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The long way to an emission-free planet

by Dr. Asteris Apostolidis, published: 10/04/2017

In our latest post, we dealt with the prospects of moving towards an exclusively electrically powered world, where fossil fuels will be obsolete and eventually, abandoned. We discussed as well the example of Norway, where this future prospect is almost a present for this Nordic country. Their hydroelectric plants cover almost exclusively the demand for electricity, passing gradually to a fully-electric road vehicle fleet, too.

Norway is a bright example of how the future can be, but unfortunately the majority of the rest of the world struggles to catch up with these prospects. There are numerous reasons for that:First of all, not all countries have access to the same types of natural resources. Norway, due to its unique geographical location, has access to vast amounts of fresh water, which eventually produces the majority of the country's electricity. One can acknowledge that this cannot be the case for Morocco, where hydroelectric power is not a realistic option. On the other hand, the annual sunshine in this African country enables the development of other types of electricity production, with the recent example of the Ouarzazate parabolic solar plant, a unique facility of 160 MW of installed power, expected to be expanded to 580 MW at completion. Morocco plans to produce 42% of the country's electricity with the use of solar power by 2020, in a quite ambitious construction program. But falling water is available 24/7, whereas the sun is not. Therefore, there is a difference in the qualitative characteristics of the different sources of power production. Similarly, the wind does not blow constantly, and therefore neither wind power is as reliable as other -and more conventional- means of power production.

So, what a solution could be? The answer here is that for various practical and strategic reasons, a country ideally needs an energy mix that consists of a number of different sources. In other words, electricity produced by the sun, the wind, the water, coal, or nuclear, which all combined can cover the country's needs at any condition and time of the year. Nevertheless, and with the ultimate aim being sustainability and environmental protection, the last two types of production should be gradually phased out.

Biofuels are an interesting prospect, which can be more environmentally friendly. They can be produced in large amounts, they do not exploit preexisting natural resources, and they have a positive impact in the quality of the atmosphere when used by the means of transportation that currently use oil and its derivatives. A recent NASA study found that, when biofuels are used in aviation, a significant number of harmful emission types can be reduced up to 70%; the last in the case of particles. On the other hand, there are always some negative aspects. When it comes to biofuels, one of the main is the ethical question arising; with so many people on this planet starving, is it right to farm the land for biofuel production? Would it be better to use these fields in order to cultivate some edible crops?

But whatever the future may bring, fossil fuels will still be present for some decades, at least. Therefore, in parallel with any emerging energy production method, scientists need to address their harmful effects the best possible way. Let's take again road vehicles or aviation for examples. The vast majority of vehicles are still propelled by combustion of fossil fuels. Car manufacturers struggle to cope with the ever increasing emission regulations the authorities pose, keeping at the same time the desired performance. There are numerous sophisticated engine technologies introduced in recent years, such as the general use of turbochargers, or even other, simpler tricks, such as the start-stop systems that switch the engine off at traffic lights. And definitely, there are many more examples of clever engineering. But we can clearly see that the imposed constrains are difficult to be reached without vast amounts of money spent in R&D. That led to the recent unfortunate events of modified engine control units by the VW group and possibly by other manufacturers. In any case, the ones that certainly lose by such practices are the declining public health, the taxpayers -as states lose money from cars classified as more "green" than they really are- and in the long term, the future generations and the state of this planet that they are going to inherit.

Last but not least, aviation will possibly be one of the very last domains where fossil (or bio-) fuels will be replaced, as gas turbines offer a unique thrust-to-weight ratio, enabling aircrafts to fly. Therefore, and since aircrafts always emit harmful gases when flying, reduced flying times by a better optimisation of air traffic is one of the key targets for civil aviation authorities. There are currently various projects aiming to the unification and optimisation of airspaces, a target that will save a fair amount of travelling time for passengers and an equal amount of saved high-altitude emissions. In any case, we should not underestimate all the other major technologies the aircraft engine and airframe manufacturers constantly introduce, which result in both reduced emissions -that satisfy the ever stricter regulations- and related savings for the airlines.

Concluding, the ultimate aim should be a zero-emission future for the planet. In practice, the constantly declining climate state requires some drastic measures. Science is the only way to resolve these issues, but again, not every country can cope with the current pace of climate change. Developing countries demand their own stake in global growth, compromising the hopes that targets can be timely reached and making the implementation of rules even more complicated. Moreover, the new US presidency made clear that satisfaction of the emission targets is not a priority in their agenda. Nevertheless, there is no alternative. Climate change is real, it threats the future of the planet and actions need to be taken.

Scientific research is the only way to invert the situation, and the implementation of scientific findings is based on innovative engineering. And that's what we intend to do!