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Monday, May 8, 2017

Greening the desert

If you could set up a whole bunch of desalination plants, you could pump the water on to a desert somewhere and over time it would green and you would establish a fresh water aquifer.  It wouldn't work.  No one is going to go to that expense for some future nice-to-have ecological result.  No, you need a way of doing it, that in the mean time generates revenue.  Fortunately such a way exists already.

Some time ago I wrote a blog on Sea Water Greenhouses.  You can see it here.

Image result for image sea water greenhouse
Sea water greenhouse can be at any scale.  Note the solar panels powering the pumps and fan.

To recap briefly, you set up a tunnel house with it's long axis parallel to the prevailing wind.  Note that this will only work if the humidity is low.  You close the upwind end of the tunnel house with a screen made of some wettable material such as excelsior or some types of cardboard such that the wind can blow through this end of the greenhouse.  The downwind end of the Greenhouse has a Solar powered DC fan sucking the air out of the greenhouse and a condenser to condense the moisture out of the air stream.  You dribble your sea water down the screen at the upwind end and collect it in a trough.  You will find it is amazingly cold.  You pipe this water to the condenser at the downwind end in a lagged (insulated) pipe and it will condense out fresh water from the air passing the condenser.  You collect and use this fresh water to irrigate your plants.  You pipe the sea water back to the upwind area and dribble it down the excelsior screen again. Somewhere in this return system is a bleed off that you can adjust so that the water never gets too salty.  This brine is piped back to the sea.

There are many ways to run the agricultural side of such a green house but here I am talking about an open system in which the plants grow in soil on to which you drip the fresh water.  You don't use a closed hydroponic system. The reason is simple.  You want the excess water to flow into the soil and over time create a fresh water, water-table. All by themselves, plants will start to grow around the farm where none grew before.  As more and more of these salt water greenhouses are set up, more and more fresh water will flow into the ground.  You can plant trees and you are on your way to transforming the desert.

The key is in having a farming enterprise that is profitable.

Of course, you may have some other source of water.  There may be, for instance, a salt water aquifer you can tap far from the sea.  No problem and perhaps an extra opportunity.  Not all such aquifers are simply condensed sea water.  They may have valuable minerals in them.  For instance some brines are rich in Lithium, some in Borax.  Whatever the composition of your sub surface salt water, you can let the overflow brine go into lined ponds to evaporate and release whatever salts are in the water. In the mean time the lighter fresh water going into the soil from your tunnel houses will float over top of the salty aquifer just as occurs in coral atoll islands. The salty aquifer will be sucked down over time as you utilize it and replace it with fresh water.

Incidentally, this will work as a remediation system in areas where salination has ruined the soil.  Often there is salty sub surface water which can be used and replaced by the fresh water your tunnel houses produce.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Communism and Capitalism

There ain't nothing wrong with either Communism or Capitalism and people that harp on about them are either ignorant or are trying to misdirect your attention from the real problems with both systems.

America uses Communism as their boogy man and communist countries do the same with Capitalism.  Strange in the case of America since her favorite ally is Israel.     Israel is the only country I know of that has had actual Communism.  Their communes are called Kibbutzim (plural of Kibbutz) and were truly communistic organizations.  They provide a good case study to look at real communism.

Kibbutsim were not the  type of  commune we are more familiar with, with a charismatic religious leader such as with the many communes that self destruct.  With the religious sort of commune, the charismatic leader takes a leaf out of the book of many countries and uses the fear of 'others' to hold his commune together.  Look how America does this with the fear of communism and now her new boogy man, Terrorism.  The people get more and more paranoid, often collect weapons and build walls around their commune.  Besides, the charismatic leader, before long, feels that every attractive female in the group should be his 'hand maiden' and this sows discontent. Some of these communes go so far as to commit suicide to bring on the apocalypses.

No, the Israeli Kibutz is run on democratic principles.  In the Kibutz are  a number of different enterprises.  Often they have fish ponds, a dairy, cotton fields, greenhouses for cut flowers and usually a factory producing, say, socks or plastic items.  The leaders of these enterprises are chosen from the group according to their ability and typically hold that position for 3 years.  Then they rotate to another sector in the kibutz, or go to university,or spend some years in the army or are voted to be the lea-son to the general kibutz movement.  One of their members is often chosen to be the head of the Kibutz (also, typically for 3 years).  So what keeps them motivated.

