Worthless mining waste could suck CO₂ out of the atmosphere and reverse emissions

The Paris Agreement commits nations to limiting global warming to less than 2˚C by the end of the century.

However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that, to meet such a massive challenge, societies will need to do more than simply reduce and limit carbon emissions. It seems likely that large scale removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere may be called for: so-called “negative emissions”. The Conversation

One possibility is to use waste material from mining to trap CO₂ into new minerals, locking it out of the atmosphere. The idea is to exploit and accelerate the same geological processes that have regulated Earth’s climate and surface environment over the 4.5 billion years of its existence.

Across the world, deep and open-pit mining operations have left behind huge piles of worthless rubble – the “overburden” of rock or soil that once lay above the useful coal or metal ore. Often, this rubble is stored in dumps alongside tiny fragments of mining waste – the “tailings” or “fines” left over after processing the ore. The fine-grained waste is particularly reactive, chemically, since more surface is exposed.

A lot of energy is spent on extracting and crushing all this waste. However, breaking rocks into smaller pieces exposes more fresh surfaces, which can react with CO₂. In this sense, energy used in mining could itself be harvested and used to reduce atmospheric carbon.

This is one of the four themes of a new £8.6m research programme launched by the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council, which will investigate new ways to reverse emissions and remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

The process we want to speed up is the “carbonate-silicate cycle”, also known as the slow carbon cycle. Natural silicate rocks like granite and basalt, common at Earth’s surface, play a key part in regulating carbon in the atmosphere and oceans by removing CO₂ from the atmosphere and turning it into carbonate rocks like chalk and limestone.

Atmospheric CO₂ and water can react with the silicate rocks to dissolve elements they contain like calcium and magnesium into the water, which also soaks up the CO₂ as bicarbonate. This weak solution is the natural river water that flows to the oceans, which hold more than 60 times more carbon than the atmosphere. It is here, in the oceans, that the calcium and bicarbonate can recombine, over millions of years, and crystallise as calcite or chalk, often instigated by marine organisms as they build their shells.

Today, rivers deliver hundreds of millions of tonnes of carbon each year into the oceans, but this is still around 30 times less than the rate of carbon emission into the atmosphere due to fossil fuel burning. Given immense geological time scales, these processes would return atmospheric CO₂ to its normal steady state. But we don’t have time: the blip in CO₂ emissions from industrialisation easily unbalances nature’s best efforts.

The natural process takes millions of years – but can we do it in decades? Scientists looking at accelerated mine waste dissolution will attempt to answer a number of pressing questions. The group at Cambridge which I lead will be investigating whether we can speed up the process of silicate minerals from pre-existing mine waste being dissolved into water. We may even be able to harness friendly microbes to enhance the reaction rates.

Another part of the same project, conducted by colleagues in Oxford, Southampton and Cardiff, will study how the calcium and magnesium released from the silicate mine waste can react back into minerals like calcite, to lock CO₂ back into solid minerals into the geological future.

Whether this can be done effectively without requiring further fossil fuel energy, and at a scale that is viable and effective, remains to be seen. But accelerating the reaction rates in mining wastes should help us move at least some way towards reaching our climate targets.

Simon Redfern, Professor in Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Rising number of satellites could bring catastrophic collisions in space

Measures to combat the threat posed by space debris may not be enough to prevent collisions in Earth orbit, as companies prepare to launch unprecedented numbers of satellites, according to new research.

The findings come ahead of the launch of the first ‘mega-constellations’ of communications satellites, which the researchers say will present an increased risk to Earth’s space environment unless action is taken to reduce their impact.

Companies such as Boeing, OneWeb and SpaceX plan to launch constellations of between 720 and 4,425 small, low-cost satellites as early as next year in an effort to provide high-speed internet coverage worldwide. Many smaller satellites – especially CubeSats, a type of satellite used in space research – are expected to be launched at the same time.

A team of engineers – led by Dr Hugh Lewis, senior lecturer in aerospace engineering at the University of Southampton, working with the European Space Agency – undertook a study into the effects of constellations and small satellites on the space environment.

The engineers used the University of Southampton’s space debris model and Iridis High-Performance Computing facility to simulate the effects of large constellations and small satellites over a 200-year period.

The simulation was based on the existing satellite population and predicted future launches, including a mega-constellation and small satellites, with more than 300 different scenarios being investigated.

It revealed that adding a mega-constellation into space resulted in a 50% increase in the number of catastrophic collisions – involving the complete destruction of a satellite – over the 200 years, with potentially serious consequences for other satellites and the services they provide, as well as financial implications for the operators.

