Leveraging the knowledge of researchers from the CSIRO and five of Australia’s top universities, as well as experts in the field, the CRCLCL is heading up efforts to deliver a low carbon built environment in Australia. Its ambitious aim is to cut residential and commercial carbon emissions by 10 megatonnes by 2020.
“The CRCLCL is at the forefront of driving technological and social innovation in the built environment to reduce carbon emissions,” says Prasad.
“We’re looking to bring emissions down, and in the process we want to ensure global competitiveness for Australian industry by helping to develop the next generation of products, technologies, advanced manufacturing and consulting services,” says Prasad.
CRCLCL activities range from urban sustainable design and solar energy to software and community engagement.
“By working effectively with government, researchers and industry, we employ an ‘end-user’ driven approach to research that maximises uptake and utilisation,” says Prasad.
Climate change is affecting the Earth, through more frequent and intense weather events, such as heatwaves and rising sea levels, and is predicted to do so for generations to come. Changes brought on by anthropogenic climate change, from activities such as the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation, are impacting natural ecosystems on land and at sea, and across all human settlements.
Increased atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO₂) levels – which have jumped by a third since the Industrial Revolution – will also have an effect on agriculture and the staple plant foods we consume and export, such as wheat.
Stressors on agribusiness, such as prolonged droughts and the spread of new pests and diseases, are exacerbated by climate change and need to be managed to ensure the long-term sustainability of Australia’s food production.
Increasing concentrations of CO₂ in the atmosphere significantly increase water efficiency in plants and stimulate plant growth, a process known as the “fertilisation effect”. This leads to more biomass and a higher crop yield; however, elevated carbon dioxide (eCO₂) could decrease the nutritional content of food.
“Understanding the mechanisms and responses of crops to eCO₂ allows us to focus crop breeding research on the best traits to take advantage of the eCO₂ effect,” says Dr Glenn Fitzgerald, a senior research scientist at the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources.
“The experiments are what we refer to as ‘fully replicated’ – repeated four times and statistically verified for accuracy and precision,” says Fitzgerald. “This allows us to compare our current growing conditions of 400 parts per million (ppm) CO₂ with eCO₂ conditions of 550 ppm – the atmospheric CO₂ concentration level anticipated for 2050.”
The experiments involve injecting CO₂ into the atmosphere around plants via a series of horizontal rings that are raised as the crops grow, and the process is computer-controlled to maintain a CO₂ concentration level of 550 ppm.
“We’re observing around a 25–30% increase in yields under eCO₂ conditions for wheat, field peas, canola and lentils in Australia,” says Fitzgerald.
Pests and disease
While higher CO₂ levels boost crop yields, there is also a link between eCO₂ and an increase in viruses that affect crop growth.
Spread by aphids, BYDV is a common plant virus that affects wheat, barley and oats, and causes yield losses of up to 50%.
“It’s a really underexplored area,” says Dr Jo Luck, director of research, education and training at the Plant Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre. “We know quite a lot about the effects of drought and increasing temperatures on crops, but we don’t know much about how the increase in temperature and eCO₂ will affect pests and diseases.
“There is a tension between higher yields from eCO₂ and the impacts on growth from pests and diseases. It’s important we consider this in research when we’re looking at food security.”
This increased yield is due to more efficient photosynthesis and because eCO₂ improves the plant’s water-use efficiency.
With atmospheric CO₂ levels rising, less water will be required to produce the same amount of grain. Fitzgerald estimates about a 30% increase in water efficiency for crops grown under eCO₂ conditions.
But nutritional content suffers. “In terms of grain quality, we see a decrease in protein concentration in cereal grains,” says Fitzgerald. The reduction is due to a decrease in the level of nitrogen (N2) in the grain, which occurs because the plant is less efficient at drawing N2 from the soil.
The same reduction in protein concentration is not observed in legumes, however, because of the action of rhizobia – soil bacteria in the roots of legumes that fix N2 and provide an alternative mechanism for making N2 available.