They all get exactly the same allowance to buy things in the Kibutz store, all wear the same clothes, all live in the same standard of accommodation
 and so forth.  Hard to believe, coming from our western societies where money is the measure of all things but they are motivated by their position in the community.  Someone who runs the dairy farm and runs it well is looked up to by all the member of the commune and  this, plus the satisfaction of doing a good job that helps his fellow members makes him always strive to do his job well.

I must mention here that the Kibutz system has broken down in Israel but for reasons that have nothing to do with the above.  That might be the subject of a future blog.

Two lessons we should take from the Kibbutz.  One it is democratic and two it recognizes the rule of law.  Everyone has a say at the regular meetings where the policy of the Kibutz is hammered out and no one is above the law. Kibbutzim are fair and equitable and transparent.   They also seem to work best in societies of up to about 250 individuals.  When they get too big, the effect of everyone knowing everyone else tends to weaken.  Incidentally, Kibbutzim are socialistic or if you like communistic inside but capitalistic in their relation with each othe, the rest of Israel and the outside world.

So what is wrong with what we call communism.  We associate Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin with communism.  You may not realize it but when Communism began, Americans were flocking to join communist and socialist organizations and unions in America.  Workers were being treated even worse then than today and this was their way of joining together to get a fair deal.  The bosses hated this and went to extremes to stop these movements.  No way did they want to pay a fair wage for a fair days work.  Then in Russia, Stalin co-opted the movement.

When the abuses he perpetuated on his own people became known, people left communist organizations almost as fast as they had joined.  His abuses had nothing to do with Communism as such.  He was a ruthless dictator who stifled any spark of Democracy and the rule of law and abused his own people.  To give him credit where a small amount of credit is due, he had to prepare his country to withstand the aggression of Germany and in a new democracy without established mechanisms, he might not have succeeded.

So what is wrong with Capitalism.  Nothing at all.  The problem is not with Capitalism as such but with the destruction of democracy by the leaders who want power and the uneven application of the rule of law. Being a Capitalist or a Communist has nothing to do with democracy or the rule of law.  You can have democracy and the rule of law in both system or no democracy and disdain of the rule of law in both systems.

Look at yourself as a citizen of a so called democracy.  What are you not allowed to do.  You can't steal, obtain financial benefit by false pretenses.  You can't throw your pollution or garbage on your neighbors land or your commons.  You can't bear false witness.  You can't cause the death of other by omission or commission and so forth.  This is all as it should be..... but the law is not applied equally.

Large companies and rich individuals get away with all of these and it takes a huge effort to bring them to justice.  It happens but it is notable in its rarity when a case succeeds against a big corporation or a rich person who is abusing his position.  Corporations and the rich can afford high power lawyers who can find some loop hole to get them out of trouble when an ordinary citizen would be sent to jail for the same crime.

Look at the recent election in America.  America has the finest founding document, (The Constitution), in the world.  The core of this document is that the government is by and for the people.  Chuck out all the rest and leave only this phrase and it would still be the finest founding document in the world.  Look what happened in the DNC (the Democratic National Convention - the body that chooses who their candidate will be in the presidential election).  Debbie Wasserman Shultz in cahoots with Hillary did everything they could to make Hillary the candidate and succeeded despite the fact that Bernie was clearly the peoples choice.  (remember that part about for and by the people).  Then Obama, who is a constitutional lawyer and who swore to uphold the Constitution, came out for Hillary (by and for???).  Then Warren followed suit.  These people only pay lip service to the Constitution, the top law document of the United States.  I doubt if they even understand the concept.

They remind me of some of my religious friends.  They extol the bible but only follow the parts that fit with their world view or even more cynically, the parts that give them some sort of advantage. To some extent I sympathize with picking and choosing.   Imagine what trouble you would be in if you followed the bible literally and started to stone your neighbor as he cut the lawn on Sunday.  On that line, I find it amazing that the religions right is at the forefront of mining, logging fishing, drilling in parks and in short exploiting nature to the n'th degree with no regard for sustainability while the atheistic left wants to preserve our world in some sort of reasonable shape for their descendants.  Go figure.

