In the wake of recent studies showing how dangerously close to the brink we are when it comes to climate change, it is more important now than ever to seriously consider every possible alternative to environmentally damaging fossil fuels. One such alternative comes in the form of biofuels. Humans have been using biofuels for as long as we’ve been using wood to fuel our fires. In the last hundred or so years, however, we’ve begun to understand how plant matter can be converted into liquid fuels that could soon power a plane. In this piece, I’ll be looking at where biofuels are now and where they need to be if they are to significantly reduce CO2 emissions. I’ll be concentrating my efforts on recent attempts by the scientific community to make grass a viable fuel for transportation.
Grass is the most abundant plant on the planet. In my home country of Ireland, more than two thirds of all land is covered in naturally growing grass. If we could refine and perfect the process of turning grasses into fuel (grassoline), this would be a real contribution towards slowing the march of climate change. The problem right now is that it is expensive and inefficient. Many scientists in the field, however, think that given time and money, we could tap into this huge source of unharnessed power and save the planet in the process.
The reason grass in particular is being considered as a biofuel is not because it is necessarily the most efficient plant to use, but rather because of its abundance and willingness to grow in fields that are inhospitable to food crops, known as marginal lands. Another reason that grass is attractive as a biofuel is that it is not really needed for anything else. Other candidates for biofuels (like wood, sugarcane and soybeans) have the disadvantage of being useful for things like furniture, rum and tofu.
But why aviation fuel? One reason is that while cars are slowly turning electric, it is unlikely that planes will follow suit any time soon. This means that in the near future, cars could be powered by renewable sources whereas planes will continue to require liquid fuel. The other more pressing reason is that travelling by plane is far worse for the environment than any other mode of transport. This is down to two factors; first, planes are less efficient than other modes of transport in terms of emissions per passenger mile. Second, planes allow us to travel a far greater number of miles than we would otherwise be able to travel.
The idea that we could use grass, algae and other plants to produce aviation fuel is not nearly as crazy as it sounds. The fossil fuels which we currently use are themselves made of organic matter that has, over a very long time, undergone a natural process called pyrolysis. Human beings have been using the process of pyrolysis for our own gain for thousands of years in the form of charcoal burning. Pyrolysis involves separating materials into their constituent molecules in the absence of oxygen. This means, very roughly, heating up the material to a specified temperature, covering it, and allowing it to separate into liquid, solid and gas. These products can then be refined into fuels. Recently, it has been found that microwave heating produces a higher pyrolysis yield than traditional methods since it can be done entirely in the absence of oxygen and at a very precise temperature. Another benefit is that the characteristic ‘hot spots’ of microwave heating aid in pyrolysis.
You might be thinking that grass is an important source of food for livestock. The beauty of using grass as a biofuel is that this resource would not be lost. The solid by-product of grass pyrolysis can still be fed to livestock. What’s more, by removing the liquid constituents, the feed can be preserved much longer than fresh grass cuttings. In the UK, biofuels already account for nearly 3% of all road and non-road mobile machinery fuel, but with the predicted change in efficiency given a few years, they could eventually account for a lot more than that.
Right now, scientists can only produce a few drops of biofuel from grass in the laboratory. Tests carried out at Ghent University in Belgium show, however, that there is a potentially very efficient energy source in grass if we can learn to harness it correctly. In April 2017, the researchers at Ghent found that a certain type of bacteria (clostridium) can be used to metabolize certain grasses into decane, a key ingredient in both petrol and aviation fuel. While this breakthrough cannot yet be used effectively, it is key knowledge that will inform future research into better biofuel technologies.
Hang on, you might say, if refining plant matter gives us the same fuel as we are already using, then why is it better for the environment? Surely biofuels release the same amount of CO2 as fossil fuels? This is indeed true. The difference is that the CO2 in living plants has only recently been absorbed from the air by the plant and is simply being released again. As the grass grows, it sequesters CO2 from the air. When it burns, that recently absorbed CO2 returns to the atmosphere to be trapped by the next batch of grassoline. Because of this, biofuels are said to be ‘carbon neutral’. With fossil fuels, the CO2 has been absent from the environment for a very long time, trapped underground. By burning it, we are releasing extra CO2 rather than what was already there.