“We are seeing a 1–14% decrease in grain-protein concentration [for eCO₂ levels] and a decrease in bread quality,” says Fitzgerald.
“This is due to the reduction in protein and because changes in the protein composition affect qualities such as elasticity and loaf volume. There is also a decrease of 5–10% in micronutrients such as iron and zinc.”
There could also be health implications for Australians. As the protein content of grains diminishes, carbohydrate levels increase, leading to food with higher caloric content and less nutritional value, potentially exacerbating the current obesity epidemic.
The corollary from the work being undertaken by Fitzgerald is that in a future CO₂-enriched world, there will be more food but it will be less nutritious. “We see an increase in crop growth on one hand, but a reduction in crop quality on the other,” says Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald says more research into nitrogen-uptake mechanisms in plants is required in order to develop crops that, when grown in eCO₂ environments, can capitalise on increased plant growth while maintaining N2, and protein, levels.
For now, though, while an eCO₂ atmosphere may be good for plants, it might not be so good for us.
CSIRO scientists have revealed how much water lies beneath the surface of the parched Pilbara landscape in a study to help safeguard the resource as mining and agriculture expands in the region and the climate changes.
The $3.5 m Pilbara Water Resource Assessment project found the area’s extreme heat evaporates up to 14 times more water than falls as rain – highlighting the region’s dependence on groundwater.
The work also revealed 8–30 mm of rainfall is required to make the rivers and streams flow, and that the region is getting hotter and drier in some areas and wetter in others.
CSIRO hydrologist and study leader Dr Don McFarlane says researchers now have a framework to study the impacts of mining and better manage local water use.
The mining industry abstracts about 550 gigalitres of water a year in the area and half of that is used for ore processing, dust suppression and consumption.
One gigalitre is the equivalent of Subiaco Oval, a stadium in Western Australia, filled to the brim. This figure is expected to double by 2042.
“Mine sites are often separate enough from each other not to interact… however current mining and new mines are increasingly below the water table requiring very large volumes to be extracted and there are several areas where multiple mines are interacting with each other,” Dr McFarlane says.
The Pilbara is a land of extremes, suffering through some of the hottest temperatures in the country, while its unpredictable rainfall comes mostly from summer thunderstorms and cyclones.
“It [the study] puts streamflow and recharge volumes into relative perspective,” he says.
“Nine aquifer types were identified and they interact in complex ways with each other and especially with streamflow.”
In addition, the WA Government is investing $40 million to expand irrigated agriculture and enlarge the Pilbara’s grazing industry.
The research, which was funded by industry and government, analysed climate data since 1910, the relationship between rainfall and runoff since 1961 and how that impacts groundwater levels over an area of 300,000 km2 – an area which is slightly larger than New Zealand.
The researchers say streamflow leaks through riverbeds and is the main source of aquifer replenishment.
According to the three-year study, groundwater-dependent ecosystems expanded and contracted with the weather but the number has remained stable during the past 23 years.
Dr McFarlane says analysis of satellite remote sensing images could play a role in monitoring the future impacts of climate, grazing, fire, feral animals and mining on groundwater-dependent ecosystems and vegetation.
The complex engineering that drives renewable energy innovation, global satellite navigation, and the emerging science of industrial ecology is among Curtin University’s acknowledged strengths. Advanced engineering is crucial to meeting the challenges of climate change and sustainability. Curtin is addressing these issues in several key research centres.
Bioenergy, fuel cells and large energy storage systems are a focus for the university’s Fuels and Energy Technology Institute (FETI), launched in February 2012. The institute brings together a network of more than 50 researchers across Australia, China, Japan, Korea, Denmark and the USA, and has an array of advanced engineering facilities and analytic instruments. It also hosts the Australia-China Joint Research Centre for Energy, established in 2013 to address energy security and emissions reduction targets for both countries.
