Scientists aren’t superheroes. Or are they? Superheroes defend the defenseless and save humanity from any number of disasters, both natural and unnatural, often using powers of logic and some really hip techno-gadgets.
The Earth is in crisis and while it has its own mechanisms to fight back, it could use a helping hand. Earth could use a superhero.
Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory are stepping up and applying decades of expertise and research to combat some of Earth’s toughest foes, from waste and pollution to climate change. And they’ve assembled a cache of some of the world’s coolest technology for this crusade.
So, this Earth Day, we take a look at just a few of the ways Argonne’s scientist-superheroes are swooping in to keep Earth healthy and its citizens safe.
Predicting Earth’s future
What better way to save the planet than knowing what the future holds? Argonne and DOE are leaders in modeling Earth’s complex natural systems to help us keep tabs on the planet’s health. The best of these models can simulate how changes in these systems and our own actions might influence climate and ecosystems many years into the future. They give us a better understanding of the roles played by tropical rain forests, ice sheets, permafrost and oceans in maintaining carbon levels and help us devise strategies for protecting them — ultimately, identifying how much carbon dioxide (CO2) we need to reduce from human activities and remove from the atmosphere to stabilize the planet’s temperature.
Protecting the birds and the bees
Energy facilities can serve as a refuge or obstacle for some of our friends in the animal kingdom. Argonne is working to make solar energy facilities safe havens through traditional conservation and high-tech methods. For example, to help revitalize a declining population of pollinators — insects like wild bees and monarch butterflies that pollinate many plants and crops — researchers are studying the benefits of planting native plant species among solar panel arrays. The goal is to understand and quantify the ecological benefits to both pollinators and to nearby crops.
Additionally, Argonne is developing new technologies to monitor bird activities at solar facilities. A combination of artificial intelligence and advanced cameras will help us understand how birds interact with the panels and lead to better siting, and potentially mitigation measures.
Argonne captures greenhouse villain
Much of the work that Argonne does to help the environment revolves around reducing greenhouse gases, mainly CO2, from the atmosphere. So why not just go to the source and remove it? Easier said than done, but Argonne is working on several applications to capture CO2 directly from manufacturing processes and reuse it to develop other chemicals or products. Another more ambitious and long-term plan is to pull the CO2 directly from the air and convert it for use as a fuel using an artificial photosynthesis process. Either way, these capture and conversion techniques could keep CO2 locked up tight and out of the atmosphere for a long time.
Argonne assembles: Better plastics for the future
We all play the villain, on occasion, especially when it comes to recycling plastic. Sometimes we just don’t recycle. And that can lead to a glut of plastic waste on our curbs and in parks and waterways that can last a lifetime and harm the planet and its inhabitants, large and small. Using its predictive powers — a combination of models, simulation and artificial intelligence — Argonne is rethinking how plastics are made. Instead of using the same old materials and hoping for a better outcome, our resourceful researchers are helping to understand if and how new materials can create plastics that will disintegrate faster and be less harmful to the environment. In the meantime, we can serve as Earth’s superheroes, too, and remember to drop that finished water bottle in the recycling bin.
Charging our battery packs to save the planet
Argonne is supercharged in its work with batteries. For nearly 25 years, we have advanced electric vehicle batteries, saving the planet from untold amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. Now we’re pressing ahead with longer-lasting batteries that store energy from solar and wind production. Because renewable production isn’t constant, these batteries will provide energy when the wind and sun are absent, up to a few days. And more importantly, they reduce emissions from natural gas plants that typically have to fire up when winds are down to supply transitional energy. Now those are battery packs with a punch. POW!
Plastics aren’t the only things we recycle. Along with paper, metal and other household miscellany, we continue to discover more things we can — and should — recycle, like electric vehicle batteries. Argonne is working hard to find new ways to reuse many of the materials found in these batteries when their useful life is complete. Yes, even plastic. Current recycling efforts can release additional CO2 in the process and only recover a fraction of the targeted materials. Additionally, many of the materials that make the batteries work are sourced or produced outside of the United States, where the process of mining and preparation can contaminate soils and deplete local water resources. So, in addition to recovering and recycling these elements, Argonne is looking for alternatives that would make the U.S. resource independent and reduce harmful manufacturing processes.
Battling noxious enemies
Transportation emissions just may be Earth’s kryptonite, accounting for nearly 30 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted through human activity. The planet can only absorb so much of these noxious fumes before they begin to have a negative effect on the environment and climate. Fighting such a lethal foe requires Argonne’s full arsenal of techno-tools, from X-rays to supercomputers. Using a type of X-ray vision, we can get a more precise look at key engine parts, like pistons and injectors, which could lead to better designs that reduce CO2. Supercomputers and artificial intelligence simulate both traffic patterns and engine operations under a number of conditions to help cities reevaluate traffic patterns and engine manufacturers design for better engine performance, fuel economy and reduced emissions.
Utility belt extra: GREET
Part of the effort to reduce emissions from transportation includes the development of biofuels, or fuels made from sustainable products like corn, other plant materials or plant-derived products. Some of these fuels, like ethanol, have long been mixed with gasoline to increase performance and reduce emissions. Currently, members of Congress are asking the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to change corn ethanol’s federal rating to reflect advances in biofuel technologies. To do this requires input from an Argonne supertool called the Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy Use in Technologies model, or simply, GREET, which evaluates the environmental impacts of transportation fuels. If GREET determines that the fuel is more carbon-friendly than it was since the EPA’s last review 10 years ago, then corn ethanol may qualify as an advanced biofuel and a cap on its use may be increased.
Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science.