A major obstacle to biofuel efficiency growth is that governments and companies are not willing to invest heavily in something that may not yield solid results for years to come. This is simply short-sightedness. The science will continue to improve. Lack of investment only slows down the process. The people who invest heavily now will surely see a huge return in a matter of years. The investment situation poses a classic catch-22. Companies are not investing heavily in biofuels because it will take so long for the investment to pay off. The thing is, if companies were to invest more heavily in biofuels, the technologies would improve faster and investors would see a quicker return. Another well-known obstacle in the way of all renewable energies is the huge sums of money tied up in the fossil fuel industry. The industry is worth about 7 trillion USD globally. No wonder, then, that lobby groups are able so easily to sway policy-makers.
Regardless of what figures in the US like Rex Tillerson, Sean Hannity, or indeed their president, may say, climate change is a very real and very serious danger. Biofuels are just one example of the many ways in which we can combat this danger, but they are one which will continue to grow in importance for years to come. As the renewable energy sector grows and the fossil fuel sector declines, we should see an increase in biofuel investment and an acceleration of biofuel technology development. We can only hope that fossil fuel companies lose their chokehold on governments and investors before it is too late for the planet.
First Published in UCD College Tribune
Imagine two young children are being taught the names of the primary colours. They are each presented with a tomato. One child sees a blue object and the other sees a yellow object. Both, however, are told that tomatoes are red. Once the children have internalised this label, if you present them with a series of objects of different colours, they will both be able to pick out which objects are red, even if they don’t see the same thing.
So how do you know that the red you see is the same as the red I see? This is an old philosophical question. Descartes, the ‘father of modern philosophy’, denied that colours were objective qualities of objects. He thought that when we perceive an object as being red, we are not given evidence that the object is red, but only that it produces a particular sensation in us. This is by no means just a question for dead philosophers. To this day, scientists are still attempting to find an answer.
Broadly speaking, the scientific view of colour perception relies on three key factors: the wavelength of light reflected, the apparatus whereby we gather a signal from light, and the processing of that signal by the brain. Different wavelengths of light are said to correspond to different colours. At the high energy end of the spectrum we have red light (short wavelength) and at the low energy end, we have blue light (long wavelength). This, of course, is not the full electromagnetic spectrum but only the tiny section that we can see. Different objects appear to be different colours because their surfaces reflect different wavelengths of light into our eyes. However, this does not tell us how our bodies perceive these differences.
Rods and cones have long been known to affect how we see colour. Each cone contains a different photopigment, proteins which change shape in response to light, triggering chemical reactions which send a signal to the brain. Humans have three different types of cones which pick up red, green and blue light. Rods allow us to see in low-light but since there is only one type, we cannot distinguish between colours as easily when it is dark. This is why we see in ‘black and white’ at night but in glorious technicolour during the day.
The final stage of colour perception is the processing of information sent by rods and cones to the brain. Since our cones can only pick up three colours of light, the brain must do most of the work when it comes to distinguishing between colours. When we perceive something as yellow, for example, it is because our cones have picked up red and green light simultaneously and our brain has processed this information to give us the sensation of perceiving yellow.
Colour blindness occurs either when there is a fault in one of the cones or in the pathway to the brain itself. The most common form is a fault in the ‘red’ cone, which leaves sufferers unable to effectively distinguish between red and green. On the other end of the spectrum are ‘tetrachromats’ who have four different types of cone. Birds are tetrachromats. They are sensitive to ultraviolet light which is invisible to the human eye. Some studies have suggested that up to 3% of women are tetrachromats, with their fourth type of cone cell allowing them to differentiate between red and green better than the rest of us. The reason there are more tetrachromat women than men is that the cone cell genes are carried on the X chromosome.
Male squirrel monkeys lack a cone containing red photopigments, meaning that they can’t see red light. In 2009, however, researchers at the University of Washington experimented with using gene therapy to imbue existing cones in the eyes of two monkeys with red photopigment. After the therapy, the monkeys were able to see red, showing how versatile colour perception is, and how crucial our individual biology is to how we see the world.
Now that we’ve had a brief run-through of the mechanisms which allow us to see colour difference, we can begin to ask how the scientific view helps us to answer our original question: how can I know that my red is the same as your red? The short answer, in my view, is that science provides little help in this regard. It can confirm that we all consistently identify the same objects with the same labels, but we knew this already. Though science describes and explains the physical process which allows colour perception to take place, it does not tell us anything about what it feels like to perceive colour. If I show you a tomato, you will tell me that it is red because the colour you see is the colour you call red. I will call it red because the colour I see is the colour that I call red. Even if the colour we see is completely different, this won’t cause us confusion when identifying objects. All that matters is that we use the same label.