Curtin’s Sustainable Engineering Group (SEG) has been a global pioneer in industrial ecology, an emerging science which tracks the flow of resources and energy in industrial areas, measures their impact on the environment and works out ways to create a “circular economy” to reduce carbon emissions and toxic waste.
And in renewable energy research, Curtin is developing new materials for high temperature fuel cell membranes, and is working with an award-winning bioenergy technology that will use agricultural crop waste to produce biofuels and generate electricity.
Solar’s big shot
Curtin’s hydrogen storage scientists are involved in one of the world’s biggest research programs to drive down the cost of solar power and make it competitive with other forms of electricity generation such as coal and gas. They are contributing to the United States SunShot Initiative – a US$2 billion R&D effort jointly funded by the US Department of Energy and private industry partners to fast track technologies that will cut the cost of solar power, including manufacturing for solar infrastructure and components.
SunShot was launched in 2011 as a key component of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, which aims to double the amount of renewable energy available through the grid and reduce the cost of large-scale solar electricity by 75%.
CSP systems store energy in a material called molten salts – a mixture of sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate, which are common ingredients in plant fertilisers. These salts are heated to 565°C, pumped into an insulated storage tank and used to produce steam to power a turbine to generate electricity. But it’s an expensive process. The 195 m tall Crescent Dunes solar power tower in Nevada – one of the world’s largest and most advanced solar thermal plants – uses 32,000 tonnes of molten salt to extend operating hours by storing thermal energy for 10 hours after sunset.
Metal hydrides – compounds formed by bonding hydrogen with a material such as calcium, magnesium or sodium – could replace molten salts and greatly reduce the costs of building and operating solar thermal power plants. Certain hydrides operate at higher temperatures and require smaller storage tanks than molten salts. They can also be reused for up to 25 years.
At the Nevada plant, molten salt storage costs an estimated $150 million, – around 10–15% of operation costs, says Buckley. “With metal hydrides replacing molten salts, we think we can reduce that to around $50–$60 million, resulting in significantly lower operation costs for solar thermal plants,” he says. “We already have a patent on one process, so we’re in the final stages of testing the properties of the process for future scale-up. We are confident that metal hydrides will replace molten salts as the next generation thermal storage system for CSP.”
From biomass to fuel
John Curtin Distinguished Professor Chun-Zhu Li is lead researcher on a FETI project that was awarded a grant of $5.2 million by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency in 2015 to build a pilot plant to test and commercialise a new biofuel technology. The plant will produce energy from agricultural waste such as wheat straw and mallee eucalypts from wheatbelt farm forestry plantations in Western Australia.
“These bioenergy technologies will have great social, economic and environmental benefits,” says Li. “It will contribute to the electricity supply mix and also realise the commercial value of mallee plantations for wheatbelt farmers. It will make those plantations an economically viable way of combating the huge environmental problem of dryland salinity in WA.”
Li estimates that WA’s farms produce several million tonnes of wheat straw per year, which is discarded as agricultural waste. Biomass gasification is a thermochemical process converting biomass feedstock into synthesis gas (syngas) to generate electricity using gas engines or other devices.
One of the innovations of the biomass gasification technology developed at FETI is the destruction of tar by char or char-supported catalysts produced from the biomass itself. Other biomass gasification systems need water-scrubbing to remove tar, which also generates a liquid waste stream requiring expensive treatment, but the technology developed by Li’s team removes the tar without the generation of any wastes requiring disposal. This reduces construction and operation costs and makes it an ideal system for small-scale power generation plants in rural and remote areas.
Li’s team is also developing a novel technology to convert the same type of biomass into liquid fuels and biochar. The combined benefits of these bioenergy/biofuel technologies could double the current economic GDP of WA’s agricultural regions, Li adds. future scale-up. We are confident that metal hydrides will replace molten salts as the next generation thermal storage system for CSP.”
