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Interview of the Week: Yotam Ariel, Bluefield Technologies

Yotam Ariel is the CEO fo Bluefield Technologies, Inc., a startup using microsatellites to measure methane gas leaks and emissions.
ODP:   How does your technology work?
YA:  Sunlight that has passed through methane contains a unique spectral signal that can be detected by Bluefield’s proprietary optical sensor. We integrate our sensor into a backpack-size microsatellite and launch it to space. As the satellite orbits Earth, our sensor tracks each of the millions of emitting sources around the world. The scale, speed, and low cost at which we collect this precise data are unprecedented.
 
ODP: Your vision is for your company to be the Earth’s breathing monitor — can you explain?  Who will pay you for this service?
YA:  We’re working to create something like Google Maps, but instead of just seeing an address, we’ll see every critical emitter on the planet, in near real-time. Such emissions data is valuable for oil and gas companies and other sectors to detect and fix methane leaks, as well as protect them from legal and financial liability. We’re already working with several of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, as well as two government agencies.
 
ODP:  Of all the greenhouse gasses, why methane?  Will you track other greenhouse gasses in the future?
YA: Methane is responsible for 25% of global warming, and knowing who is emitting, when, and how much, would have a massive impact in combatting climate change. In the next few years, we will be expanding our monitoring capacity to include CO2, SO2, NO2.
 
ODP:  What is a microsatellite and how affordable and precise is it? Could the leakage data be validated or certified for an enforcement proceeding?
YA:  A microsatellite is any satellite with a weight between 20 and 200 pounds. For our size microsatellite, the cost to build and deploy it in space is several millions of dollars. The precision depends on the sensor that’s in the satellite. Our sensor can pinpoint the exact emitting source, for example, a specific oil & gas wellhead. We’re working with experts such as Berkeley Lab to validate our data by taking sample measurements and then calibrating our satellite sensor.
 
ODP:  There are lots of methane leaks in Texas and other states that are “free” — either unregulated or the rules against flaring are unenforced — so the companies are wasting ridiculous amounts of gas with abandon. How would you change the incentives on that? Price on carbon or limitation on flaring?
YA: Our sensors will be an essential tool for any solution — whether it is a price on carbon or the development of market-driven trading like https://www.xpansiv.com/, which allows greater transparency in the production process.
 
ODP:  Could you make the leakage information available to the public so that citizens and health care professionals and governments can know when they are living and/or working in an area with lots of leaks? 
YA:  There are a great many uses for the data that we will be collecting and we look forward to working with policymakers, the private sector, and concerned citizens to achieve a variety of worthwhile objectives.
Thanks, Yotam – what a great technological advance!  Good luck scaling it further – we need this kind of detection to achieve emissions goals.

Bluefield Microsatellite

Toxic Blooms Have Energy Potential

Algae in Lake Erie near Toledo, Ohio.   Photo: DRONEBASE, via AP and The Boston Globe

We often write about the damaging impacts of algal blooms found in the ocean and in lakes that are fouling beaches and coastal waters, not to mention drinking water in certain areas (see yesterday’s story on how it is poisonous to dogs).  But algae have the potential to be used as fuel for everything from delivery trucks to warplanes and ships, according to author Ruth Kassinger in an opinion piece in The Boston Globe

Why This Matters: Biofuels are now made mostly from corn – but the corn is grown in the Midwest where fertilizers and nitrogen injected into the soil are contributing to the algal dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and other waterways. If we could use these algae to replace some of the biofuels made from corn that would have a double environmental benefit.

Biofuels of the Future

  • Biofuels became economically viable in 2005, according to Kassinger, when fossil fuel prices rose to more than $150 per barrel.
  • Former Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus required the Navy to develop an algae-based biofuel alternative for a Navy demonstration project to reduce the fuel costs born by the fleet’s planes and ships.
  • But low prices for oil made it hard for algae-based biofuels to take off because of the cost to produce it.
  • Now new technologies are now making it much more economical to filter massive quantities of water and liquefy algae biomass more quickly and cheaply than before.
  • The big market for biofuels in the future is likely to be aircraft since electric versions of cars and trucks are growing and it is not possible to fuel airplanes that way.
  • Air travel is the seventh-largest producer of carbon dioxide emissions globally.

Algae Could Replace Plastic Too 

  • Plastics are also fossil-based, but may also be replaced by algae-based products – a company called Algix is making plastic from pond scum.
  • In 2018, the company turned 12 million pounds of algae from ponds into shoe soles. 

