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Your Next Winter Coat Could Help Store Carbon

August 06, 2023

Largest Dam Removal Project Rewilds Habitat

The largest dam removal project in U.S. history is under way on the Klamath River, which runs along the California-Oregon border. Last year, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved the demolition of four dams to open up the river for salmon habitat, after Native American tribes had fought for decades to restore the heart of their cultural heritage. The Klamath had been the third-largest river in terms of salmon on the West Coast, but the dams, which were constructed from 1918 to 1962, prevented the fish from reaching spawning grounds upstream.

Klamath River  |  Credit: Anna Murveit/Klamath River Renewal Corporation

Much of the first dam to be deconstructed, the Copco 2, is now gone, allowing the river to flow freely at that point. Jefferson Public Radio reports that the remaining three reservoirs can be drawn down starting early next year and then the three other dams can be demolished. The project is being carried out through the Klamath River Renewal Corporation.  

Emptying those reservoirs will allow sunlight to hit many areas along the river for the first time in more than a century. When done, 400 miles will have been opened to wildlife, including threatened species. To prepare, Native Americans in the area have been gathering seeds by hand to spread them along the banks of the freed river, and, as the Associated Press reports, hundreds of thousands of trees and shrubs will be planted.

Rewilding the Klamath is part of a movement across the U.S. to restore habitat for fish and ecosystems. According to American Rivers, about 2,000 dams have been torn down—most in the last 25 years.

Release of Permafrost Pathogens Could Be Dangerous to Ecosystems

Global warming is causing permafrost to melt, which could release pathogens—bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms—that have been in suspended animation for thousands of years. While previous research has shown that pathogens can emerge from melting ice and permafrost, a new study from Flinders University in Australia shows that about one percent of them could pose a significant risk to ecosystems. And while that may seem small, the researchers say that there is substantial danger because ecosystems and humans have not been exposed to the ancient pathogens and may not have developed defenses.

Thawing permafrost in Herschel Island, Canada  |  Credit: Boris Radosavljevic/Creative Commons

Permafrost is a permanently frozen layer on or under Earth’s surface consisting of soil, gravel, and sand bound together by ice, found mainly in Arctic regions of Greenland, the U.S., China, Russia, and Europe. When it forms, it can trap microbes for thousands and even millions of years.  In 2016, a massive anthrax outbreak in Siberia that has been linked to thawing permafrost affected dozens of people and killed thousands of reindeer.

As the authors of the study explain, they did not model the potential risk to humans, but found that the “time-traveling” pathogens could become established and severely degrade a host community. They warn that it is plausible a virus once bound in the ice could enter human populations through other animals, as did HIV, Sars, and Ebola. One of the authors said in a statement that the potential risk posed by these ancient microbes is no longer just a fantasy, and it needs to be understood so we can prepare for the consequences of their release.

The study was published in the journal Plos Computational Biology.

“Electrified Cement” Could Charge EVs as They Drive Along a Road

As more and more renewable energy comes online, the need to store the power generated from solar and wind is growing too. Existing battery technology is expensive and relies on materials like cobalt or lithium, which have environmental impacts, so low-cost, sustainable alternatives are urgently needed.

Electrified cement (artist’s conception) could store enough energy in a home’s foundation to power household appliances for a full day.  |  Credit: N. Chanut et al., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

So, researchers from MIT thought, how about storing electricity in the foundation of a house? That’s the idea behind “electrified cement,” a new technology that takes two of the world’s ubiquitous materials—cement and so-called “carbon black”—and turns them into a supercapacitor that can store exceptionally large amounts of electric charge. Carbon black, which resembles very fine charcoal, occurs both naturally after wildfires and also from human activity like the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels. It’s been used since antiquity as a pigment—the Dead Sea Scrolls were written with it—and it’s very conductive.

For that reason, the team experimented with adding carbon black into a concrete mixture with water and found it formed a branching network that acted like wires. As the material hardened, it was ready not only to support a house but also to store the energy its rooftop solar would generate.

The researchers say electrified cement could be a big asset in the world’s transition to renewable energy by capturing electricity generated, say, by a wind turbine in its concrete platform or by storing energy from solar panels along a highway in the base of the road and charging EVs as they drive along.

At the moment, the cement supercapacitor the team created was only big enough to power a few LED light bulbs, but the researchers are already looking at ways to rapidly scale up. The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

How Puffy Coats Could Help Save the Planet

Sure, it’s still summer, but before long we’ll be reaching for our puffy coats. While the quilted jackets are great for keeping us warm, they’re not so hot for the environment. The fluffy filling is made either from polyester derived from fossil fuels or from down feathers plucked from geese or ducks, often not in an ethical manner.

Bulrush (Typha latifolia)  |  Credit: Peter van der Sluijs/Creative Commons

But your next padded jacket not only could be good for birds, it could also support biodiversity, help farmers, and fight the climate crisis. Enter the humble bulrush (Typha latifolia), a plant similar to cattails which grows in peatlands around the world and has an unmistakable sausage-like flower head that becomes covered in fluffy seeds to be carried off in the wind. Those seeds can make a warm, lofty, and water-resistant insulation perfect for puffy coats. A materials science company from the UK called Saltyco® is using the fluff to create a product called BioPuff® that they will harvest from bulrush grown using an agricultural practice called paludiculture, which rewets peatlands to return them to health while offering farmers a marketable crop.

Peatlands can store more carbon than all other vegetation types in the world combined, but many have been drained, so the UK government just announced grants to restore these vital ecosystems, including one from the Paludiculture Exploration Fund that will go to the Lancashire Wildlife Trust, who will partner with Saltyco to grow bulrush near the city of Manchester in northwest England.

According to the Guardian, it takes around 20 bulrush flower heads to fill one jacket, and the first seeds are expected to be harvested from the Manchester site in 2026. The coats will not only help mitigate the climate crisis but will also make saving the planet fashionable.