Anyway back to the topic.  The problem is not with Communism or Capitalism or any other ism you care to site.  The problem is whether the rule of law is applied equally and fairly and whether or not you have a democracy which is truly by and for the people.  Both can exist in any ism or be absent.  In America they are disappearing at a rapid rate if they ever even actually existed.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Bottled Water

We are in the middle of a bit of a stramash in New Zealand regarding bottled water.  Some folks are all a twitter (jealous?) of companies which are bottling this natural resource and selling it overseas.  I sort of see where they are coming from.  It is a license to print money.  What the complainers want to do is to put a price per liter on the water these companies use but this is the thin edge of the wedge.  If you charge these folks, why not other users such as industries and agriculture for their water use.  This would be a complete can of worms for an agricultural export country such as New Zealand.

Just to put things in perspective, New Zealand is not a desert.  We have some dryish places like the East Coast of South Island where I live but even here we have pretty good rain. The West coast of South Island, is quite literally a temperate rain forest.


So let's first look at how much water  various industries use.  For bottled water each liter takes 1.39liters of water, for soda, 2.02, for beer 4, for wine 4.74 and for hard liquor, 34.55 liters.  Note that this is only for the processing.  It doesn't include, for instance, the water needed to grow grapes or hops or the water to produce the bottles .  The table below gives some of the agricultural figures.

Typical values for the volume of water required to produce common foodstuffs

Click heading to sort table. Download this data
Water consumption, litres
Chocolate 1 kg 17,196
Beef 1 kg 15,415
Sheep Meat 1 kg 10,412
Pork 1 kg 5,988
Butter 1 kg 5,553
Chicken meat 1 kg 4,325
Cheese 1 kg 3,178
Olives 1 kg 3,025
Rice 1 kg 2,497
Cotton 1 @ 250g 2,495
Pasta (dry) 1 kg 1,849
Bread 1 kg 1,608
Pizza 1 unit 1,239
Apple 1 kg 822

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Interglacials, Phosphine and Diphosphane

As usual in my blogs, this theory is a bit of speculation; a hypothesis or if you like brainstorming so read it as such.  

First let's get the terminology right.  We are in the middle of an ice age which started some 2.5million years ago. It is called the pleistocene although some define the Plistocene as having started 1.8m years ago.   Within this ice age have been approximately 30 glacials and an equal number of interglacials.  At present we are in the Holocene interglacial and the previous one, centered about 125,000 years ago, was the Eemian (given different names by various scientists).  The Holocene Interglacial started about 20,000 years ago by definition, at the peak of the recent glacial but melting really got underway about 11,500 years ago.

Not to get too precious about this but we have to decide what words we are going to use for which periods. It is confusing to the layman and doesn't aid in informing the general public.  Above is the way I learned it but any terminology would be fine with me as long as we all agree on what we mean when we say 'ice age".  If the term Ice Age is to be used for the glaciation between the Eemian and the Holocene, then we have to have a new term for the 2.5m year period of warm and cold we have been experiencing.

What is problematic, is to explain is why Carbon dioxide rises steeply as the ice melts and oddly enough seems to follow the ice melting rather than leading it.  The most accepted theory today has to do with the ocean circulation powered by the production of heavy, cold salty water at both ends of the earth and the relationship between the temperature of the surface of the sea and the amount and speed it can take up Carbon dioxide (or release it) from/to the atmosphere.  The basic physics is pretty simple and undeniable.  Cold water can hold more Carbon dioxide than warmer water.  The chain of cause and effect after this is a tad more tenuous.

The following hypothesis in no way negates the ocean current/water-temperature theory.  It is just  suggesting another source of Carbon dioxide as the ice melts.

Regardless of the source, what seems to happen is that as the ice begins to melt, Carbon dioxide rises a little later and  the released Carbon dioxide then accelerates the melt etc. etc.