Keeping renewables on grid
Professor Syed Islam is a John Curtin Distinguished Professor with Curtin’s School of Electrical Engineering and Computing. It’s the highest honour awarded by the university to its academic staff and recognises outstanding contributions to research and the wider community. Islam has published widely on grid integration of renewable energy sources and grid connection challenges. In 2011, he was awarded the John Madsen Medal by Engineers Australia for his research to improve the prospect of wind energy generation developing grid code enabled power conditioning techniques.
Islam explains that all power generators connected to an electricity network must comply with strict grid codes for the network to operate safely and efficiently. “The Australian Grid Code specifically states that wind turbines must be capable of uninterrupted operation, and if electrical faults are not immediately overridden, the turbines will be disconnected from the grid,” he says.
“Wind energy is a very cost effective renewable technology. But disturbances and interruptions to power generation mean that often wind farms fall below grid code requirements, even when the best wind energy conversion technology is being used.”
Islam has led research to develop a system that allows a faster response by wind farm voltage control technologies to electrical faults and voltage surges. It has helped wind turbine manufacturers meet grid regulations, and will also help Australia meet its target to source 20% of electricity from renewable energy by 2020.
Islam says micro-grid technology will also provide next-generation manufacturing opportunities for businesses in Australia. “There will be new jobs in battery technology, in building and operating micro-grids and in engineering generally,” he says.
“By replacing the need for platinum catalysts, we can make fuel cells much cheaper and more efficient, and reduce dependence on environmentally damaging fossil fuels.”
Cutting fuel cell costs
Professor San Ping Jiang from FETI and his co-researcher Professor Roland De Marco at University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland recently received an Australian Research Council grant of $375,000 to develop a new proton exchange membrane that can operate in high-temperature fuel cells. It’s a materials engineering breakthrough that will cut the production costs of fuel cells, and allow more sustainable and less polluting fuels such as ethanol to be used in fuel cells.
Jiang, who is based at Curtin’s School of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, has developed a silica membrane that can potentially operate at temperatures of up to 500°C. Fuel cells directly convert chemical energy of fuels suchas hydrogen, methanol and ethanol into electricity and provide a lightweight alternative to batteries, but they are currently limited in their application because conventional polymer-based proton exchange membranes perform most efficiently at temperatures below 80°C. Jiang has developed a membrane that can operate at 500°C using heteropoly acid functionalised mesoporous silica – a composite that combines high proton conductivity and high structural stability to conduct protons in fuel cells. His innovation also minimises the use of precious metal catalysts such as platinum in fuel cells, reducing the cost.
“The cost of platinum is a major barrier to the wider application of fuel cell technologies,” Jiang says. “We think we can reduce the cost significantly, possibly by up to 90%, by replacing the need for platinum catalysts. It will make fuel cells much cheaper and more efficient, and reduce dependence on environmentally damaging fossil fuels.”
He says the high temperature proton exchange membrane fuel cells can be used in devices such as smartphones and computers, and in cars, mining equipment and communications in remote areas.
Doing more with less
The SEG at Curtin University has been involved in energy efficiency and industrial analysis for just over 15 years. It’s been a global leader in an emerging area of sustainability assessment known as industrial ecology, which looks at industrial areas as ‘ecosystems’ that can develop productive exchanges of resources.
Associate Professor Michele Rosano is SEG’s Director and a resource economist who has written extensively on sustainability metrics, charting the life cycles of industrial components, carbon emission reduction and industrial waste management. They’re part of a process known as industrial symbiosis – the development of a system for neighbouring industries to share resources, energies and by-products. “It’s all about designing better industrial systems, and doing more with less,” Rosano says.
Curtin and SEG have been involved in research supported by the Australian’s Government’s Cooperative Research Centres Program to develop sustainable technologies and systems for the mineral processing industry at the Kwinana Industrial Area, an 8 km coastal industrial strip about 40 km south of Perth. The biggest concentration of heavy industries in Western Australia, Kwinana includes oil, alumina and nickel refineries, cement manufacturing, chemical and fertiliser plants, water treatment utilities and a power station that uses coal, oil and natural gas.
