From the busy life of a student, I have moved on to living the busy schedule of newborn's parent, thus I have not yet found much extra time in a week to write, and whatever personal writing time I do find is often better devoted to the artsy sort of writing I learned at the academy. In the last few weeks, I had many ideas for blog posts, but none of them got done. I absolutely should consider other ways to post to my blog without always having to sit down and blog it out. In fact, I already do quite a bit of writing in a week, yet rarely do I consider this work blog writing. Yes, I just raised the existential question: What is blog writing?
It's not a very important question though, so I'll just cut to the chase here. I have decided to start posting some of the article writing I do at work. I also reminded myself that this blog can contain more of the random, unfinished philosophical arguments I poke at in a week. Ultimately, what I want to learn how to do is use the chew toy as a reservoir of past ideas I've had.
And so I give you an article I wrote for the Buehler Planetarium's monthly publication:
NASA Research Fuels: A Seed of Global Responsibility?
In all reaches of technology, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has made great impacts on everyday life. Its list of inventions and patents already includes, but is hardly limited to: ear thermometers that take a temperature with one click, scratch-resistant eyeglass lenses, and the insoles that make shoes more comfortable. And just consider where humankind would be without long-distance telecommunications, cordless power tools, and water filters.
In recent years, NASA has even begun using innovative thinking to study the causes of, and possible solutions to, global environmental change. A recent NASA article, “Alternative Jet Fuels Put to the Test,” outlines one potential example for influential change in daily human life around the globe. Along with various other research groups, NASA is testing the engine performance and aircraft emissions of two jet fuels made from non-petroleum materials. The two focus fuels of the study are synthesized from coal and natural gas, because these resources actually contain the energy necessary to power a commercial airliner.
Given not only the rising cost of oil but also its ever-decreasing supply, exploring alternatives to petroleum seems more important than ever. The technology to synthesize non-petroleum fuels has been in existence for decades, practical interest remained low, but in light of the recent rabid fluctuation in oil prices, the high cost of building the processing plants that would synthesize non-petroleum fuels may now seem like a viable economic alternative. In addition to decreasing the amount of oil used for jet airline travel, these non-petroleum fuels may also reduce the amount of environmental damage done to the skies. In NASA’s words, “it is thought that synthetic fuels create fewer particles and other harmful emissions than standard jet fuel” (“Alternative”).
Yet, the glaring problem with this research is lack of any suggested departure from human dependence on fossil fuels. Coal, natural gas, and oil are all sources of energy being consumed much faster than the Earth can replenish supplies. All fossil fuels are non-renewable sources of energy, limited by formation time. Fossil fuels came into existence gradually from the heat and pressure of the Earth’s crust acting on the fossilized remains of plants and animals that died hundreds of millions of years ago.
Fossil fuels are quite useful as sources of energy, but when burned, they release the byproducts of their energy into the atmosphere. These are greenhouse gases, which come in many forms. Carbon dioxide has been the main focus of recent greenhouse gas discussions, since it is “the leading human-produced greenhouse gas driving changes in Earth's climate” (“NASA Mission”). Meanwhile, an ever-increasing human population demands the burning of more fossil fuels than ever. “Eighty-five percent of all human-produced carbon dioxide emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels,” which means the global addition of “almost 1.4 metric tons of carbon per person per year to the atmosphere” (“Human Factor”).
To put this impact in terms of accumulated effect, “more than half of all fossil fuels ever used by humans have been consumed in just the last 20 years” (“Human Factor”). Humans are creating a global problem of atmospheric proportions. Clearly, humans have not properly learned to weigh the costs of industrial and commercial ventures alongside the benefits. While the Industrial Revolution has greatly benefited the human way of life, it has also led to a startling increase in concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases. The evidence is in the air. “Before industrialization, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was about 280 parts per million. By 1958, the concentration of carbon dioxide had increased to around 315 parts per million, and by 2007, it had risen to about 383 parts per million. These increases were due almost entirely to human activity” (“Human Factor”).