“There has been a paradigm shift in the manufacturing of satellites,” said Lewis. “The cost of making a single communications satellite usually runs to hundreds of millions of pounds, but mass-produced satellites will potentially be much cheaper.”

The research concluded that space debris mitigation guidelines need to be updated to incorporate measures to address mega-constellations and small satellite traffic. Other methods to decrease the likelihood of collisions could include:

•      Decreasing the time that satellites spend in low Earth orbit after the end of their mission. The current guidelines stipulate a maximum of 25 years to bring a satellite out of orbit, a process that can take it across the orbits of other satellites

•      Making satellites smaller and lighter

•      The addition of propulsion systems and other features to small satellites

•      Extending a satellite’s active lifespan so that fewer need to be launched

•      Deploying missions to remove faulty satellites from orbit.

“The good news is that there are opportunities for mega-constellation operators to address these issues, through good design and by aiming to do better than the minimum required of them,” said Lewis.

The team also included engineers from Clyde Space, Belstead Research, Airbus Defence and Space, the Braunschweig University of Technology in Germany, and the National Research Centre in Italy.

Minesto’s tidal energy device set for trials off Anglesey

Marine energy developer Minesto has taken another step towards commercialisation of its Deep Green power-plant technology as it has secured a licence for a 0.5MW installation in the waters off North Wales.

Consenting authority Natural Resources Wales has approved a marine licence – required for all offshore construction work and deposits in UK waters – for the installation and operation of the power plant in Holyhead Deep off the coast of Anglesey.

The device will demonstrate and prove the technology ahead of plans for installing a 10MW array at the site.

“It’s a great achievement by everyone involved in the application process, and yet another deliverable met as we move towards commercialisation of our Deep Green power plant,” said Minesto chief executive Martin Edlund.

The consented installation is planned for later this year and it will include a single Deep Green device, seabed foundation and a buoy moored at the surface.

RenewableUK’s executive director Emma Pinchbeck told PE: “We know that there is a gold mine of renewable power lying below Welsh waters, and Minesto’s unique technology is making great strides in harnessing this powerful clean energy source.”

Holyhead Deep matches all the site requirements by providing low-flow tidal velocities at a depth of 80-100m.

Eleanor Smart, senior permitting team leader for Natural Resources Wales, added: “We scrutinise applications such as this to make sure the licences we issue protect the environment and other activities in the marine environment.

“The information we have shows that this proposal does not pose an unacceptable threat to the environment.”

Minesto holds an agreement for lease from the Crown Estate for a 10MW installation (20 power plants). In February, the company submitted a scoping report to UK consenting authorities Marine Management Organisation and Natural Resources Wales, asking for their scoping opinion for development of an 80MW site which would include up to 160 devices installed in phases in Holyhead Deep.

Graphene could cut cost of semiconductors

A graphene “copy machine” could soon be available to produce cheap, flexible and reusable semiconductors, say scientists.

Engineers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a technique using graphene – single-atom sheets of graphite – to transfer crystalline patterns from a semiconductor wafer to the surface of the semiconductor material.

“You don’t have to worry about the cost of the wafer – let us give you the copy machine,” said Jeehwan Kim, mechanical and materials engineer at the university. “You can grow your semiconductor device, peel it off, and reuse the wafer.”

Traditionally, silicon is used as the wafer in the manufacture of semiconductors, but once the pattern is transferred onto the microelectronic material it is difficult to separate it from the wafer as they are too strongly bonded, making it a one-time use.

Graphene, on the other hand, has weak bonds – making it ‘slippery’ on surfaces – enabling it to be peeled off the wafer so it can be used for other semiconductors, creating a copy-and-paste effect and reducing the costs of manufacturing, according to the scientists.

The team placed graphene on wafers to grow semiconductor material over it. They discovered that graphene appeared “electrically invisible” when sandwiched between the two, meaning the top layer of the material could see through the graphene to the underlying wafer, imprinting patterns without being influenced by the graphene.

Graphene was once considered for semiconductor devices such as transistors – used to amplify or switch electronic signals and electrical power – but that requires turning the flow of electrons on and off and in graphene the electrons flow non-stop. Instead, the MIT engineers used graphene as an intermediate material, focusing on its mechanical features rather than its electrical properties.

The researchers are now using the technique to improve flexible electronics, by making bendable semiconductor devices such as LEDs and solar cells.

“Let’s say you want to install solar cells on your car, which is not completely flat – the body has curves. You coat your semiconductor on top of it, peel it off and bend,” Kim said. “You can do this conformal coating even on clothing.”

