scientific sustainability

00003I work in a lab and labs are not very sustainable.  The problem areas in scientific research fall into three main areas.  Travel, plastics and energy.

For me apart from how I get to and from work (mainly by train and cycling), this is not an issue.  For many academics and to a certain extent the private sector this is more of an problem. I have read and heard a variety of views from academics recently from the total non-flying angle to the I have to go and its not the conference speeches I would miss but the networking.  When I did my PhD I was allowed a trip to one conference.  I went to Barcelona by sleeper.  (The group that flew from my University were stuck on the ground for 12 hours due to a technical problem, at least on the way out.  But to be fair they probably still got there quicker.)  Most people recognise they at least need to cut down on the flying.

The second big problem is plastics.  Our lab gets through enormous quantities of these. These fall into two main areas.  Cell culture and pipettes.  Cell culture flasks are plastic and both the plastic and the cells that are grown in them are optimised to grow on this material.  The plastic is wetable.  That is, its modified so than it being made of a simple repeating uncharged polymer there are charged groups on it.  This means it is water loving and the liquid water does not form raised bubbles on it but spreads out. It also means cells potentially attach.  The lab I work in reuses one type of cell culture flask entirely for cost reasons.  Even then they do not last forever.

The other use of plastics is pipetting.  Pipettes are simply a means of transferring a known volume of liquid.  They range in volume from 50ml to less than a µL (millionth of a litre).  They are all plastic.  Here there have been modest changes.  We now recycle the boxes the pipettes come in. But not the pipette tips themselves. One possibility is to go back to glass.  When I was a student, many of the larger volume pipettes were glass.  The small tips I’m not sure could work as glass, there is also a living organism health and safety issue.  Cell culture flasks would be much more tricky since as I stated above the the entire process is optimised for plastics.  Another problem is that for safety reasons that everything is autoclaved.  To be fair you are not allowed to just chuck stuff out with living things on.  Edinburgh University was fined an enormous amount when I worked there for release of GM organisms.  Of course autoclaves use an enormous amount of energy.

This brings neatly me to the last area – energy. Apart from autoclaves, scientists love freezing things.  Usually at -20ºC but also at -80ºC.  These very low temperature freezers use enormous quantities of electricity.  Where I worked at Edinburgh University they put them all in one room (-20ºC and -80ºC).  The noise was deafening and of course the room needed cooling (which didn’t work well enough, since the building was built under PFI).

Things are changing, slowly.  In the three years I have working in the lab more stuff can now be recycled.  For instance all the plastic containers that the cell culture medium is delivered in can now be recycled (and more surprisingly their lids) and this is a lot of plastic.  Pipette boxes ditto.  We have been told to cut down the autoclave use as far as possible and fill it up.  Since we are now charged per session.

I personally reuse pipette tips as far as possible.  There is research underway on living organism disposal and even storing samples at -70ºC which uses a lot less energy than -80ºC. Some universities have pledged to go plastic free and to do so truly do will involve their labs.  The dichotomy of us who strain to use less plastic and energy at home but chuck stuff away willy nilly at work is not lost on me.

We have a long way to go to reach true scientific sustainability.

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Could wind power the world?

walney 1 and 2Could wind power the world?  That’s the claim made in a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA).  The IEA got Imperial College London to do the analysis.  They reckon that that offshore wind could meet more than 18 times our current electricity demand worldwide, that is 420, 000 TWh per year.  The IEA also claim that offshore wind matches the capacity factor of gas fired plant for electricity generation, is less variable than solar PV and therefore is suitable for baseload generation.

There does seen to be something in this.  Offshore wind even a couple of years ago was regarded as extremely expensive.  Costs have plunged and the generation levels have proved better than thought.  In our book we were relatively cautious about the technology, largely due to the costs at that time.  These have fallen.  David MacKay was very cautious in his book “Sustainable Energy — without the hot air”.  He lowered the resource to a third of the area available.  The Centre For Alternative Energy have given offshore wind a higher total than us or David MacKay.  It does seem that we may have underestimated the potential.  The IEA have ignored places with windspeeds of less than 5m/s and large chunks of offshore capacity where there are other uses such as marine parks.  There is one however one change that might explain some of the increase the capacity.  That is floating turbines.  These are tethered to the seabed and not fixed.  This increases the potential ocean areas massively where turbines can be sited into deep water.

A few caveats.  No one least of all the IEA is suggesting we just use windpower to electrify our world.  There are times when the wind drops and the resource may not always be in the right places.  Nevertheless this does show that even if only a half or a quarter of the potential capacity could be utilised the resource is huge.

Neil

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Save the Whale, save the planet?

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Save the Whale, save the planet?  This is the bizarre claim that I read the other day.  For many people saving the Whale was the first environmental campaign they came across (Yes “Don’t kill the Whale” and all that).  Could they have been onto something more important?  It might be so.  Scientists have worked out that Whales really could mop up enormous quantities of carbon.  So the claim goes from the IMF.