Thus, human beings have upset the natural balance of the Earth’s carbon cycle. “If we think of Earth as ‘breathing,’ the balance between photosynthesis, or ‘inhaling,’ and respiration, or ‘exhaling,’ was about equal until humans began mining and burning large amounts of fossilized organic matter like coal, oil and natural gas a couple hundred years ago” (“Orbiting”). Once upon a time, humans only exhaled the carbon dioxide produced by their own bodies. Now, in the age of technology, humans also ‘exhale’ lots and lots of fossil-fuel carbon dioxide. Hundreds of millions of years ago, these fossil fuels were stored as ‘inhalations’ in the Earth. Now their rapid release by humans has gradually and increasingly tipped the balance on the Earth's carbon cycle. In other words, humans have been exhaling much, much more than their own share of carbon dioxide.
But the topic of global climate change need not be entirely a discussion of doom and gloom. Another recent NASA article, “The Orbiting Carbon Observatory and the Mystery of the Missing Sinks,” outlines a new spacecraft scheduled to launch February 23 of this year. Primarily, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory will focus on how “forests, grasslands, crops and soil are absorbing carbon dioxide” (“Orbiting”). NASA has chosen to focus on land sinks because scientists currently have decent estimates for how human activity distributes carbon dioxide between the atmosphere and the ocean, but less is known about how land sinks absorb the greenhouse gas.
Despite clearer estimates, and despite deforestation and (sub)urban development, plants still seem to have the upper hand on land, according to Scott Denning, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Colorado State University, who says “plant life is growing faster than it's dying,’” or in his more scientific explanation, “‘land is a net sink for carbon dioxide, rather than a net source’” (“Orbiting”). Via Denning, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory article outlines the six main ways a carbon ‘sink’ can develop on land. In all cases, human activity plays a role in creating the proper circumstances for more plant growth. More plants means less carbon dioxide acting as a greenhouse gas. In other words, human development and/or interference naturally leads to more plant remediation and/or prosperity.
The underlying message is quite clear. Regardless of how much or how little humans realize and respect what plants do for them, the plants of Earth will continue working as they always have to undo the ‘exhalations’ of humans, be they the essential exhalations of human respiration or the convenient emissions of human activity. And while plants cannot make up for all of the carbon dioxide released by human fossil-fuel use, they deserve some recognition for having done their part.
Here, NASA too should be commended for participating in the research that returns this fact to the human attention. Projects like the Orbiting Carbon Observatory show that the Administration seems to be thinking in the right direction by revealing the damage done, and their current research on jet fuels seems at least one humble baby step on behalf of humankind. And who knows? Given NASA’s innovative spirit, maybe someday it will announce research being done on plant-based jet fuels. One generation of plants could help to ‘inhale’ the emissions created by the energetic burning of the previous generation, and so on. Such a breakthrough would allow a different kind of progress leading back toward that more balanced point in the Earth’s carbon cycle history before humans knew the means for technological progress without restraint. On the other hand, the future holds only that inevitable point in time when the age of fossil fuels comes to an end. The development of responsible technology alone will determine how humans make the transition.
Given its technological contributions thus far, and its current focus on environmental matters, NASA's current environmental research seems as good a reason as any to remain optimistic that scientific research will someday work hard at making fossil fuels a thing of the past. After all, technology seems to have brought us too far to turn back now. Therefore, technology may very well serve as the eventual solution that bridges the gap between a society’s unchecked desire for innovation and its promotion of the healthy ecosystem acting as its life-support system in the vast expanse of space.
NASA, Alternative Jet Fuels Put to the Test.
---, The Human Factor: Understanding the Sources of Rising Carbon Dioxide.
---, NASA Mission to Help Unravel Key Carbon, Climate Mysteries.
---, The Orbiting Carbon Observatory and the Mystery of the Missing Sinks.