The greenhouse effect is a regular process that warms the Earth’s surface. The Sun’s energy reaches the Earth’s atmosphere, then some of it is reflected back to space and the rest is absorbed and re-radiated by greenhouse gases. The greenhouse effect problem is that human activities (burning of fossil fuels, agriculture, and land clearing) are increasing the concentrations of the aforementioned gases. This effect contributes to a warming of the Earth.
The exchange of incoming and outgoing radiation that warms the Earth is often referred to as the greenhouse effect because a greenhouse works in much the same way. Incoming UV radiation easily passes through the glass walls of a greenhouse and is absorbed by the plants and hard surfaces inside. Weaker IR radiation, however, has difficulty passing through the glass walls and is trapped inside, thus warming the greenhouse. The important greenhouse gases which are directly influenced by human activities are carbon dioxide (CO₂), methane (CH₄), nitrous oxide (N₂O), chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and ozone. Water vapor is also an important greenhouse gas. The absorbed energy warms the atmosphere and the surface of the Earth. Carbon dioxide (CO₂) and other greenhouse gases act like a blanket, absorbing IR radiation and preventing it from escaping into outer space. The net effect is the gradual heating of the Earth’s atmosphere and surface, a process known as global warming.
Earth’s surface has relatively mild, stable temperatures due to its atmosphere, which is the thin layer of gases that cloak and protect the planet. Earth is constantly bombarded with enormous amounts of radiation, primarily from the sun. This solar radiation strikes the Earth’s atmosphere in the form of visible light plus ultraviolet (UV), infrared (IR), and other types of radiation that are invisible to the human eye.
Atmospheric CO₂ levels have increased by more than 40 percent since the beginning of the industrial revolution, from about 280 parts per million (ppm) in the 1800s to 400 ppm today. The greenhouse effect is expected to have profound implications, according to the near-universal consensus of scientists. The global warming can cause significant climate change, a rise in sea levels, increasing ocean acidification, extreme weather events and other severe natural and societal impacts as shown by NASA, the EPA, and other scientific and governmental bodies. Even slight increases in average global temperatures can have huge effects.
Greenhouse gas emissions affect more than just temperature. Another effect involves changes in precipitation, such as rain and snow. As climate change, so do the habitats for living things. Animals that are adapted to a certain climate may become threatened. Also, many human societies depend on specific crops for food, clothing, and trade. Plus some scientists worry that tropical diseases will expand their ranges into more temperate regions if the temperatures of those areas increase. If extra amounts of greenhouse gases are added to the atmosphere, such as from human activities, then they will absorb more of the infrared radiation. The Earth’s surface and the lower atmosphere will warm further until a balance of incoming and outgoing radiation is reached again. This extra warming is called the enhanced greenhouse effect.
Recent research has shown that removing carbon dioxide (CO₂) from the atmosphere can be done on an industrial scale that would be economically viable. The research was carried out by the Canadian company “Carbon Engineering” that built a pilot plant in Squamish. This plant removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and uses it to produce a synthetic “drop-in” fuel that could be used in aviation. It is significant that the company’s largest private investor is Microsoft founder Bill Gates and its chairman is Dan Fridmann, the former long-time CEO of Macdonald Dettwiler.
Why their idea is so grandiose and important for the world’s ecology? The world’s atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide is now 100 parts per million higher than it was just a little more than 200 years ago. It is obvious that humans may have to make some pretty weighty decisions regarding their energy consumption. CO₂ scrubbing is a particular form of carbon capture that takes place after fossil fuel has been combusted, but before the exhaust is released into the air.
Most power plants burn coal (or another fossil fuel) in the air to create steam to produce energy. This steam turns a turbine, which generates electricity. A hodgepodge of fuel gases is also created and released into the atmosphere. Many of those emissions are greenhouse gases that contribute to the greenhouse effect. Post-combustion carbon capture works by isolating CO₂ from the other flue gases after combustion. Once the flue gases have been removed or scrubbed, they are released into the air. One of the most popular scrubbing techniques is a wet scrubber. Wet scrubbers also isolate other greenhouse gases like sulfur and mercury, but since CO₂ is the biggest problem, it gets the most attention.
The idea of Canadian scientists and engineers is simple: strip CO₂ from the air and use it to produce clean, carbon-neutral synthetic diesel and petrol to drive the world’s ships, planes, and trucks. But how can it work on the industrial scale? The hope is that the combination of direct air capture (DAC), water electrolysis and fuels can be made to work on a global scale. It would be the equivalent of mechanizing photosynthesis. Carbon Engineering has constructed a prototype plant, installed large fans, and has been extracting around one tonne of pure CO₂every day for a year. But Carbon Engineering has just passed another milestone. It has now begun directly synthesizing a mixture of petrol and diesel, using only CO₂, captured from the air and hydrogen split from water with clean electricity. Such Iur to Fuels (A2F) process is a potentially game-changing technology, which if successfully scaled up will allow us to harness cheap, intermittent renewable electricity to drive the synthesis of liquid fuels that a compatible with modern infrastructure and engines. This technology offers an alternative to biofuels and a complement to electric vehicles in the effort to displace fossil fuel from transportation.
While Bill Gates is trying to clean up the planet, MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) scientists say that they can help power plants do more to out carbon dioxide emissions. The MIT project seeks to lower the energy needed to remove carbon dioxide by using an electrochemical device that’s similar in concept to a rechargeable battery. The technique promises to be less expensive and easier to add to existing power plants than current systems.
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