The reason is prosaic.  Whales poo.  Clearly quite a lot.  This poo is used by plankton.  Lots of Whales eat plankton, but they cannot eat the lot.  This plankton is either eaten by other creatures, or escapes predation and sinks to the ocean floor.  Anyway either whale poo, or creatures that have eaten the poo or the whales themselves, after they died end up on the ocean floor.  Since all living things are carbon based then the carbon is locked up basically for all eternity.  The IMF reckons the effect of letting the phytoplankton numbers increase by 1% numbers would be the same as 2 billion trees.  There’s something almost too good to be true about all this.  All we have to do is pretty much do nothing (although other man made activities at sea do inadvertently kill whales).

There is a strange link between Whale hunting and oil.  Originally Whales were hunted for their oil (amongst other things) that was used to power lamps.  The coming of the oil industry largely put a stop to that.  Oil has produced climate change, would it not be ironic if the poor whale was part of the solution?

The IMF article can be seen here.

Neil

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Recycling yes but not this way

 

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Recycling yes but not this way.  That’s what I thought when I watched report on Channel4 news tonight from Idlib.  I’ve seen some terrible things in my time on the TV but especially since the Syrian war started but children scratching a living in a rubbish dump has to be the worst.  Yes- there are children doing this all over the world.  But there is something truly disturbing about this happening in Syria since you know its not about poverty per se but caused by a war that seems to be without end.  The kids that are scratching a living and yes they are recycling, are doing so because of a war.  No other reason.   They have never been to school and have only known war.  Despite all privations they seemed really happy which made it even worse.

In scratching a living they did seem to be recycling some of the commonly recycled low hanging fruit such as cans, but surely not this way.  The most disturbing thing in the film was how old they looked as well as them eating rotten food they found in the dump (which was heaving with flies.  One of the most heart rending things I’ve seen for ages.What to do?  Donate to Syrian charities.  These kids should be at school the oldest was only 14. Recycling yes but not this way.

The full video can be seen here.  https://www.channel4.com/news/inside-idlib-kids-scavenging-trash-for-food-in-idlib-syria

Neil

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One thing we have learnt this week – ski energy plant

The   The Danes go in for lots of decentralised heat and power.  This means lots of CHP power plants in the middle of cities.   These are from what I have seen of them pretty subtle attractive looking pieces of architecture.  But a ski energy plant?!  The firm of architects BIG was given the contract to design a new one in Copenhagen.  This plant uses waste which is not the most eco friendly of ideas, except when there is no other way of disposing of it.

The idea behind the plant was clearly to have some other use other than just as an energy plant.  BIG thought about the use the wasteland they were building on was put to.  This included a watersking park! and go-karting.  However BIG realised that the for practical reasons the plant had to have one end low and the other high.  It was this that made them come up with the idea of a ski energy plant.  Its a dry artificial slope as you can see.

BIG have come up with a bright idea.  They wanted somewhere people would visit again and again and they’ve come up with something bright and innovative albeit something that does not totally get away from its industrial use.

Neil

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eco cycling holiday

the open roadPart of the reason I haven’t posted so much recently is we went on an eco cycling holiday.  This involved train and ferry travel and a private hire minibus.  The holiday?  To cycle from one end of the outer Hebrides to the other along the Hebridean cycleway.  Here are the lessons I would say we learnt.

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First we had a practice.  So in May we cycled from Edinburgh to Berwick Upon Tweed.  This was invaluable.   We worked out how far we could cycle comfortably in a day and flagged up a number of other problems.  One I discovered was that the saddle that came with my bike was very uncomfortable after about 20 miles.  I cycle a maximum of 6 each way to work and it had not been a problem.  My wife decided to get a new pannier.  So lesson on don’t just jump on your bike.  But practice.  This includes fitness although neither did much extra on this count.  Before my cycle pilgrimage to the UN climate talks in Paris I did do some fitness work in the gym and running, along with some extra cycling.

The next lesson is to plan.  You need not only to book accommodation well in advance but also meals.  We didn’t camp but carried all our stuff for 10 days and ate out.  Don’t try to wing it, you’ll almost certainly go hungry (at the very least).

Be flexible.  The more the remote the area the more you are at the mercy of the elements.  We had to leave a day early to get the ferry which was brought forward due to bad weather.  We cycled extra one day and moved our accommodation due to bad weather coming in the next day.

Allow time for diversions to look at points of interest along the way.

Most of all enjoy – an eco cycling holiday is a great experience!

