UVic Torch -- Spring 2003
Spring 2003,
Volume 24, Number 1

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Photography by ROB KRUYT System Problems
By MIKE MCNENEY
Photography by ROB KRUYT

The calendar says it’s the beginning of spring but on southern Vancouver Island, this year’s version of winter came and went without ever seriously asserting itself. It seems like the days and months are out of step with the seasons. At the same time Arctic and sub-Arctic sea ice is melting at a rate at which it may disappear in less than 50 years. And in the months ahead, forecasters expect drought conditions to continue on the prairies.


CLIMATE SCIENTISTS WARN US NOT TO CONFUSE DAILY WEATHER WITH long term trends,
the statistics of weather. But it’s hard not to sense a change in our climate, from one extreme to another. “We will never be able to say that a particular weather event is caused by global warming,” says atmospheric science professor Andrew Weaver, BSc ’83. “Science can offer a quantification of the likely change in such an event. Nevertheless, it is clear that climate change is upon us.” He notes that today’s levels of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (370 parts per million) are the highest in at least 400,000 years. According to global mean temperature data, the 10 warmest years on record have all occurred since 1987.

In studying the oceans, the atmosphere and how together they’ve influenced past climate change, Weaver’s group has devised the UVic Earth System Climate Model. Widely used by scientists and policymakers, the model employs powerful computers to calculate changes in weather, vegetation and ocean temperature over the past several thousand years of natural history. Ultimately, Weaver—world renowned for his work in climate change—hopes to develop a computer model of the climate’s influence on human evolution over the past 130,000 years. Understanding past climate trends, as the Earth moves in and out of ice ages for example, will enable scientists to have more confidence in predicting what’s in store for societies in the next 100 or 200 years.

Technology may enable the developed world to adapt to those climate changes far better than in the past (during the Dust Bowl, for instance). But Weaver says it doesn’t end there. He warns that unless the developing countries of the world are helped to adjust—technologically and economically—to climate changes that are mainly caused by industrial nations, “the seeds of discontent” will be sown. “In short,” says Weaver, “dealing with climate change is about dealing with domestic and global security. Our pace of technology has been fast (but) it must remain faster than the pace (at which) climate will change in the future.”

Some of that new climate-sensitive technology is being developed by Ned Djilali and his colleagues at the Institute for Integrated Energy Systems. The group of 30 researchers and graduate students leads Canadian university research on alternatives to carbon-based electricity and fuels.

Their focus is on the key technologies that would be at the heart of a hydrogen age: storage and distribution, production, and fuel cell technology. “The key thing with fuel cell technology right now is to bring down the costs,” Djilali says. “In order to achieve that you need to develop new manufacturing techniques, new designs and tools that allow you to do virtual computer modeling and virtual prototyping.”

One aspect of UVic’s fuel cell research is the quest for more efficient, smaller, lighter fuel cells at reduced costs. Design engineer Zuomin Dong is making advances in that area. His UVic lab and commercial collaborator Palcan Engineering of Burnaby are working on the design of fuel cell-powered bikes and scooters that could replace polluting two-cycle engines. Dong’s work has led to substantially lower component costs (from $125 down to $5 per unit) for the gas plate components of fuel cells. He’s also developing tests that could lead to standardized mileage and acceleration ratings for fuel cells.

Another exciting new area of research, still very much in its early days, is “biohydrogen”—the use of robust bacteria to produce hydrogen from garbage or sewage. David Levin, a UVic biologist, says the idea is basically to put the sewage into a tank and seed it with the appropriate bacteria. The fermentation produces hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The trick is to capture the hydrogen and separate it quickly enough to keep the reaction going in the right direction. “I don’t see this providing megawatts of electricity to run a city. It might be best suited for remote communities, or where you’re not connected to (an electrical) grid.”

“The science has spoken very loudly as far as climate change is concerned,” says Djilali. “We feel that much more emphasis should be given to addressing those issues. Internal combustion engines and gas turbine technology have made huge progress. But they have by-and-large reached maturity. The amount of room left for improvement isn’t that great and it’s barely going to offset the increased demand. Can we say to the 1.2 billion Chinese people, no you’re not allowed to have cars? And yet that’s precisely what they will want once their standards of living have improved. There is no way present technologies are going to be able to keep up with demand. Hydrogen technologies are really at their infancy, so the room for improvements—in terms of efficiencies, costs, usability—are huge. We foresee a future where there’s going to be a very large dependence on fuel cell technology all around the world in a variety of applications.”



System Problems| Mix 'N' Math | Interactive Sea | Q & A with Carbon Buster





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