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    Taiwan's Feng Chia University has succeeded in boosting the production of hydrogen from biomass to 15 liters per hour, one of the world's highest biohydrogen production rates, a researcher at the university said Friday. The research team managed to produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide (which can be captured and stored) from the fermentation of different strains of anaerobes in a sugar cane-based liquefied mixture. The highest yield was obtained by the Clostridium bacterium. Taiwan News - November 14, 2008.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

ESA agrees on ambitious space budget: implications for ecology, climate science

The ministers in charge of space activities in the European Space Agency's 18 Member States today concluded a successful two-day council meeting in The Hague, agreeing on a €10 billion (US$ 12.9bn) budget to undertake new initiatives in several fields and endorsing the next phases of a set of ongoing programmes. Many of the approved projects have a high degree of relevance for the study of climate change, the environment and the management of the planet's natural resources.

The deal was reached after two days of intense negotiations, but ministers agreed with ESA's director general Jean-Jacques Dordain on the relevance of investing in space, especially in a time of economic crisis: space is a key sector providing for innovation, economic growth, strategic independence and the preparation of the future. The ambitious budget, which covers the next three to five years, represents a substantial increase in funding over the previous ones.

French research minister Valerie Pecresse, who presided the council, said that her nation's cash would be spent on those programmes that delivered the greatest gains to society. France, currently holding the European Presidency, is ESA's second largest contributor (after Germany), responsible for about a quarter of the organisation's budget. The focus on the public relevance of investments in space was the leading theme throughout the council.

ESA's space activities can be divided into three types of programmes: voluntary, optional and mandatory. The voluntary programmes include the most expensive activities, including Europe's participation in the International Space Station and its Ariane rocket project. France, Germany and Italy are the biggest backers of these programmes, which contribute up to a third of the budget. The UK focuses more on small optional programmes, and remains a marginal contributor to ESA. However, despite remaining the weak link in Europe's space activities, the country has committed more than expected (€356 million), in exchange for ESA opening a research center in the UK.

On the programmatic side, ministers today took decisions concerning the full range of ESA's initiatives. Some highlights:
  • Subscriptions for the launcher programmes, including further funding of Europe's space port in French Guiana, Ariane 5 and Vega accompaniment technology programmes, Ariane 5 evolution and the future launchers preparatory programme. The Ariane 5, which has come to dominate the commercial launcher market, will be upgraded to allow it to carry heavier payloads than its current nine-tonne limit. Ariane 5 symbolizes Europe's independence in space. Esa wants to study what comes after Ariane; to consider what the launchers of the future will look like. It will also test the technologies required on demonstration spacecraft such as the Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV).
  • Subscriptions for the Earth Observation activities, including the second segment of the flagship Global Monitoring for Environment and Security Space Component programme (GMES), the Meteosat Third Generation (MTG) development programme and a novel Climate Change Initiative on the provision of essential climate variables. GMES is a major new EO program. It will take the "pulse" of the planet and requires a series new satellites to be launched (more below).
  • Subscriptions for the human spaceflight, microgravity and human exploration programmes including exploitation and evolution of the International Space Station, on-board research in life and physical sciences and definition studies on the evolution of a returnable transfer vehicle. Europe will thus take the first step in a plan that could eventually lead to a manned spaceship based on its highly successful unmanned, automated space-station cargo-vessel, known as the ATV.
  • Subscriptions to robotic exploration programmes (the ExoMars programme and preparatory activities on future Mars robotic exploration).
  • Subscriptions for Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems (ARTES), focusing on technologies, applications and mission demonstrations and including preparatory work for a European Data Relay System (EDRS), an air traffic management satellite system (Iris) and Integrated Application Promotion combining usage of telecommunications, Earth observation and navigation satellite systems with terrestrial information and communications systems.
  • Subscriptions for the programme on the evolution of the European Global Navigation Satellite System, to continue the improvement of Galileo.
The Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) programme, also known as Kopernikus, has got earth observation and climate scientists all excited. The €2 billion venture will build a full picture of the state of the planet from new satellites and ground-based data. It will be a key tool for the analysis of climate change and the environmental health of the planet:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::
The programme can and will evolve into something which will be of major benefit to mankind; I don't think it is too melodramatic to say that. We need a planetary Earth-observing system to gather all the information to take remedial action on climate and environmental change. - Professor Alan O'Neill, the director of the UK's National Centre for Earth Observation.
Through GMES the state of our environment and its short, medium and long-term evolution will be monitored to support policy decisions or investments. GMES will be built up gradually: it starts with a pilot phase which targets the availability of a first set of operational GMES services by 2008 followed by the development of an extended range of services which meet user requirements.