The team plans to build a ‘mother wafer’ using graphene to create multifunctional, high-performance devices.

In 2016, semiconductor sales reached £264 billion worldwide, while the semiconductor industry spent £5.6 billion on wafers.

The study was published in the journal Nature.

US researchers create sweat sensors for less active users

Your sweat could soon be used to monitor your daily health vitals even when you don’t move much, say scientists.

A team at Stanford University, led by electrical engineer Sam Emaminejad, have developed a perspiration-based wearable biosensor platform for non-invasive health monitoring in real time.

Using sweat to obtain health-related information is not a new concept, but previous devices were often unable to collect enough from inactive individuals to provide accurate vitals.

The new invention “makes sweat sensing technology available to people such as the elderly,” said Alex Chortos, a biomaterial electronics expert at Harvard University,  who was not involved in the research.

The platform is able to pick up data from small amounts of sweat using a wireless and electrochemical interface to collect perspiration output at different rates and time intervals when the user is not active.

The sensors in the device “stimulate the sweat glands with the aid of an electric current,” the researchers wrote in the paper. This makes the user secrete sweat, analysing biomarkers such as electrolytes, metabolites and heavy metals in the body. The device can also measure chloride levels in sweat that are indicative of the lung disease cystic fibrosis, as well as blood glucose levels, the team added.

The scientists detected increased electrolyte content in the sweat of three users with cystic fibrosis, compared to six healthy users in the testing group. The sensors also managed to pick up on elevated glucose levels in the sweat of six out of seven users after they had consumed sugary foods.

The device can allow patients to easily monitor their health from the comfort of their home and does not cause discomfort due to the compact size, said the researchers.

However, for “significant impact”, the sensors will need to have a “correlation with blood levels,” said Amay Bandodkar, a wearable electronics expert at Northwestern University, who didn’t take part in the study.

The study has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Tilting your phone can allow hackers in

The way you hold – and tilt – your smartphone and type on your touchpad could put you at risk of data hacking, say scientists.

Cyber experts at Newcastle University found that criminals use motion sensors in phones to track hand and finger movements to obtain users’ PINs and passwords.

The rise in the popularity of gaming and fitness apps has led to smartphones and other Internet of Things devices being equipped with as many as 25 sensors, from cameras to gyroscopes that track tapping, clicking and scrolling and are able to spot unique motion patterns.

“Many of these sensors are used in apps without asking for permission from users,” Maryam Mehrnezhad, a cyber expert at the university, told PE. “This leaves the door open for hackers.” Cameras and GPS are usually the only sensors that ask for permission, she added.

The scientists warn that background apps and web pages could host hacking codes able to access the motion sensors on your phone to obtain patterns that lead to your private information .

So apps should be closed when not in use. They also advise that PINs and passwords should be changed regularly, and operating systems and apps should always be updated.

The researchers found that users were more concerned about being hacked through cameras, GPS and microphones on their devices than the rest of the sensors, so-called “silent sensors”. The study reports that users believed cameras could use face recognition to spy on them, or they might say their PIN out loud and the microphone could pick it up.

However, the team found that risk levels for motion sensors are much higher. Such sensors can decipher four-digit PINs with 70% accuracy on the first guess and 100% by the fifth guess from just the tilting movements of devices.

But not everyone is convinced by the research. “The amount of training required to even semi-reliably extract details doesn’t make this sound like a terribly effective way to snoop on people,” said Graham Cluley, independent cyber security analyst. “If you really wanted to spy on someone, there are easier ways to do it than this.”

The Newcastle team is confident the threat is there, though: it has even alerted tech giants such as Google and Apple and is “working closely with the industry to find a solution for this problem,” said Mehrnezhad. “It is a complex problem and we want to design a solution which keeps a good balance between security and usability.”

That’s not the only cyber threat to our phones. Using public WiFi hotspots for shopping and banking transactions can also “lead to cybercriminals stealing your information,” said David Emm, principal security researcher at cyber security company Kaspersky Lab. Emm added that using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) in public places that “create a personal, secure tunnel for each user and ensure that online activities stay private,” as well as downloading a security app for your phone.

The researchers are now studying wearables, such as fitness trackers linked to online profiles, which could be used to decode the user’s wrist movements and other actions, to see what cyber security threats they pose.

The researchers’ paper appears in the International Journal of Information Security.

Global demand set to fuel growth of UK aerospace industry

Credit: iStock

Credit: iStock

The UK’s aerospace industry will continue to grow as a result of the increasing demand globally for high-quality aerospace products, according to a report from Santander and manufacturers’ organisation the EEF.