Algae pull carbon down from the atmosphere into the water it is a carbon sink. If put to use, it could be part of our climate solutions, according to Kassinger.

To Go Deeper:  If you want to learn more about the potential of slime, click here for Kassinger’s book.  Or you could try one of her recipes for treats like seaweed scones from algae.

Plastic Found in Rocky Mountain Rainwater Samples

Water samples collected by USGS scientists in the Rocky Mountains. Image: USGS

Scientists for the USGS who were analyzing rainwater in the Rocky Mountains found more than soil and mineral particles, instead, they identified plastics in 90% of the water samples they collected. The particles they found were so tiny that they could only be visible with magnification and included plastic fibers, as well as beads and shards. The study they published, called It is raining plastic, highlights that we don’t know very much about microplastics and how they move in freshwater and the air.

Growing Trend: As CNN explained, “scientists have found microplastic particles in rain before. They saw it in the rain falling in the Pyrenees in southern France. It has wound up in remote and otherwise pristine islands. Trillions of pieces of plastic litter float through the ocean, killing fish and other animals. An earlier study found that people are swallowing an average of 5 grams of plastic every week, about the weight of a credit card.”

Drowning in Plastic: Since plastic can take thousands of years to decompose, we’re living with just about all of the plastic we’ve ever made. Because it doesn’t readily decompose plastic breaks down into tinier and tinier pieces that humans and other animals ingest. Additionally, our synthetic clothing sheds microscopic plastic fibers and cannot be filtered out in public water treatment.

Why This Matters: We don’t know how microplastics in our food and our environment are affecting our health or if the petrochemicals that plastic is comprised of might affect our lifespans. Even if we do drastically reduce our reliance on plastics, the microplastic that is already polluting the environment will continue to permeate. We should still actively work to phase out single-use plastics and ensure that plastic waste is captured before it enters the environment. Unfortunately, that’s not the signal that President Trump is sending as on Tuesday he made an appearance at a Pennsylvania plastic manufacturing plant to promote plastic. Additionally, Royal Dutch Shell recently announced that it will build a giant plastic plant capable of producing more than a million pounds of plastic pellets.

Invasive Pests Threaten 40% of U.S. Forests

Signs of emerald ash borer on a tree

Emerald ash borer damage. Image: University of Waterloo

U.S. forests are under threat, and not just from logging or drought but from invasive insects and fungi that could kill 40% of all domestic forests. As the Guardian explained, “About 450 overseas pests that damage or feed on trees have been introduced to US forests due to the growth in international trade and travel. PNAS-published study of the 15 most damaging non-native forest pests has found that they destroy so many trees that about 6m tons of carbon are expelled each year from the dying plants. This is the equivalent, researchers say, of adding an extra 4.6m cars to the roads every year in terms of the release of planet-warming gases.”

Carbon Not Sequestered: The researchers identified 15 pests that are the biggest threat to trees and then calculated how much carbon storage capacity was lost as a result of trees dying from invasive species, that’s how they arrived at the 6m tons figure noted above.

What Can Be Done: Songlin Fei, a forestry expert and report author at Purdue University explained that “the best way to control these pests it through inspections and quarantine – once they are in the system it’s hard to stop them. For many trees it’s too late.” However, scientists need to understand pathogens and invasive species better than they do now–the infection of Hawaii’s native ohi’a trees is an example of a tree disease that officials didn’t understand enough to curb.

Why This Matters: Another recent study revealed that planting .09 billion hectares of trees could result in trapping two-thirds of all the carbon released since the beginning of the industrial age. However, if we don’t better manage invasive pests and pathogens that affect trees then we might lose the benefits of reforestation. As Discover Magazine explained, “many of the pest species have only invaded less than a third of their potential range. Although nearly half of forests are at risk of invasion, it also means there’s time to take action.”

Scotland Surging on Renewable Power

By Alexandra Patel and Monica Medina

In the first half of 2019, Scotland generated enough wind energy to supply homes with electricity two times over. Wind turbines produced more than 98 million megawatt-hours of electricity – which is univalent to enough power for 4.47 million homes.  And just last week, a new £6 million renewable energy project in Stirling — the first of its kind in the UK — using cutting-edge technologies to harness energy from wastewater from the city’s sewage works.