Neil

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Metal thefts

There was time before the crash in 2008 and even beyond when metal thefts were common.  The price of allsorts of different types of metals had soared.  You name it thieves were stealing it if it wasn’t nailed down and even if it was.  Henry Moore statues!  These things were huge bronze things that couldn’t be removed without some kind of lifting equipment.  I’m not a fan but even so.  My parents church had so many attempts (successful) at stealing the lead off their church hall roof they paid a venture scout to sit up the church tower all night.  The thieves came calling.  He phoned the police, who turned up on mass and cornered the men on the roof with police dogs.  At the time it was reckoned all the metals were going to China.  Anyway the government tightened the rules for scrapyards and the whole metal thefts story went quiet.

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Now it seems to have come to life again.  The headline was about criminals stealing catalytic convertors, particularly from hybrids.  Hybrids have large quantities of rhodium and Palladium.  These metals are very expensive and comparatively rare.  Cars that have a high wheelbase are especially vulnerable, but for other cars they jack the car up and cut the cat off.

Apparently metal thefts of other more common metals such as copper and lead for church roofs have started up again too.  Worried about your cat?  You can buy an alarm to fit to it.  The whole thing is ridiculous, if only these people would put their efforts into legit businesses.  Anyway you have been warned.

Neil

PS the cat is number 5 on diagram above.

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One thing we have learnt this week – climate strikes

I’ve just returned from one of the global climate strikes on the Edinburgh meadows.  I almost burst into tears when I got there.   I was in an age minority.  The majority of people there were still at school or were university students.  So many people turned up that the march took an hour to get going.  As the primary schools closed for the day their pupils and parents started turning up.  I’ve been banging on about climate change for over 20 years and at last there seems to be some hope at the 11th hour.

Its always been important to get the young involved since its more their future than ours.  As one sad placard stated “you’ll die of old age-  I’ll die of climate change”.   But its not been easy to get them interested until Greta sat down and refused to go to school until something was done about it.  That, extinction rebellion and the heatwaves in the US and Europe in 2018 seem to mean that some kind of Rubicon has been crossed.

There’s still a long way to go of course but the climate strikes do seem be cutting through and should give permission to Governments to move faster.  Lets hope and pray so anyway.

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Neil

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One thing we have learnt this week – waste heat

IMG_0761Could waste heat be the solution to our heating needs?  One of the biggest problems we face in decarbonising the economy is what to do about how we heat our homes.  At the moment we are highly dependent on natural gas.  This is a finite resource.  Various alternatives are frequently cited.  These include hydrogen, which I regard as a complete waste of space and heat pumps which have very significant drawbacks.  Search this site for blogs on these alternatives, take a read and see what you think.

Could one solution be waste heat?  There is the beginnings of a quiet revolution in district heating taking place across the UK with some government money as seed corn.  In London this week it was announced that the waste heat from the tube is to be used  to heat further 450 homes joining 700 odd on an existing network.  Anyone who has been on the tube know how hot it is.  Its also getting hotter with climate change.  There is therefore an increasing incentive for Transport for London to cool it. Rather than pump the heat out into the atmosphere why not collect it?   The scheme is going to use high efficiency heat exchangers to raise the temperature to 80°C from 18-28°C.   There is possibility that almost 40% of London’s heating needs could be met this way.  On big advantage of the scheme is that its the sort of temperatures that gas boilers work at.  This means you could use existing radiators and levels of insulation.  Of course we need to insulate our houses better, but in the short term this could be very costly and in some cases almost impossible.

There are other schemes being mooted in Greenwich and using waste heat from Wembley stadium in London.  Stoke on Trent seems to be working on a scheme using natural occurring hot water and there is a very interesting scheme closer to home in Edinburgh.  I’ve not been able to find many details on this at all, but it seems to involve pumping waste heat during summer into a very large disused mine, then using it in winter.  This scheme would be linked with combined heat and power.

There is one huge problem with district heating.  That is it involves digging up the streets on a huge scale.  This is not cheap or easy.  But for many of us it may be the only solution before the gas runs out and a climate crisis strikes.

Neil

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red phone repurposing

red phonebox repurposingIn today’s paper there have been two separate articles on repurposing.  The first was on women repurposing their wedding dresses.  One example was a woman who became a minister making hers into a stoal.  My wife borrowed her dress off a friend.  Enough said on that one.

The other repurposing article was on the use of the old fashioned but classic British red phone box.   This was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott in the 1930’s and was voted the greatest British design ever in 2015.  Lets not exaggerate.  They were not very practical.  The doors were heavy and they were frequently used as toilets (see a number of “Not the Nine O’clock News” sketches for reference.  Nevertheless whilst there are a surprising 10,000 left, they are under threat and its good to see that people are coming up with alternative uses.  BT allow people to adopt them and people are doing just that.  The one above was one I came across on the Isle of Man.  A bookswap.  But many other uses have been found.

Other uses include, a place for defibrillators, libraries, kiosk shops, repair shops, art galleries, museums, pubs and nightclubs.  Just about any use you can think of.  Repurposing them stands against the current mania for throwing something away as does reusing your bridal dress.

Neil

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