It seems to me that we are likely never to find an empirical answer to this question. No amount of science can allow us to see through someone else’s eyes. We will always be confined to our own perception of the world and our own alone. This sensory isolation requires that we can never know the quality of someone else’s experience. Even if a scientist could hook someone’s perceptions up to a computer screen, the colours seen by the scientist on the screen would be processed by the scientist’s eyes and brain in a way that could be radically different to the way the subject is processing them. The only way we could truly know if people perceive colours the same way is if we could become someone else. Unfortunately, outside of Freaky Friday and Quantum Leap, this is not an option.
Whales are notoriously vocal animals. Indeed, the catalyst for the ‘Save the Whales’ campaign of the 1970s can be said to be the release of the album ‘Songs of the Humpback Whale’ recorded by bio-acoustician Roger Payne. This was the first time that the public was able to hear and appreciate the astonishing variety and beauty of the Humpback’s songs. This love affair with the whales came in the nick of time, since the humpback population had at that time fallen to a historic low. It is estimated that by the late 1960s, over 90% of humpbacks had been wiped out by human activity.
Since the early 1920s, a technique known as ‘reflection seismology’ has been used to locate reserves of natural resources such as oil, gas and salt. Reflection seismology operates on much the same principle as sonar. Sound waves are emitted which reflect off the sea floor and are then measured by an array of sensors. Using this technique, areas of the sea floor can be accurately mapped, and it is possible to determine whether natural resources lie beneath the rock.
Modern reflection seismology is carried out using huge arrays of seismic ‘airguns’. These airguns can produce sounds of up to 240 decibels, over twice the volume of a standard rock gig. What’s worse, this noise level is produced every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day. According to Oceana, a single survey ship may carry up to 96 airguns at a time.
Whales and dolphins use sound to communicate with each other and, in some cases, for the echolocation of prey. Although insufficient research has been conducted to ascertain the detrimental effects of seismic testing on whales, preliminary data shows that almost all cetaceans give seismic airguns a wide berth. Further, sightings of cetaceans fall significantly when seismic testing is being conducted in a given area. Even in the absence of solid data, mere common sense dictates that the levels of noise produced by seismic testing may well prove to seriously harm the hearing of cetaceans, as well as disrupting their feeding, mating and migratory habits. In any case, if reflection seismology is at all likely to damage already strained marine environments, it is imperative that we halt that practice before the damage is irreversible.
It is not just whales that are at risk. During periods of seismic testing, local fishermen have reported an increase in dead fish floating in the sea. Squid, crabs and fish eggs have also been shown to be harmed by seismic airguns. It seems, then, that as well as deafening and disorienting endangered whales, seismic testing is also harming their ecosystem and thus limiting the availability of their prey. One study found that the number of zooplankton – tiny creatures that are the backbone of marine ecosystems – fell by 64% within 1,219 meters of airgun activity. That is guaranteed to have huge knock-on effects not just for whales and dolphins, but for all ocean life.
On the 1st of February 2018, seismic airgun testing off the coast of Newcastle, Australia was approved by NOPSEMA. The tests, which will be carried out by Asset energy, are approved right up until the 31st of May, with the whale migration set to begin around the 1st of June. This has been met with serious resistance. Greenpeace Australia campaigner Nathaniel Pelle noted that “Whales and other endangered species do not adhere to the Gregorian calendar and do not know the difference between May 31 and June 1”. The fact that this must be noted at all speaks to the greed and short-sightedness of regulators and fossil fuel companies.
In December of 2018, the U.S. (under the command of Donald Trump) began extensive seismic surveys of the entire east coast. This happened despite vehement opposition from almost all U.S. environmental agencies and state governments. The area which the U.S. has begun to survey is the home and breeding grounds of the North Atlantic Right Whale, a species so endangered that there are less than 500 of them alive today.
A final and crucial point to consider is that even if seismic tests did not damage marine populations directly (which they certainly do), they are a gateway to offshore drilling, a practice which damages marine populations in a number of ways. First, there is a possibility of oil spills which, as we all know, can be cataclysmic events for marine ecosystems. Further, when the oil is successfully extracted, it will be burned as fuel, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and accelerating the already severe effects of climate change. Renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and wave energy are the planet’s last hope for any sort of meaningful recovery. One may consider it an added bonus, then, that these energy sources do not require that we seriously harm marine species while they attempt to recover from the immeasurable damage that humans have already inflicted upon them.
Beachapedia – Seismic Surveys
Gordon, Jonathan C.D et al. – A Review of the Effects of Seismic Survey on Marine Mammals
Greenpeace Australia – Humpback whale migration threatened by seismic blasts
Stone, Carolyn J. and Tasker, Mark L. – The effects of seismic airguns on cetaceans in UK waters