Years of research in the fields of science and technology associated with observation and understanding of the processes and phenomena of the terrestrial environment led in 1998 to the idea to launch GMES. By a combination of measurements at terrestrial level and from space, it rapidly became clear that new operational services could be offered in fields such as oceanography, precise mapping of land use, rapid mapping at times of emergency for the civil protection field or air quality monitoring.

The services provided by GMES can be classified in three major categories:
  • Mapping, including topography or road maps but also land-use and harvest, forestry monitoring, mineral and water resources that do contribute to short and long-term management of territories and natural resources. This service generally requires exhaustive coverage of the Earth surface, archiving and periodic updating of data.
  • Support for emergency management in case of natural hazards and particularly civil protection institutions responsible for the security of people and property. This service concentrates on the provision of the latest possible data before intervening.
  • Forecasting is applied for marine zones, air quality or crop yields. This service systematically provides data on extended areas permitting the prediction of short, medium or long-term events, including their modelling and evolution.
The widespread and regular availability of technical data within GMES will allow a more efficient use of the infrastructures and human resources. It will help the creation of new models for security and risk management, as well as better management of land and resources.

Biomass and bioenergy

BIOMASS measuring concept
GMES will have direct relevance to the bioenergy sector. One of the proposed missions, Earth Explorer BIOMASS, will analyse the world's boreal forests, which cover about 15% of the Earth’s land surface and, being the world's largest terrestrial carbon reservoir, play an important role in the global cycling of energy, carbon and water.

Currently ESA has undertaken the BioSAR 2008 campaign in northern Sweden in order to find out how best to map boreal forest with space borne radar. By answering this question, the campaign addresses one of the key objectives of the candidate BIOMASS mission.

BIOMASS is one of the six candidate Earth Explorer missions that has just completed assessment study and will be presented to the science community at a User Consultation Meeting in January 2009. The next stage of development for the BIOMASS mission, if selected, will be the feasibility study which is expected to greatly improve knowledge of how much and where carbon is being stored, and better quantify carbon fluxes between land and the atmosphere. This knowledge will obviously contribute to the better understanding of the global carbon cycle, climate change, and the bioenergy potential.

To achieve this goal, the BIOMASS mission will exploit the P-band which is the longest radar wavelength available for Earth Observation and is uniquely sensitive to mapping biomass from space. Afterwards highly accurate and robust methods for transforming the P-band radar signals into forest biomass maps are required. Collecting airborne SAR measurements over Boreal Forest and comparing these to extensive ground measurements, will allow a very accurate mapping of the forest biomass.

Given that complete remote sensing dataset and ground data simultaneously acquired are rare for northern forests, the interest of the campaign, beyond the immediate needs of the BIOMASS mission, is expected to be enormous. Finally, once the process has been completed, the dataset will be made available to the wider scientific community through ESA.

EU and ESA convergence

The progressive implementation of GMES is made possible by the activities and investments of European Union and ESA Member States. These and other public and private contributions are jointly supported by the European Commission (EC) and the European Space Agency (ESA).

Together with Galileo, Europe's satellite-navigation system, GMES thus indicates a gradual alignment of ESA and the EU. Currently, these are distinct legal entities which do not share the same membership; ESA counts some non-EU nations among its membership. But space is now of such high political and economic importance that these two entities are expected to "converge" in the future.

ESA: European Ministers inject new impetus to ensure space’s role as a key asset in facing global challenges - November 26, 2008.

ESA: Ministerial Council 2008.

Global Monitoring for Environment and Security homepage.

GMES: BIOMASS Mission - 19 Nov 2008

ESA: ESA leads the way to map boreal forest - October 20, 2008.

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UK researcher: corporate responses to climate change not working, state intervention needed

The global economic crisis has seen the demise of a lot of 'corporate freedom' and the resurgence of the idea of direct government intervention. This comes at a time when more and more scientists are convinced of the fact that another planetary crisis with more far reaching consequences - namely climate change - needs to be tackled by strong state intervention as well. Especially so when it becomes apparent that corporate responses to this crisis may not be working.

An example comes from the U.K., where the green credentials of British businesses are falling far short of their environmental claims and don't have an effect on mitigating climate change. That is the conclusion of Gareth Dale, a Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Brunel University, writing in the International Journal of Management Concepts and Philosophy. Dale too maintains that only government intervention offers the power and tools required to do what corporations can't or won't.

Dale has investigated how several major UK companies have responded to the threat of climate change. By comparing their public rhetoric with actual corporate adjustments made to address climate change, he has found that their business practices "fall far short of the claims made." This, he says, raises important questions about how far companies can go, particularly as we face impending recession, when confronting climate change. "Bad remedies may be diverting attention from and even driving out good ones," he says.