Rosano says two decades of research undertaken by Curtin at Kwinana is now recognised as one of the world’s largest and most successful industrial ecology projects. It has created 49 industrial symbiosis projects, ranging from shared use of energy and water to recovery and reuse of previously discarded by-products.
“These are huge and complex projects which have produced substantial environmental and economic benefits,” she says. “Kwinana is now seen as a global benchmark for the way in which industries can work together to reduce their footprint.”
An example of industrial synergies is waste hydrochloric acid from minerals processing being reprocessed by a neighbouring chemical plant for reuse in rutile quartz processing. The industrial ecology researchers looked at ways to reuse a stockpile of more than 1.3 million tonnes of gypsum, which is a waste product from the manufacture of phosphate fertiliser and livestock feeds. The gypsum waste is used by Alcoa’s alumina refinery at Kwinana to improve soil stability and plant growth in its residue areas.
The BP oil refinery at Kwinana also provides hydrogen to fuel Perth’s hydrogen fuel-cell buses. The hydrogen is produced by BP as a by-product from its oil refinery and is piped to an industrial gas facility that separates, cleans and pressurises it. The hydrogen is then trucked to the bus depot’s refuelling station in Perth.
Rosano says 21st century industries “are serious about sustainability” because of looming future shortages of many raw materials, and also because research has demonstrated there are social, economic and environmental benefits to reducing greenhouse emissions.
“There is a critical need for industrial ecology, and that’s why we choose to focus on it,” she says. “It’s critical research that will be needed to save and protect many areas of the global economy in future decades.”
Planning for the future
Research by Professor Peter Teunissen and Dr Dennis Odijk at Curtin’s Department of Spatial Sciences was the first study in Australia to integrate next generation satellite navigation systems with the commonly used and well-established Global Positioning System (GPS) launched by the United States in the 1990s.
Odijk says a number of new systems are being developed in China, Russia, Europe, Japan, and India, and it’s essential they can interact successfully. These new Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) will improve the accuracy and availability of location data, which will in turn improve land surveying for locating mining operations and renewable energy plants.
“The new systems have an extended operational range, higher power and better modulation. They are more robust and better able to deal with challenging situations like providing real-time data to respond to bushfires and other emergencies,” says Odijk.
“When these GNSS systems begin operating over the next couple of years, they will use a more diverse system of satellites than the traditional GPS system. The challenge will be to ensure all these systems can link together.”
Integrating these systems will increase the availability of data, “particularly when the signals from one system might be blocked in places like open-pit mines or urban canyons – narrow city streets with high buildings on both sides.”
Teunissen and Odijk’s research on integrating the GNSS involves dealing with the complex challenges of comparing estimated positions from various satellites, as well as inter-system biases, and developing algorithms. The project is funded by the Cooperative Research Centre for Spatial Information, and includes China’s BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, which is now operating across the Asia-Pacific region.
The study found that the global deforestation rate since 2010 – 3.3 million hectares per year – is less than half that during the 1990s (7.2 million hectares per year).
This global slowdown is due to better management of tropical forests. Since 2010 the tropics lost 5.5 million hectares of forest per year, compared to 9.5 million hectares per year during the 1990s.
Sub-tropical, temperate, and boreal climatic regions had relatively stable forest areas.
Satellite data showed tropical forests degraded (damaged but not cleared) since 2000 are six times as extensive as all tropical deforestation since 1990, far more than in other climatic regions.
“While some of this tropical degradation reflects the temporary impacts of logging, the real fear is that much is the leading edge of gradual forest conversion,” Sloan says.
High rates of tropical deforestation and degradation mean that tropical forests were a net emitter of carbon to the atmosphere, unlike forests of other climatic regions.
“But tropical forests are emitting only slightly more carbon than they are absorbing from the atmosphere due to regrowth, so with slightly better management they could become a net carbon sink and contribute to fighting climate change,” Sloan says.
