While the screaming goes on about CO2 and global warming there are hard science efforts underway that will benefit sound thinking about the future of fuels. As many readers know, the most useful and “safe” fuels are carbon based, and they harbor a lot of hydrogen in their content. Hydrogen enriched carbon is for the foreseeable future the best and most adoptable way to get the fossil fuel issue behind us. That is simply because its mostly organic in sources and processes which makes the synthesis and production opportunities engineering jobs within our technological skill set.

This observation makes the understanding of the planet’s and in particular, the ecosystem’s cycle role paramount, both on the micro scale and the macro scale. It’s a fairly good thought that grasping the macro will open a lot of doors to the micro research that will become part of our fuel production effort.

The carbon cycle is a huge and complex system where virtually every part of the planet has a role. Its astonishing that CO2 is only a few hundred parts per million of the atmosphere and that so much gets done. We think we know a lot about CO2 and the oceans, the atmosphere, forests, grass and crop lands, etc. But some hard scientists realize that we don’t know a lot about how it moves around, how its produced and how long it stays put in its various guises. While assumption abound, the hard data is just now being built up.

Figuring out where it goes has been quite a problem for the researchers who accept the fact that the global carbon models don’t actually account for all that carbon. (Is there a useful idea in that global warming research?) Carbon is disappearing somewhere. We will need to know where its gone.

Aaron Packman

One researcher, Aaron Packman, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science of Northwestern University is studying one overlooked and important segment, the rivers. Mr. Packman is a co-author or a recent paper in Nature Geoscience that lays out two important points – it argues that carbon processing in rivers is a bigger component of global carbon cycling than people have been thinking and it lays out a framework for how scientists should go about assessing those processes. These are important premises for grasping a significant part of the carbon cycle. It can be seen at the mouths of every major river, a huge amount of carbonaceous material is headed out to sink at sea.

The quick observation is that this kind of study might be better done by ecologists than engineers. But Packman is quick to admit that would seem so, but this complexity of moving water, debris, microorganisms, chemistry and a wealth of other inputs demands that the field be engaged by multiple disciplines. “We’re dealing with such interdisciplinary problems, tough problems, so we have to put fluid dynamics, transport, ecology and microbiology together to find this overall cycling of carbon. People might say it’s a natural science paper, but to me it’s a modern engineering paper. To understand what’s going on with these large scale processes, we have to analyze them quantitatively, and the tools for getting good estimates have been developed in engineering.” Well, three large loud cheers for Packman!

OK, Mr. Packman has to be career minded in a social zone of global warming so in fairness I’ll quote him saying, “The broadest idea is really part of the global change efforts to understand carbon cycling over the whole earth, which is an enormous challenge.” There – protected from the global warming crowd. Which is done because what is at stake – responsible participation in the carbon cycle – is much more important to billions of people, so we will not being attracting the destructive forces upon the good professor. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to realize that what can be learned would have significant effects to everyone.

The Nature Geoscience paper is lead by Tom Battin of Freshwater Ecology at the University of Vienna in Austria. The other authors are Louis A. Kaplan, Stuart Findlay, Charels S. Hopkinson, Eugenia Marti, J.Dennis Newbold, and Francesca Sabater. A complete who and where is listed in the abstracts footnotes.

I found the release from The McCormick School to be quite refreshing. The idea that the responsible scientific community understands (at least subtlety) the carbon cycle is life’s most critical process on the planet as well as the key to organically derived long-term liquid and gaseous fuels is a real relief.


1 Comment so far

  1. Electric Cement Mixer : on October 27, 2010 2:32 PM

    engineering jobs these days are on high demand as the economy recovers from recession:*-

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