Big companies including multitasking corporations like Richard Branson's Virgin and Tesco, bankers such as HSBC and Barclaycard, media companies such as BSkyB and the major oil companies like BP, have all embraced the wider trends of the green revolution. Until the economic downturn hijacked the nation's news desks barely a day would pass without a report on how blue-chip companies were investigating climate-change mitigation strategies. But, asks Dale, was this investigating followed up by investment or is the talk of address global warming nothing more than boardroom hot air?

Several companies claim to have achieved carbon neutrality. Others are pumping cash into carbon sinks and surveys. Consumers are even rating the eco credentials of the likes of Virgin, Tesco, and Marks & Spencer, and BP as being in the top twenty of green firms:
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When it comes to biofuels, carbon offsetting, the use of renewables, carbon sequestration, many companies are flying the green flag and rebranding and relabelling themselves as champions of the green movement. Yet, Dale's analysis of the actual energy use and pollution production of many major corporations reveals this in many cases to be nothing more than a cynical attempt to trump their competitors with garbled ecological rationality in the name of profits.

"A more effective and more just strategy would involve concerted state intervention focused upon investment in public transport, housing and renewable energy, coupled with regulatory measures to radically reduce fossil-fuel use," concludes Dale.

Gareth Dale, "Green shift: an analysis of corporate responses to climate change", International Journal of Management Concepts and Philosophy, 2008, 3, n°2, 134-155, DOI: 10.1504/IJMCP.2008.021271

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Phytocapping: new technique reduces GHG emissions from landfill sites and turns them into green oases

Landfill sites produce the greenhouse gases methane and carbon dioxide, as putrescible waste decays. Growing selected plants and trees on top of a landfill, a process known as 'phytocapping', could reduce the production and release of these gases, according to Australian scientists writing in a forthcoming issue of International Journal of Environmental Technology and Management. What is more, the technique allows urban communities to build new green spaces in and around their cities. When phytocapping is carried out well, the former garbage sites can even become biodiversity corridors for species that were previously chased out of the city-scape.

Despite legislative pressures to reduce landfill use, in certain parts of the world it remains the most economical and simplest method of waste disposal. Biodegradation of organic matter in a landfill site occurs most rapidly when water comes into contact with the buried waste, explains Kartik Venkatraman and Nanjappa Ashwath of the Department of Molecular and Life Sciences, at Central Queensland University (CQU), Rockhampton, Australia. They point out that conventional approaches to reducing this effect involve placing compacted clay over the top of a landfill to form a cap that minimizes percolation of water into the landfill.

Some sites do not attempt to prevent water percolation and biodegradation and instead install gas collection systems to trap the methane released. The use of clay capping has generally proved ineffective in trials in the USA, the researchers say. The problem being that in arid regions the clay cap dries out and cracks allowing water to easily percolate into the landfill. Equally problematic, methane gas collection can be an expensive option for many Australian landfills that do not reach the methane production threshold to enable efficiency. For commercial landfill gas collection, a certain scale is required.

Hence, the new technique, known as phytocapping, which involves placing a layer of top soil and growing dense vegetation on top of a landfill, was tested at Rockhampton's Lakes Creek Landfill not far from Central Queensland University. This research was conducted by Kartik Venkatraman and Nanjappa Ashwath (CQU) in conjunction with the Rockhampton Regional Council and Phytolink Pty LTD. The tests proved that the technique is a viable alternative to both clay capping and methane gas collection.

Professor Ashwath was so kind as to answer some of Biopact's questions on the innovative technique, as it may offer some interesting bioenergy applications.

How it works
Selected plant species are established on an unconsolidated soil placed over the waste. The soil acts both as "storage" and "sponge" and the plants as "bio-pumps" and "rainfall interceptors". For an effective site water balance, it is important that appropriate plant species are chosen and the soil depth optimized. As such, the team has investigated the effects of different ranges of species as well as soil depth.

The team's studies of the benefits of a landfill phytocap show that the approach can reduce surface methane emission four to five times more than the adjacent un-vegetated site. They found that a cap of 1400 mm thickness also reduces surface methane emissions 45% more than a cap half as thick.

The team also looked at the effects of nineteen tree species, including acacias, figs, eucalyptus, and other Australian native species, growing in the phytocap to determine which species are most effective at reducing water percolation and methane emissions. The root system acts as a good substrate to methanogens, which oxidizes methane thereby reducing methane emission into the atmosphere:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The benefits of phytocapping include, cutting in half the cost of landfill remediation and providing biodiversity corridors along which wild species can travel. The process also inverts the aesthetic qualities of landfills adjacent to urban communities. In some cases, phytocapping introduces additional economical benefits such as timber and fodder. The authors thus conclude that "the establishment of phytocaps would offer an additional and economical way of reducing methane emission from landfills".