Despite growing demand for forest products, rates of plantation afforestation have fallen since the 2000s and are less than required to stop natural forest exploitation. Demand for industrial wood and wood fuel increased 35% in the tropics since 1990.
“The planting of forests for harvest is not increasing as rapidly as demand, so natural forests have to take the burden,” Sloan says.
Northern, richer countries had steady or increasing forest areas since 1990. Their forests are increasingly characterised by plantations meant for harvest.
While natural forests expanded in some high-income countries, collectively they declined by 13.5 million hectares since 1990, compared to a gain of 40 million hectares for planted forests.
Sloan says that investment in forest management in poorer tropical countries where management and deforestation were worst may herald significant environmental gains.
“But attention must extend beyond the forest sector to agricultural and economic growth, which is rapid in many low-income and tropical countries and which effect forests greatly,” Sayer says.
Background to Study
The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) released the Global Forest Resources Assessment 2015 (FRA 2015) on September 7 2015. The FAO began publishing FRA reports in 1948 to assess the global state of forest resources, given concerns over shortages of forest products. The FAO has published FRA reports at regular intervals since on the basis of individual reports from countries, numbering 234 for the FRA 2015. FRA reports now survey a wide array of forest ecological functions, designations, and conditions in addition to forest areas for each country.
For the first time, the FRA 2015 report was realised by dozens of international experts who undertook independent analyses of FRA data, resulting in 13 scholarly articles published in a special issue of the journal Forest Ecology and Management (2015 volume 352).
The data and trends highlighted in these articles are a significant advance for the global scientific and conservation communities. This article constitutes one of 13 published in Forest Ecology and Management and integrates their major findings.
This article was first published by James Cook University on 8 September 2015. Read the original article here.
South Australian company HeliostatSA has partnered with Indian company Global Wind Power Limited to develop a portfolio of projects in India and Australia over the next four years. It will begin with an initial 150 megawatts in Concentrated Solar Powered (CSP) electricity in Rajashtan, Indian using a solar array.
The projects are valued at $2.5 billion and will further cement HeliostatSA as a leader in the global renewable energy sector.
Heliostat CEO Jason May says India had made a commitment to reaching an investment target of USD $100 billion of renewable energy by 2019 and has already secured $20 billion.
“India is looking for credible, renewable energy partners for utility scale projects,’’ says May.
“We bring everything to the table that they require such as size, project development experience, capital funding, field design capability, the latest technology, precision manufacturing and expertise.’’
Each solar array is made of thousands of heliostats, which are mirrors that track and reflect the suns thermal energy on to a central receiver. The energy is then converted into electricity. Each HeliostatSA mirror is 3.21 x 2.22 metres with optical efficiency believed to be the most accurate in the world. This reduces the number of mirrors required, reducing the overall cost of CSP while still delivering the same 24-hour electricity outputs.
The heliostats and their high tech components are fabricated using laser mapping and steel cutting technology.
The mirrors are slightly parabolic and components need to be cut and measured to exact requirements to achieve the strict operational performance.
“There is strong global interest in CSP with thermal storage for 24-hour power. At the moment large-scale batteries which also store electricity are very expensive. Constant advances in CSP storage technology over the next 10 years will only add to the competitive advantage,’’ says May.
– John Merriman
This article was first published by The Lead South Australia on 25 August 2015. Read the original article here.
ARRB Managing Director Gerard Walton said that automated vehicles are a short-term reality that Australia needs to be prepared for.
“The South Australian Government has been quick to recognise this,” he said.
“ARRB will establish how driverless technology needs to be manufactured and introduced for uniquely Australian driving behaviour, our climate and road conditions, including what this means for Australia’s national road infrastructure, markings, surfaces and roadside signage,” said Waldon.
The Premier of South Australia, Jay Weatherill said the technology promises to not only improve safety, reduce congestion and lower emissions, but also to provide a real opportunity for South Australia to become a key player in the emerging driverless vehicle industry.
“This trial presents a fantastic opportunity for South Australia to take a lead nationally and internationally in the development of this new technology and open up new opportunities for our economy,” he said.
