Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Testbed news

SPICE personal statement.

It is with some regret that today the SPICE team has announced we’ve decided to call off the outdoor ‘1km testbed’ experiment that was scheduled for later this year. The reasons for this are complex and I will try to explain the decision here. It should be noted that these views are my own and do not necessarily imply consensus within SPICE. Where a range of opinions exist I will try to make that clear. Importantly however, the decision to call of the experiment was made by all the project partners in agreement.

Firstly, there are issues of governance. Despite receiving considerable attention no international agreements exist. Whilst it is hard to imagine a more environmentally benign experiment, which sought to only pump 150 litres (2 bath loads) of pure water into the atmosphere to a height of one kilometre over a deserted field, in terms of SRMGI nomenclature, it represented a transition from stage 2 to stage 3 research. Most experts agree that governance architecture is needed and, to me personally, a technology demonstrator, even a benign 1/20 scale model, feels somewhat premature, though many in SPICE would disagree. Counter to my personal feelings is the argument that technologies that could inject SO2 into the stratosphere, particularly aircraft, already exist and that process could, but obviously should not, begin tomorrow. It is therefore wrong to consider the tested experiment as an enabling technology and that various delivery mechanisms should be tested given there is minimal, well managed proximal (e.g. health and safety) risk and no impacts on climate or biodiversity. 

Secondly, there are issues of intellectual property. SPICE, as a team, is committed to researching climate engineering carefully with the profound belief that all such research should be done, as per the Oxford Principles, for the greater good. We have all agreed, through a partner-wide collaboration agreement to (a) put all results into the public domain in a timely manner and (b) not to exploit (i.e. profit from or patent) results from the SPICE project. However, a patent application exists that was filed prior to the SPICE project being proposed, describing the delivery technology, presenting a potentially significant conflict of interest. The details of this application were only reported to the project team a year into the project and caused many members, including me, significant discomfort. Information regarding the patent application was immediately reported to the research councils, who have initiated an external investigation. Efforts are underway to make the patent application’s intentions unambiguous: to protect intellectual property and not for commercial purposes.

Thirdly, it will take time to explore these issues through deliberation and stakeholder engagement. This means that any postponement of the 1km tested would be a de facto cancellation as the experiment’s value, to elucidate balloon and tether dynamics to inform computer models, diminishes over the project lifetime. The SPICE team sincerely hopes that this decision will facilitate rational, unrushed discussion on issues that include both governance and intellectual property but span broader issues surrounding SRM.

Monday, 7 May 2012

New Yorker article: the climate fixers

Long New Yorker article on CE mentions SPICE:

Overall, an interesting and thought provoking article that paints SPICE in a light that I believe represents us and our intentions fairly. Here's the bit (p2 of 7) that cites Hugh.

'The Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering project, or SPICE, is a British academic consortium that seeks to mimic the actions of volcanoes like Pinatubo by pumping particles of sulfur dioxide, or similar reflective chemicals, into the stratosphere through a twelve-mile-long pipe held aloft by a balloon at one end and tethered, at the other, to a boat anchored at sea.

The consortium consists of three groups. At Bristol University, researchers led by Matt Watson, a professor of geophysics, are trying to determine which particles would have the maximum desired impact with the smallest likelihood of unwanted side effects. Sulfur dioxide produces sulfuric acid, which destroys the ozone layer of the atmosphere; there are similar compounds that might work while proving less environmentally toxic—including synthetic particles that could be created specifically for this purpose. At Cambridge, Hugh Hunt and his team are trying to determine the best way to get those particles into the stratosphere. A third group, at Oxford, has been focussing on the effect such an intervention would likely have on the earth’s climate.

Hunt and I spoke in Cambridge, at Trinity College, where he is a professor of engineering and the Keeper of the Trinity College clock, a renowned timepiece that gains or loses less than a second a month. In his office, dozens of boomerangs dangle from the wall. When I asked about them, he grabbed one and hurled it at my head. “I teach three-dimensional dynamics,’’ he said, flicking his hand in the air to grab it as it returned. Hunt has devoted his intellectual life to the study of mechanical vibration. His Web page is filled with instructive videos about gyroscopes, rings wobbling down rods, and boomerangs.

“I like to demonstrate the way things spin,’’ he said, as he put the boomerang down and picked up an inflated pink balloon attached to a string. “The principle is pretty simple.” Holding the string, Hunt began to bobble the balloon as if it were being tossed by foul weather. “Everything is fine if it is sitting still,’’ he continued, holding the balloon steady. Then he began to wave his arm erratically. “One of the problems is that nothing is going to be still up there. It is going to be moving around. And the question we’ve got is . . . this pipe”—the industrial hose that will convey the particles into the sky—“is going to be under huge stressors.’’ He snapped the string connected to the balloon. “How do you know it’s not going to break? We are really pushing things to the limit in terms of their strength, so it is essential that we get the dynamics of motion right.’’

Most scientists, even those with no interest in personal publicity, are vigorous advocates for their own work. Not this group. “I don’t know how many times I have said this, but the last thing I would ever want is for the project I have been working on to be implemented,’’ Hunt said. “If we have to use these tools, it means something on this planet has gone seriously wrong.’’

Last fall, the SPICE team decided to conduct a brief and uncontroversial pilot study. At least they thought it would be uncontroversial. To demonstrate how they would disperse the sulfur dioxide, they had planned to float a balloon over Norfolk, at an altitude of a kilometre, and send a hundred and fifty litres of water into the air through a hose. After the date and time of the test was announced, in the middle of September, more than fifty organizations signed a petition objecting to the experiment, in part because they fear that even to consider engineering the climate would provide politicians with an excuse for avoiding tough decisions on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Opponents of the water test pointed out the many uncertainties in the research (which is precisely why the team wanted to do the experiment). The British government decided to put it off for at least six months.

“When people say we shouldn’t even explore this issue, it scares me,’’ Hunt said. He pointed out that carbon emissions are heavy, and finding a place to deposit them will not be easy. “Roughly speaking, the carbon dioxide we generate weighs three or four times as much as the fuel it comes from.” That means that a short round-trip journey—say, eight hundred miles—by car, using two tanks of gas, produces three hundred kilograms of carbon dioxide. “This is ten heavy suitcases from one short trip,’’ Hunt said. “And you have to store it where it can’t evaporate.

“So I have three questions, Where are you going to put it? Who are you going to ask to dispose of this for you? And how much are you reasonably willing to pay them to do it?” he continued. “There is nobody on this planet who can answer any of those questions. There is no established place or technique, and nobody has any idea what it would cost. And we need the answers now.”

Hunt stood up, walked slowly to the window, and gazed at the manicured Trinity College green. “I know this is all unpleasant,’’ he said. “Nobody wants it, but nobody wants to put high doses of poisonous chemicals into their body, either. That is what chemotherapy is, though, and for people suffering from cancer those poisons are often their only hope. Every day, tens of thousands of people take them willingly—because they are very sick or dying. This is how I prefer to look at the possibility of engineering the climate. It isn’t a cure for anything. But it could very well turn out to be the least bad option we are going to have.’’
Shame about the volcanology at the beginning...(!). I guess he meant ashfall....