Bioenergy potential?
Professor Ashwath told Biopact that it might be possible to harvest some of the biomass for use as a feedstock for bioenergy production. The team is testing biomass from phytocapped landfills for the production of biochar and green diesel obtained by refining bio-oil.

The bioenergy option might find applications in some of the "mega-cities" of the developing world, where landfill sites are often poorly planned and managed, and where methane gas collection would be too expensive. At the same time, energy is often a scarce good amongst the poor living in and around these cities.

We presented prof Ashwath with the example of Kinshasa, capital of the DRCongo, which was once known as 'Kin la belle' (Kinshasa the beautiful) but is now called 'Kin la poubelle' (Kinshasa the dirt bin) by its inhabitants. A perimeter of more than 30 kilometers in diameter around the city has been deforested to provide wood fuel for the poor in Kinshasa's vast slums. Phytocapping of landfills there could not only give the city some of its charm back, and make life for the slum-dwellers more bearable and healthy, it might actually yield a usable amount of biomass that could generate clean, renewable energy in low-cost bioenergy facilities (e.g. small to medium-scale gasification plants that generate power and heat).

Of the 19 species tested in the Australian phytocapping trials, Ashwath and his colleagues found 10 of the 19 having the potential to grow well and produce large quantities of biomass. One species in particular, Hibiscus tiliaceus, produced twice the amount of biomass than other species. Likewise some acacias, bamboo and eucalypts also grow well and produce usable biomass.

The team now has 8 field trials in various parts of Australia where it has tested over 100 different plant species. In each location up to 5 species are performing well on the landfills. This is a very good result, and in no site have the researchers lost planted native species.

At one site near Pomona (north of Brisbane), one of the hardwood and sought after timber species, Araucaria cunninghamii (hoop pine), is growing extremely well (picture, click to enlarge). Likewise there are other timber species that are very suitable as phytocaps. In a few decades, Australia's hardwood timber could be exhausted, and these sites could help provide that resource in the future.

The scientists are working to get the most out of the elegant synergy presented by phytocapping: they are collaborating with a local city council to convert one of its landfills into parkland with bike tracks and picnic spots. They are also making a case for growing koala fodder so that the site could attract wild life back to the cities.

When all these elements are combined in phytocapping projects, the technique offers a low-cost solution with multiple additional benefits, to a problem that contributes significantly to global warming.

The team is working in the context of the Australian Alternative Covers Assessment Project (A-ACAP), a $3 million program which began in April 2006, completed its construction phase in December 2007 when Lismore City Council’s Wyrallah Rd Landfill came on stream as the 5th and final test pad built during that year. Other sites in order of construction were: SITA’s Taylors Rd Landfill, Melbourne, January; Lucas Waste Management’s Southern Waste Depot, McLaren Vale, April; Townsville City Council’s Vantassel St Landfill, July and Cockburn City Council’s Henderson Landfill, September.

Professor Nanjappa Ashwath has been working as an Associate Professor at CQUniversity. He has a PhD from the Australian National University, Canberra, and has spent more than 25 years in studying Australian native plants. The focus of his research has been on selecting suitable species for degraded sites including landfills, mine sites, disturbed mangrove habits and other sites associated with drought, salinity, waterlogging and heavy metals. He is also involved in testing native species for biodiesel, bush medicine and bush tucker potential, and using the green waste in bioenergy and biodiesel production. Associate Professor Ashwath teaches under graduate courses, supervises post graduate students, and is an active researcher. He currently collaborates with a national research team (A-ACAP) to test suitability of phytocap as an alternative landfill cover. Associate Professor Ashwath is a keen promoter of Australian native plants to landscape architects (see http://cpws.cqu.edu.au) and he also contributes to conservation of rare and threatened plant species. He is a recipient of University Vice Chancellor’s award for research (CQU) and the University Teaching Fellowship from the Rotary Foundation.

Picture: Araucaria cunninghamii, a much sought after hardwood species, growing remarkably well on a landfill near Pomona. The phytocap prevents the release of CH4 and CO2 from the garbage site. The picture shows the preparation of the site in 2004 and the trees in 2008. Credit: Prof. Ashwath.


Kartik Venkatraman and Nanjappa Ashwath, "Can phytocapping technique reduce methane emission from municipal landfills?", International Journal of Environmental Technology and Management, 2009, 10, 4-15, forthcoming.

Australian Alternative Covers Assessment Project (A-ACAP), a project of the Waste Management Association of Australia.

Professor Nanjappa Ashwath, personal page at the CQ University.

PhD Candidate Kartik Venkatraman, personal page at the CQ University.

Center for Plant & Water Science
, CQ University: see the summaries on phytocapping in the Conservation & Rehabilitation research section.

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