The driverless car trials will take place on an expressway south of the capital city of Adelaide on 7–8 November 2015.
Multiple vehicles will conduct manoeuvres such as overtaking, lane changing, emergency braking and the use of on and off ramps.
The International Driverless Cars Conference will be hosted at the Adelaide Convention Centre and Tonsley precinct on 5–6 November 2015.
This article was first published by The Lead on 21 July 2015. Read the original article here.
The Great Ocean Road, about 200 km southwest of Melbourne, draws millions of tourists to view the spectacular cliffs and limestone stacks known as the Twelve Apostles, carved by relentless Bass Strait waves and winds. But this region is as rich in fossil fuels as it is in scenic beauty, and several commercial gas fields have been opened in the Otway Basin along the continent’s southern margin.
There is also the CRC for Greenhouse Gas Technologies’ (CO2CRC) flagship carbon capture and storage (CCS) trial: the CO2CRC Otway Project – the world’s largest demonstration of its kind.
Since the project started in 2008, the Australian government, US Department of Energy and CRC partners have funded the injection of more than 65,000 tonnes of CO2 into the Otway Basin’s depleted gas fields, without leakage or measurable effect on soil, groundwater or atmosphere.
The project was further boosted by $25 million in Australian government funding in February this year. “The wide-scale deployment of CCS is critical to reduce carbon emissions as quickly and cost-effectively as possible,” says CO2CRC chief executive Tania Constable. “This funding will enable CO2CRC to embark on a new program of research to improve CCS technologies.”
Australia is well-endowed with natural resources. Its known uranium reserves are the world’s largest, and it is rich in natural gas. Traditionally, the most important resource has been coal: Australia has the fourth largest coal reserves globally and is the world’s second biggest coal exporter behind Indonesia. Coal exports – which have grown 5% annually over the past decade – will earn $36 billion in 2014–2015.
Figures like these have led Prime Minister Tony Abbott to declare coal “an essential part of our economic future”. Professor Chris Greig, Director of the University of Queensland’s Energy Initiative, a cohort of research expertise across all energy platforms, anticipates the country will continue to be reliant on fossil fuels, including coal, until at least mid-century. But just how far beyond that depends on how the world – particularly China, one of Australia’s biggest coal customers – addresses future climate change.
In 2014, the US-China emissions deal set China a goal to source 20% of its energy from zero-emissions sources and peak its CO2 emissions by 2030. In August 2014, amid worsening public sentiment over air pollution, the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau announced that it would be phasing out coal-fired power in the capital’s six main districts by 2020.
China has been pouring money into the development of renewable energy technologies, spending an estimated US$64 billion on large-scale clean energy projects in 2014 alone. This was five times more than the next biggest spender, according to market analyst Bloomberg New Energy Finance. China is also investing heavily in CCS technologies, with at least 12 projects currently underway.
There are several pathways toward reducing emissions from the electricity sector – from the adoption of nuclear energy and greater uptake of renewable sources and natural gas, to more efficient power plants and modified diesel engines that can burn liquefied coal. CCS, however, is one of the most promising methods for reducing emissions from coal-fired power stations. Capture technologies isolate and pump CO2 underground to be stored in the pores of rocks (see graphic page 29).
Rajendra Pachauri, who until early 2015 was Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told the UN 2014 Climate Summit in New York, in September 2014: “With CCS it is entirely possible for fossil fuels to continue to be used on a large scale”.
Dianne Wiley, CO2CRC’s program manager for CCS, says CO2 capture technologies are already available to install. Their deployment is limited by high costs, but there have been strong successes. Wiley points to the commercial scale Boundary Dam Integrated Carbon Capture and Sequestration Demonstration Project in Saskatchewan, Canada – the world’s first large-scale power plant to capture and store its carbon emissions – as a good example of what’s possible with CCS technology. It became operational in October 2014 and, its operators say, is already “exceeding performance expectations”. The CAN$1.3 billion cost of the system should drop by around 30% in subsequent commercial plants, says Brad Page, CEO of the Global CCS Institute.