The UK is the second-largest aerospace manufacturer in the world behind the US and the fourth-largest aerospace exporter.

The report predicts continued growth in air travel, particularly in emerging economies, as well as demand for spacecraft, rockets and satellites.

“By staying at the forefront of cutting-edge technologies, aerospace manufacturers have managed to retain a high share of the global market despite fundamental changes in international value chains,” said EEF senior economist George Nikolaidis.

“There are risks ahead no doubt but the sector looks well positioned to harness these challenges and remain a key player in the global aerospace industry.”

The report highlights key trends in the sector that the UK is benefiting from: 3D printing, the use of composites, and space tourism.

“Companies in every part of the country are demonstrating their ability to compete for business around the world and I am confident this will continue,” Paul Everitt, chief executive of the aerospace and defence trade body ADS, told PE.

“We are seeing one of the biggest backlogs of aircraft orders on record. Healthy long-term demand for aircraft is good news, but there must be no room for complacency.”

Everitt warned that the government’s new industrial strategy must make a strong commitment to the aerospace sector, with a focus on innovation and further improvements in productivity.

“As the UK prepares to leave the European Union, remaining globally competitive and at the cutting edge of technological development will be our best response to challenges and uncertainties,” he said.

Star Trek’s tricorder gets beamed into reality 13

Bones loved it – and we may soon, too. Tricorder, a fictional Star Trek-style medical scanner device, could soon be used by real doctors, after two international teams have been awarded more than $3m to develop their versions of the technology.

The mobile phone-sized device, dubbed a tricorder, was made famous in the TV series Star Trek, and could diagnose illnesses simply by being waved over a patient’s body.

XPRIZE, a nonprofit organisation that runs competitions to create “radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity” is behind the contest to develop the portable scanner.  Five years ago, XPRIZE joined forces with chip manufacturer Qualcomm and announced it would award $10m (£8m) to researchers who would create a real-life tricorder device.

Of the 300 teams that joined the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, Final Frontier Medical Devices and Dynamical Biomarkers Group have been announced winners.

Final Frontier Medical Devices, a Pennsylvania-based team led by brothers Basil Harris, an emergency medicine physician, and George Harris, a network engineer, got the 1st place. They have received $2.6m to develop an artificial intelligence-based engine, DxtER, that learns to diagnose medical conditions by integrating the information from clinical emergency medicine with data analysis from actual patients.

The prototype includes a group of “non-invasive sensors” aimed at collecting data about vital signs, body chemistry and biological functions. This information is then analysed in the device’s diagnostic engine to make a “quick and accurate” assessment.

Dynamical Biomarkers Group’s tricorder prototype

A second-place prize of $1m was granted to Taiwan-based finalist, Dynamical Biomarkers Group, led by Harvard Medical School Associate Professor Chung-Kang Peng, and supported by HTC Research. Their prototype, which pairs diagnostic algorithms with a special method of analysis, is controlled with a smartphone.

While both devices aren’t quite as advanced as the Star Trek’s tricorder, XPRIZE organisers said that the teams “exceeded the competition requirements for user experience”, and met the goal of diagnosing 13 ailments and five vital signs at once. The prototypes have “taken humanity one step closer to realizing Gene Roddenberry’s 23rd century sci-fi vision,” the company mentioned in a press release.

Team Cloud DX, a cloud-based medical diagnoses firm that is sponsored by the Qualcomm Foundation, was also recognised as XPRIZE’s first “Bold Epic Innovator” and received $100,000.

This is not the only competition XPRIZE is running. In 2004, it awarded $10m to fund the first private spacecraft – SpaceShipOne, and it will soon give $20m to the winner of its Google Lunar XPRIZE challenge, where teams aim to get a rover to the moon.


Can Australia run on solar power at night?

Artist impression of Tesla's Gigafatory (Credit: Tesla )

Artist impression of Tesla’s Gigafatory (Credit: Tesla )

South Australia is packing heat to beat its energy crisis. Extreme temperatures – that can reach 40 degrees Celsius in the evenings – have led to heat waves across the region. As a result, power outages have become commonplace, with a major storm event and an unexpected level of energy demand causing two blackouts in the past six months. This prompted Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull to address the issue last month, declaring the region to be in the midst of an “energy emergency.”

Currently, half of South Australia is powered by renewables such as wind and solar, partially influenced by “increasing natural gas prices and limited interconnection with the neighbouring state of Victoria,” says Matthew Stocks, energy expert at the Centre for Sustainable Energy Systems at the Australian National University.