Previously, I  hypothesized that over the approximately 100,000 years that ice covered large parts of the continents, a huge amount of methane clathrate would have accumulated under the ice.  Methane clathrate forms when methane is in contact with water under a pressure equivalent to about 300m of water or more.  The cooler the temperature the less pressure is needed but under sufficient pressure a clathrate can exist even up to 30 degrees C.  This higher temperature clathrate is not really relevant to our discussion since the bottom of deep ice sheets tends to be around zero degrees C so clathrates will begin to form when the ice reaches, say 400m or so.  The extra depth is necessary since the top 70m or so of the ice tends to be firn (porous snow which is turning into ice due to the weight of snow above it) which is lighter that ice.  All above figures are approximate.

Incidentally, there is also a carbon dioxide clathrate so any Carbon dioxide coming out of the ground to meet the bottom of a deep glacier would likely form a clathrate as well.  The formula for Carbon dioxide clathrate is thought to be CO2.6H2O*

* In a Carbon dioxide saturated clathrate, there is a sixth of a mole (gram molecular weight) of Carbon dioxide for every mole of water.  So a mole of water (18g) could contain 7.3g of carbon dioxide(a sixth of 44g)  In a liter of saturated CO2 clathrate you would have 407g of CO2.  This is 9.26 moles of Carbon dioxide.  Since one mole of any gas occupies 22.4liters at STP, then one liter of methane clathrate at STP would release 207 liters of the gas if it disintegrated.  Pretty amazing, no? The formula for saturated methane hydrate is CH 4 · 5.7H 2O.  Work out what volume of methane could be released from one kg of water ice saturated methane  to form methane hydrate.

The source of the methane includes organic material buried by the ice, which when deprived of oxygen decays by methanogenesis.  Other sources are deposits of coal, oil, tar sands, natural gas and shales.  Since an accumulation of ice tends to push down the land  approximately a third of the height of the ice (ie a km of ice will depress the land a third of a km) a sort of natural fracking may occur.  In other words,  cracks could well be opened up which would release gas that had been capped by layers of impermeable rock. In addition there are methane seeps all around the world which would create clathrates under ice without any need to invoke the cracking of the earth under the weight of ice.

I'm not sure what the composition of "swamp gas" is but when you operate a biogas generator, the composition of the gas is approximately 70% methane and 30% Carbon dioxide.  If this is similar for organic material breaking down under an ice sheet then both CH4 and CO2 clathrate would accumulate.

I also hypothesized that since the ice at the height of a glacial would be pushing  into areas too warm for ice to form, it would only need a nudge from the Milankovitch cycle to start the melt.  If sufficient melting occurred then enough  methane would be released to produce a negative feed back and accelerate the process.  Hence the transition into an interglacial.

Note that the greater the ice sheet, the more unstable which may explain why every Milankovitch nudge didn't cause an interglacial in the latter half of the present ice age. Apparently it was necessary for the ice sheet to be really big and hence really unstable.

When I suggested the methane theory to a number of scientists, they assured me that such an outpouring of the very powerful greenhouse gas, methane, would appear in the ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica.  Further they said that there is no evidence that methane converts to Carbon dioxide within ice bubbles.  When the analysis was done and no methane signature was found.  I argued that methane has a half life of about 7 years and so would disappear rather rapidly and the Firn layer is some 70m deep and so gas exchange would occur through this layer, softening the edges of the signature.  I was assured that there still would be a methane signature and none was found.

So,,, what if the methane ignited as it was released from under the ice.  One could suggest lightening as an igniter but this seems rather unlikely and once the methane is sufficiently diluted in the air, it is no longer ignitable.  Methane will ignite when it is between 5 and 15 percent of the air.  Of course pure methane will ignite at the edges where it is mixing with the air, just like happens in your gas hob.   If it came out in sufficient quantities and with sufficient velocity, it would produce its own mini lightening and ignite but this too seems to be somewhat far fetched to explain the ignition of all this methane from all sources.

No, the methane, if it is ignited and thus is responsible for the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, it has to be ignited as it enters the air before it has been diluted too much to burn and it needs a source of ignition that it carries with it.

Then I remembered phosphine (PH3)  It is also produced by the rotting of organic material in swamps along with diphosphane (P2H4).  Methane is the main component of swamp gas.  These two phosphorous compounds ignite on contact with the air and would ignite the methane.   This phenomenon is observed around the world in swampy areas. A common name for this in English is Will o' the Wisps.