Why This Matters: In 2018, under the Trump administration, the renewable energies sector faced severe roadblocks. From rolling back policies designed to curb carbon emissions, imposing tariffs on solar panels and threatening to cut subsidies for clean energy, the government worked to hold back the industry. Even under these conditions, the development and investment into clean energy continued to grow. Without the backing and resources of our government though, it will be a much harder and longer battle for the United States to rival Scotland and reach its full potential for renewable energy. According to a report from the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan, U.S. onshore wind resources have the potential to generate 11,000 gigawatts of electricity – that is 123 times the current installed capacity. Only through cooperation and collaboration between public institutions and private corporations can the United States hope to achieve the full integration of renewables within the energy industry akin to what Scotland is doing.

A Global Example: Scotland has become a global leader in renewable energy adoption.

  • It generates more than half of its electricity consumption primarily from wind, wave, and tide energy sources.
  • Scotland is home to around 25 percent of all of Europe’s offshore wind and tidal resources and holds over 60 percent of the UK’s onshore wind capacity.
  • The Scottish government is committed to ‘decarbonizing’ by reaching 100 percent electricity generation from renewables by 2020 and 50 percent total energy consumption by renewables by 2030.
  • In 2018, Scottish Power became the first UK energy firm to completely eradicate energy production from fossil fuels, with plans to invest £2 billion to increase renewable capacity.

Side by Side: By comparison, the United States generates only about 11 percent of its electricity from renewable sources. 80 percent of power is still being derived from fossil fuels, with a small 8.6 percent from nuclear. While the different geographies of the two countries explain some of the difference, such as lower wind speeds across many parts of the U.S., institutional and governmental support also plays a big role.

One Important Dog Safety Thing: Toxic Algae Could Poison Them

Photo: earth.com

Toxic algae are harmful not only to humans but also to dogs, which are particularly vulnerable to blue/green cyanobacteria — owners should prevent their pets from coming into contact with it. Dogs are vulnerable to it because they swallow so much water when they swim, Heavy.com reported.  Dogs in several states that have come into contact with the toxic algae have died — including in Austin, Texas, Marietta, Georgia, and Wilmington, North Carolina, according to The New York Times.  The Times also reported earlier this month that there has been an unusually intense wave of toxic algae blooms shutting down waters from the Pacific Northwest to New Jersey and even all of the Mississippi coast, as we reported a few weeks ago, which was likely caused by climate change.

Beach Clean Ups Sweeping Hawai’i

Photo: Hawaii Ocean Ambassadors

Hawai’i is known for its beautiful beaches, powdery sand, and crystal clear ocean waters.  But it is also a hub in the Pacific for trash from Asia, including microplastics, derelict fishing gear, and even debris from the 2011 Fukushima tsunami in JapanLocal residents are not taking it sitting down!  Organizations like Hawaii Ocean Ambassadors (HOA), Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii, and the Surfrider Foundation all around the islands are continually sponsoring cleanup with hundreds of volunteers and educating the public in Hawaii about the importance of picking up trash on beaches any time.

Why This Matters:  The problem of ocean plastic is pervasive, but it is also something that everyone who visits a beach can do something about.  And when people with large followings on social media help to spread the word — like HOA Ambassador Zach Merrick who is the bass player for the well-known band, ‘All Time Low’ — it can be a cleanup force multiplier.  The point of groups like HOA is to encourage individuals to do their part, but also to use social media effectively in local campaigns for important conservation measures like plastic bans and sunscreen regulation that will help save Hawaii’s beauty for all its residents and visitors to enjoy.  To that, we say Mahalo nui loa!

The HOA Playbook

Founded by Al Smith, a native of the East Coast who adopted the Windward Side of Oahu as home, he organized “a loose network of friends and neighbors centered around a mutual passion for protecting the beauty, health, and life of our oceans and to better avail ourselves of the various channels already available to us but so often overlooked – our voices, our hands, our energies, our minds, our ideas, our votes, and our behaviors to improve the health of our marine ecosystem.”

Hawaii Ocean Ambassadors focuses their energies around encouraging individual and collective efforts to:

  • Host informal beach clean-ups and invite as many friends and neighbors as possible and share the joys of volunteering, meeting new friends, and helping to protect and even improve this special place.
  • Create and post sample letters that can be copied by our Ambassadors and sent to hotels, tour companies, airlines, and our representatives in government requesting more targeted and effective steps be taken to better educate both visitors and locals alike about protecting and even improving our local environment.
  • To harness and utilize social media to provide efficient avenues to communicate ideas, post and share volunteer opportunities, and in hopes of better educating our readers on ocean-related topics.
  • To leverage social media ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ to pressure hotels, tour companies, airlines, and government officials to take action on specifically targeted issues and requests.