Despite this, the region suffers from the supply peaks and troughs because of renewable energy sources like solar and wind, which cannot work if the sun is not shining or if the wind is not blowing. Storing the energy that’s generated by these systems helps smooth out energy output when the sources are not available and release energy at peak times.

Storing renewable power

This problem could be solved thanks to Silicon Valley tycoon Elon Musk, who wants to help Australians with energy storage. The chief executive of Tesla took to Twitter last month to announce that his company can install a 100MW grid-connected battery in South Australia within 100 days. Musk is so sure of his plan that he’s promised to provide the factory for free if Tesla cannot install it within the given time frame.

Musk has been leading the battery brigade for years now, by pushing hard on electric cars with his Tesla vehicles and accompanying Supercharger stations, and most recently the Powerwall generator for his solar roof tiles, which are about to go on the market in a few weeks.

Since Musk’s tweet, Turnbull has confirmed that he had an “in depth discussion” with the billionaire to discuss energy storage and “its role in delivering affordable and reliable electricity.”

Musk is known for making ambitious, sweeping claims – from planning to colonise Mars to merging humans with computers – but he did succeed with energy storage before, just on a smaller scale. In November 2016, his solar power company SolarCity installed a microgrid on the island of Ta’u in American Samoa, 4,000 miles from the US West Coast. The grid that combines both solar panels and battery units took a year to install and provides the island’s 600 residents with a 1.4MW solar generation capacity and 60 Tesla Powerpacks. The solar panels generate energy for the community in the day and the battery allows them to use stored solar energy at night. The grid is expected to save not only the island’s energy costs, but also 109,500 gallons of diesel annually.

A world of batteries

But of course, Musk is not the only one flying the energy storage flag. “There are numerous examples of utility scale batteries being installed to help improve the stability of electricity networks,” says Stocks, citing California as an example. “That state alone installed three utility scale battery systems with capacities of greater than 20MW in 2016.”

A giant natural gas leak in Southern California back in 2015 resulted in a depleted fuel source for regional power plants. To tackle the problem, rechargeable battery grids were installed to store solar power in the daytime and release electricity in the evenings. Engineers in California set up the electrical grid across three energy-storage sites that are made up of oversize versions of lithium-ion batteries commonly found in smartphones and other digital devices. One of the sites belongs to Musk’s Tesla, located near the city of Chino. Another can be found at a San Diego Gas & Electric operations centre in Escondido, featuring 19,000 battery units made by Samsung.

There are efforts in other countries, too. For instance, India launched its first grid-scale battery storage system earlier this year, with plans to incorporate 175GW of renewable energy into the power system by 2022. The 10MW Advancion energy storage array is operated by Tata Power Delhi Distribution, in collaboration with Mitsubishi and US energy storage company AES.

China is attempting to bring clean energy to the country by constructing an energy storage project in the city of Dalian, where a 200MW vanadium redox flow battery facility is being built, to be completed in 2018. Meanwhile, in Japan, a patch of land near Mount Fuji is becoming a testing ground for energy storage where companies will work together to develop the technology. And the 150MW Andasol solar power station in Spain is a commercial solar thermal power plant that uses tanks of molten salt to store captured solar energy.

A push in the right direction

Stocks adds that setting up such grids doesn’t have to be a complicated affair, as all you need is for more cells to be connected, and appropriate control systems to provide the type of response needed.

Whether or not Musk makes good on his word, his idea seems to have inspired the South Australian government. Shortly after Musk’s tweet, it announced plans for a 100MW grid-connected battery that will be the largest in the country. So far, 90 companies – suspected to include Tesla and battery-manufacturing giant LG Chem – have submitted storage technology proposals that are being reviewed by the state. The Australian Renewable Energy Agency is spending nearly £12 million on energy storage projects across the country, including batteries and technologies such as pumped hydro storage.

However, batteries are not the cheapest renewable energy storage option and comes with its own challenges. Back in 2012, a small project involving 12,000 lead-acid batteries at a wind farm in Hawaii caught flames three times in its first 18 months of operation. As a result, the storage developer went bankrupt and investment in battery storage was scarce for a few years.

Despite potential volatility, the use of energy storage batteries in South Australia could have prevented the blackouts “due to their very fast response time” and “provide near instantaneous response to disturbances in the system if programmed to do so,” says Evan Franklin, energy systems expert at the Australian National University.

So even if Musk does not end up helming South Australia’s battery grid, he seems to have put into motion an energy storage movement in the region.