August 10, 2015

"Look and Learn"! A View from 1966.

This is the title of a recently re-discovered book from my childhood, published in 1966, in which there is an article  entitled "The World's Great Powerhouse", which refers to the putative prospects for solar energy, as envisaged almost 50 years ago, and makes fascinating reading now. As it states, "In one year the sun gives out more energy than will ever be obtained from all the world's coal and oil. How can it be harnessed? How can it be used to prevent land becoming desert?" As time has unfolded them over the past half-century, these matters are now at a critical stage in regard to the intrinsic availability of fossil fuels, our use of them, and the non-maintainable rate at which we are eroding the world's soils. Indeed, 2015 has been proclaimed as "International Year of Soil", is the call to arms to protect this fragile, living skin of the earth

The article refers to the power of the sun, and how it may be accidentally harnessed by a carelessly discarded bottle which starts a fire, laying waste to "millions of acres" of forest, and the familiar childhood experiment with a magnifying glass that sets fire to  piece of paper held in the focus of its lense. It is noted that coal and oil are non-renewable resources and that "It takes millions of years to create coal and oil, but man is using them up at a fantastic rate." And indeed, he continues to do so, consuming almost one thousand barrels of crude oil every second. The statistic is given that "The amount of sunshine falling on the whole world creates an amount of heat which would equal 400,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 tonnes of coal being burned." The amount of energy hitting the top of the Earth's atmosphere is reckoned to be 174 Peta-Watts, and so over a year, that equals 5.49 x 10^24 J. Assuming that the coal is anthracite, we have an energy content of 32.5 GJ/tonne meaning that the above mentioned 4 x 10^23 tonnes of it would release 1.3 x 10^34 J, so the "Look and Learn" estimate of the annual solar energy equivalent in terms of coal appears to be overestimated, which should be nearer 169,000,000,000,000 tones of coal.

For the most part, the article addresses the thermal power of sunlight, and how difficult, yet tantalising, is the prospect of "trapping at least some of it", and is prescient in terms of the development of solar thermal power stations, giving mention to "use reflectors, either glass mirrors or sheets of polished metal" to concentrate the sun's rays on a "big scale". Such power plants have subsequently been developed, e.g. the 354 MW SEGS solar complex in northern San Bernardino County, California Smaller. Smaller scale devices are alluded to, e.g. the "hot umbrella" solar cooker, and passing mention is made of "silicon cells" which had not so long been developed, but were by then the main source of energy for Earth-orbiting satellites and space-probes, and remain so to this day It is salient however that even now, little more than 1% of global electricity demand is met from solar energy

The prospects for extracting useful elements from the oceans are visited later on in the book under the heading "Amazing Treasure House of the Sea." Although there are indeed vast quantities of various elements contained in seawater (e.g. 100 tonnes of silver and 600 tonnes of copper in each cubic mile of it), the problem of obtaining them is similar to that implicit in harvesting solar energy, namely that being present in fairly diffuse abundance, it is necessary to concentrate them into useful amounts, which poses a considerable challenge. Research continues, in an effort to find materials that might serve as "filters" for the extraction of substances such as uranium from seawater, which it is said would make nuclear power an effectively limitless technology in terms of its fuel supply

The final section of the book is called simply "Oil!", the exclamation mark being given to emphasise the importance of this remarkable substance to most human activities. As is stated, "In 1859 oil came from the world's first well to light the lamps of America. From these modest beginnings, rose a vast industry which today supplies the nations of the world with the life-blood of civilization." It is indeed the life-blood of the global human mechanism, and it is significant to note that in 1964, 1,405 million tonnes of oil were produced throughout the world, which is equal to around 10 billion barrels. We may note that current oil production is 84.9 million barrels a day or 31 billion barrels in a year, and so although the global population has a little more than doubled in the past half century, our use of oil has trebled. The article observes that, "Drills bore down nearly five miles into the earth to obtain it; floating derricks probe the sea bed in the everlasting search for more supplies. So vital is the possession and safety of oil pipelines that they have become a major concern of many governments." Thus the increasing difficulty of maintaining the global oil production was noted even then, long before it became necessary to drill in ever deeper fathoms of water, to process "oil" from bitumen in tar sands, and to frack hydrocarbons out of shale, as is done now to prop up the global oil supply.

The book itself was a Christmas present to me, I think from my Great Grandmother (on my mother's side of the family), as it is signed "Nan", which we all called her. She was Welsh (as indeed am I, having been born in Cardiff), and a resilient lady, being the widow of a coal miner, killed in a roof-fall underground. Left with two young boys to bring up, and needing a man's wage in the house, out of expediency she made an arrangement with her lodger "Griffith", to become his wife. She was 10 years older than him, and lived to be 93. They always seemed very content, as I recall.

The coalmines of Wales are now largely abandoned, although there is the odd mention that they might be reopened, so long as clean burn technology (CCS) is introduced to any power stations they may fuel In all probability the fossil fuels will be with us for some time, but ideally in the service of sustaining us as we Transition to a less global and more local way of doing things. Probably there is no simple substitute for oil, and limitations on the number of electric vehicles we may have in the future, hence our salvation might be looked for in more resilient, and more sustainable communities. However, I do not deceive myself that this transformation will be easy and painless. In a new order of lower energy and more locally based lifestyles we may need to learn more of the kind of practical skills and Nan and Griffith knew.