They used this playbook to successfully urge the Hawaii legislature last year to ban the sale of sunscreen that contains Oxybenzone to protect the fragile marine ecosystem.  Now they have a goal of banning the use of certain single-use plastic items in Hawaii during the next legislative session.  

One Funny Thing: The Salmon Cannon

Image: Steven Lane

As CNN reported, The internet is losing its collective mind over a video of Whooshh Innovations’ salmon cannon — yep, that’s it’s real name — built to zip fish over hydroelectric dams that block their migration paths. Take a look, you won’t regret it!

Pete Buttigieg Puts Out Rural Economic Plan to Help Tackle Climate Change

Image: Charlie Neibergall/AP

Yesterday Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg released his “Plan to Unleash the Economic Potential of Rural America.” The plan seeks to support agriculture and significantly invest in R&D as a powerful solution to climate change, including through soil carbon sequestration. One of the key components of the plan is to invest $50 billion in innovative research over the next decade, pay farmers for conservation efforts, and establish next-generation Resilience Hubs to share climate resilience data and tools.

A Timely Idea: Last week the IPCC released its Special Report on Climate Change and Land which makes it clear that the way we use our land and cultivate our food must quickly become more sustainable if we’re going to limit the rise of global temperatures to 1.5°C and meaningfully act on climate change.

The Problem: In the United States the Farm Bill funds conservation programs that help provide cost shares, financial incentives and technical assistance to farmers and other private landowners who voluntarily undertake conservation efforts on their land. While 2018’s reauthorization of the Farm Bill increased funding for these programs (despite President Trump’s request to slash them), if we follow the IPCC’s advice on sustainable land use then we will likely need a lot more money allocated for these programs which is exactly what Buttigieg’s plan aims to do.

What We Currently Have: As Civil Eats explained, “EQIP and CSP are the two largest “working lands” conservation programs offered by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Combined with the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays farmers to take land out of production for 10 or 15 years in favor of permanent grasslands and wildlife habitat, the USDA’s conservation portfolio impacts more than 100 million acres nationwide while deploying billions of dollars of taxpayer funding.”

Why This Matters: As ODP prepares for our upcoming presidential Climate Forum (with MSNBC and Georgetown Politics on Sept. 19/20), we are making a point to highlight any policy activity coming from the presidential candidates. What stood out to us about Mayor Pete’s inclusion of climate change as part of his broader proposal to address economic uncertainty in rural America was the conscious effort to connect climate change to the economy. That hasn’t been done enough and no one (especially farmers) want to hear about all the things that they will have to give up in order to fight climate change. Instead, the better message is how the federal government can enable farmers to keep their soil healthy, maintain yield, while also helping sequester carbon.
Go Deeper: Massachusetts Senator and 2020 hopeful Elizabeth Warren also released an agricultural climate plan the other week. Here’s how hers differs from Mayor Pete’s.

Kids and Climate Change

Greta Thunberg. Image/AP

16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has influenced young people across the world to protest and strike for climate action. But the “Greta effect” is a very real thing and her activism has inspired a flurry of books to be written about climate change. As the Guardian reported, “the number of new children’s books looking at the climate crisis, global heating and the natural world has more than doubled over the past 12 months, according to data from Nielsen Book Research shared with the Observer. Sales have also doubled.

The Titles: The Guardian explained that “whether it’s beautifully illustrated factual books like A Wild Child’s Guide to Endangered Animals, apocalyptic climate catastrophe novels such as Where the River Runs Gold or how-to guides such as Kids Fight Plastic, publishers are targeting a plethora of new fiction and nonfiction titles at young readers inspired by Thunberg.”

Why This Matters: Talking about climate change is important because it helps normalize the issue and defuse it from being needlessly politically charged. Talking about climate change with young people and encouraging them to read more on the issue is important because knowledge is power especially in the age of disinformation. On this note, we’re really grateful to blogger and HGTV host Jillian Harris for allowing Our Daily Planet to publish a guest blog post about what climate change means for kids and their future. When influential people use their platforms to address climate issues it helps frame the issue as something more than a political talking point and expands the conversation to include a much broader array of people.