Greig says that investment decisions in favour of CCS in Australia won’t happen until more work is done to find high-capacity storage basins around the continent that can safely and reliably store CO2 emissions for several decades.
Constable says the recent injection of capital from the Federal Government to the Otway Project will help the CRC take the necessary steps to meet this challenge. She says it will “lower the costs of developing and monitoring CO2 storage sites, enhance regulatory capability and build community confidence in geological storage of CO2 as a safe, permanent option for cutting emissions from fossil fuels”.
Retrofitting CCS technology to existing plants isn’t an option: Greig likens that to “building a brand new garage onto the side of a house that’s falling down – you just don’t do it”. CCS would therefore require investment in new coal-fired power stations.
“A well-conceived energy policy for the electricity generation sector would see ageing, low-efficient plants replaced with high-efficiency ultra-supercritical [coal] plants,” says Greig, adding that these plants have lower emissions simply by virtue of their efficiency and could achieve emissions reductions of 25% compared to existing plants.
How CCS works
The first step of carbon capture and storage (CCS) is capture. It involves separating CO2 from other gases in the exhaust stream from a fossil fuel power plant or some other industrial facility. This can be done with solvents that absorb CO2 or with ceramic and polymer membranes that act as filters. Once isolated, CO2 is compressed into a state in which the difference between liquid and gas can no longer be distinguished. It is then transported via pipeline to a prospective storage site. Here, the CO2 is injected into an underground reservoir, such as a geologic formation or depleted oil field. The CO2 has to enter the rocks without fracturing them, and can then be stored underground for thousands of years.
The research, led by ARC Future Fellow Dr Guy Williams and published in November 2014, provides the most complete picture yet of Antarctic sea ice thickness and structure.
The data was collected by an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) deployed during a two-month exploration in late 2012 as part of an international collaboration between polar scientists, including the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems CRC (ACE CRC). It’s hoped the work will help explain the ‘paradox’ of Antarctic sea ice extent, which has grown slightly during the past 30 years. This is in stark contrast to Arctic sea ice, which has shown a major decline.
Previously, measurements were made via drill holes in the ice and supplemented by visual observations made from icebreakers as they crashed and ploughed through the sea ice zone, said Williams.
In contrast, the AUV gathers information by travelling beneath the ice, producing 3D maps of the underside of the ice based on data captured by a multi-beam sonar instrument. Complex imagery of an area the size of several football fields can be compiled in just six hours.
The manual drill estimates of thickness have never exceeded 5–6 m, but the AUV regularly returned thicknesses over 10 m and up to 16 m.
“This sort of thick ice would simply never be sampled by drilling or observations from ships,” said Williams. “We measured the thickness of 10 double football fields, and found that our traditional method [manual drill lines] would have underestimated the volume by over 20%.”
The researchers can’t yet say that overall Antarctic sea ice thickness is underestimated by this amount. They’ll need to use the AUV over much longer scales – across distances of 1000 km, for example – and directly compare the results with those from traditional methods.
The AUV is one of two new innovative information sources being used by ACE CRC scientists to explore Antarctic sea ice processes and change. They’ve also begun tapping into environmental data gathered in the Southern Ocean by elephant seals. These marine mammals can dive deeper than 1500 m and travel thousands of kilometres in a season.
During the past decade, ecologists and biologists have been equipping them with specialised oceanographic equipment provided by Australia’s Integrated Marine Observing System, to observe where and when they forage.
“These seals had been going to places we could only dream of going with a ship,” said Williams. The first major breakthrough from the seal-gathered data came last year with the confirmation of a new source of Antarctic bottom water, the cold dense water mass created by intense sea ice growth that ultimately influences climate worldwide.
It’s the fourth source to be identified of this influential water mass, and scientists had been looking for it for more than 30 years.
– Karen McGhee