From Wikipedia (Sorry, links don't work.  They work in the original article)
In modern science, it is generally accepted that most ignis fatuus are caused by the oxidation of phosphine (PH3), diphosphane (P2H4), and methane (CH4). These compounds, produced by organic decay, can cause photon emissions. Since phosphine and diphosphane mixtures spontaneously ignite on contact with the oxygen in air, only small quantities of it would be needed to ignite the much more abundant methane to create ephemeral fires.[32] Furthermore, phosphine produces phosphorus pentoxide as a by-product, which forms phosphoric acid upon contact with water vapor. This might explain the "viscous moisture" described by Blesson.

All this is great but leaves a huge number of questions unanswered.  Since two ice sheets are in the process of disintegrating at present (West Antarctic and Greenland) we may see evidence for or against this hypothesis as the ice melts.

1/ Are there indeed large amounts of methane (and Carbon dioxide) stored under the ice sheets as  clathrates.

2/ Do these deposits contain phosphine and diphosphane.

3/  Has anyone observed a  Methane coming from under an ice sheet, say, when a river appears from under the ice and which therefore exposes part of the bottom of the ice sheet to atmospheric pressure. (low pressure allows clathrates to break down)

4/  Has anyone ever observed the spontaneous ignition  of methane (other than above swamps where it regularly occurs).  Note that in daylight, a methane flame is almost invisible.

5/  If there is phosphine and diphosphane in such methane deposits, what happens to it as methane plumes rise through ocean water.  Is it scrubbed out or does it rise with the methane.  The composition of the gas from the ocean bottom as it leaves the water and enters the air could be quite different from an outpouring of gas on land. For instance, if a mixture of methane and Carbon dioxide bubbles were rising through a column of water, likely the Carbon dioxide would be scrubbed out.  It would, though, show up as a decreased alkalinity of the surrounding sea water.  I don't know what the relationship is between water and phosphine and diphospane.

To increase the credibility of the above hypothesis for the source of at least some of the carbon dioxide that is seen in the atmosphere as the ice sheets melt, we would have to see a similar phenomenon with the presently disintegrating ice sheets.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Freezing the Arctic with Wind Turbines

I have just read the most abysmally stupid idea for combating climate change.  Some 'professor' proposes to put some 10 million wind pumps all over the arctic ocean at a cost of trillions of dollars to pump sea water onto the ice where it will freeze and thicken the ice.

Leaving aside the difficulty of building and maintaining anything which is floating amongst the ship crushing ice flows in the Arctic, how about putting all these wind turbines on land and off shore all over the world to generate electricity and replace fossil fuel use.  Use some of these trillions for energy storage systems as well and promote electric cars.  Attack the source of the problem, not the symptoms.

Besides, when surface sea water freezes naturally, it produces fresh water ice.  The salt is rejected, forms brine which sinks to the bottom of the ocean.  As heat conducts through the ice into the atmosphere, more fresh water ice is frozen to the bottom of the existing ice and more brine is produced.  This fresh water ice is strong and melts...well at the freezing point of ice.

If you pump sea water on to the ice where it freezes, it will be full of salt.  That slushy weak ice will melt out rapidly when spring comes and will likely melt out the underlying fresh water ice just like when you put salt on an icy sidewalk.

Add to that, even if this hair brained idea did work, what would the effect be when we are up to 500 or 600 ppm CO2 and the funds ran out at the next economic crisis (none of the fundamentals were changed by the Obama presidency) and the first item cut from the budget is maintaining all these wind pumps in one of the harshest environments in the world.

This whole idea reminds me of the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff type policy that we use with our refugees.  Instead of eliminating the source of the refugees, we spend huge amounts of money trying to care for them.  They don't want to be in our strange (to them) land.  They want to be in their homes amongst their friends.

To stop the creation of refugees, the next time someone decides to start a completely unjustified war in someone else's country,  the whole world should put full sanctions on them.  Yes America and the UK, I am talking about you.

Even worse, when you refuse to come to the party and reduce your carbon pollution, once again sanctions should be imposed until you wake up.  Here I am only addressing the US.  The UK is making a pretty reasonable fist of reducing their carbon emissions.

This ridiculous idea of trying to artificially create more ice is  philosophically, practically and scientifically fought.  Get real and address the cause.  Use these trillions to get us free from fossil fuels.