Science roundup: Butterflies, BP and more

Butterflies. Religion. Undersea methane from the BP spill. Solar technology. Capturing carbon dioxide.

ButterflyTexas scientists and engineers have been in the news lately because of their work in a variety of areas involving climate change and related energy subjects.

Here’s a roundup of some of that coverage.

+++

Journalist and author Seth Shulman profiled Camille Parmesan, a biologist and butterfly expert at the University of Texas, in an article in Grist, “Are butterflies the silent harbingers of global warming?”

Her interest in the subject dates to her research on the Edith’s checkerspot butterfly as a graduate student in the early 1990s. She “realized that the butterflies could be sensitive indicators of global warming” and continued to study the checkerspot for another four and a half years:

The work paid off. Parmesan’s landmark 1996 paper in the British science journal Nature was one of the first definitive looks at the effects of climate change on a living species. When she started out tracking checkerspots, Parmesan wasn’t sure she’d be able to discern any effects of climate change. But even discounting sites where urban sprawl or other human interference might have impinged upon the butterflies’ habitat, Parmesan was startled to find that at the southern edge of their range, in Mexico and southern California, populations of Edith’s checkerspots had declined by 80 percent.

Her carefully executed study clearly documented that global warming was already affecting at least one species. Parmesan’s results spurred a veritable flood of research to assess the effects of climate change on the planet’s other plants and animals. Her pioneering work placed Parmesan at the very center of a burgeoning new field of research.

+++

Forrest Wilder, a reporter for the Texas Observer, interviewed Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University, about a book she wrote with her husband, evangelical pastor Andrew Farley, “A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions.”

An excerpt from Hayhoe’s responses in the Q-A exchange:

Scientists and people of faith have often found themselves on opposite sides of the fence on issues related to the origins and sanctity of life. The unfortunate result is that many tend to lump environmental concerns into the same bin of what they view as “liberal scientific propaganda.”

In our book, we argue that climate change should not be dismissed out of hand because of any preconceived prejudices against science or environmentalism. Climate change is about real thermometer readings and real temperatures over the last 200 years. It has nothing to do with the age of the earth (even we, the authors, disagree on that issue!), and everything to do with protecting the poor and the disadvantaged who lack the voice to speak for themselves.

It’s essential to demonstrate how there is no conflict between faith in an all-powerful God and acknowledging that humans are radically altering the face of our planet. In fact, they are completely compatible. We already know that bad things happen in our world. Poor choices have consequences. We live this out in our own lives, and now we see the same principle at work at the global scale.

+++

Oceanographer John Kessler of Texas A&M University received coverage by a number of news outlets for his National Science Foundation-funded research cruise in the Gulf of Mexico to measure underwater concentrations of methane – a powerful greenhouse gas – escaping with oil from the blown-out BP well.

ScienceInsider reported before the 10-day venture began that it had a dual purpose:

How much oil has entered the gulf is the question on everyone’s minds. (Oceanographer David Valentine of the University of California, Santa Barbara, also on the cruise, thinks measuring the methane could give a better estimate of oil flow than video or satellite imagery.)

But the burst well has also become an unlikely scientific windfall for Kessler, who studies natural methane seeps and their link to rapid climate change. Scientists think sudden, violent outflows of the gas from the sea floor might have spiked the planet’s temperature about 55 million years ago, and they think the gulf spill affords them the unique opportunity to study an analog in real time.

Reuters was among those reporting the results upon the scientists’ return:

As much as 1 million times the normal level of methane gas has been found in some regions near the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, enough to potentially deplete oxygen and create a dead zone, U.S. scientists said on [June 22].

Texas A&M University oceanography professor John Kessler, just back from a 10-day research expedition near the BP oil spill in the Gulf, says methane gas levels in some areas are “astonishingly high.”

KBTX, broadcasting to the Bryan-College Station area, reported, however, that Kessler did not expect the methane emanating from the spill to have an appreciable impact on manmade climate change:

“Even at the high end estimates of the amount of oil and natural gas resonating from the riser beam pipe, if all of that material is to go into the atmosphere you’d still have an insignificant increase in the atmospheric budget of this greenhouse gas.”

+++

University of Texas chemist Xiaoyang Zhu and colleagues reported in the journal Science on their findings about boosting the capability of the cells involved in converting solar energy into electricity.

The UT Ex-Students’ Association’s Texas Excess blog reported on the discovery:

UT scientists think they know a way to make solar cells dramatically more efficient. The secret: a nifty-sounding bit of technology called quantum dots.

Quantum dots (or more formally, semiconductor nanocrystals) could capture more solar energy, the team says. The efficiency rate of the conventional silicon solar cells most commonly used today is around 30 percent; the rate for cells using quantum dots could be up to 66 percent, they say.

The Houston Chronicle’s science reporter Eric Berger also blogged on the journal article:

Much of the sun’s energy that strikes a solar cell is too “hot” to be turned into usable electricity, so instead of being captured it is lost. Zhu’s research group has taken a significant step toward capturing these “hot electrons” and converting them into energy.

[…] This is important research and I’m glad it’s being done in Texas, the western part of which has some of the country’s most-abundant solar resources.

I look forward to a day when the United States has large [solar] arrays in the Southwest, and transmits the energy across the country on superconducting wires to substations where it is distributed to our homes.

+++

The engineering school at UT announced that the university would receive as much as $19 million from the U.S. Department of Energy and NRG Energy to design and oversee a demonstration project for capturing and storing carbon emissions from coal-fired units at the company’s W.A. Parish power plant in Fort Bend County near Houston:

The project will demonstrate advanced technology to reduce emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) from a coal-fired power plant.

This project will be among the first in the state of Texas, and one of only a handful in the world, to use anthropogenic CO2 as opposed to naturally occurring CO2 for enhanced oil recovery (EOR). EOR is a technique that involves injecting CO2 into declining oil fields to increase oil yield. The objective of this project will be to ensure the long-term geologic storage of the injected CO2.

“It’s exciting because for the first time in Texas, we’ll be storing CO2 captured from industrial processes that would otherwise have gone into the atmosphere,” said Rebecca Smyth, principal investigator at the Jackson School of Geosciences’ Bureau of Economic Geology.

The Daily Texan, UT’s student newspaper, quoted a staff member at the Jackson School in its article on the project:

“The idea of this project is to take [captured] carbon and transfer it to someplace deep underground where you can put the carbon, and it will actually stay in place and not rise back up to the surface,” school spokesman Marc Airhart said. “The big picture is that the project is trying to fight climate change by trying to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”

The Department of Energy announced that the team working on the project “aims to demonstrate that post-combustion carbon capture can be economically applied to existing power plants – particularly those having the opportunity to sequester CO2 in nearby oil fields – and the viability of sequestration in such formations. The technology would apply to many additional coal-based electric power plants in the United States and throughout the world.”

– Bill Dawson

Photo credit: Nature Niche – iStockphoto.com