What COVID-19 taught us

What COVID-19 taught us

The world as we know it, dramatically changed. Within a short period of time, our daily routine was turned upside down, leaving people insecure and anxious about the future. Countries locked down, economies came to a halt, citizens been left without an income. COVID-19 has changed everyone’s life, but it also gave us an opportunity to learn our lesson as the population of planet Earth.

Governments released millions and millions in aid to encourage their citizens to stay at home. They released packages to protect businesses, whether they are small or large. They supported their healthcare so that they can cope with the outbreak. In a way, they acted so quickly, to stop the virus and protect their people. On the other hand, however, they did it out of fear. They were just as scared as any other citizen. This is a situation none of us experienced before. Not in the modern world. The world only just came to a realisation that we are, as human beings, vulnerable. Vulnerable to a situation when we don’t necessarily have control over the outcome, let alone the origin of it.

COVID-19 was, in a sense, unexpected. We didn’t know it will happen and even when we did, we had no idea it will affect so many. Nonetheless, governments acted rapidly and although it is far from being over we already learnt so much! The very first lesson that I learnt is that they can if they want! They can, if they are scared enough. Reacting so quickly to something that you didn’t expect shows me power and will. It also shows dedication for the cause, to save your people’s life.

The big question

So my question is, why weren’t decades enough to mitigate climate change? Why are governments still tossing this issue around like it is not important? We certainly cannot say, that they don’t know about it and it is unexpected. They know, that the damage we do to our environment will become irreversible (if it is not already). They know that ice caps will melt, sea levels will rise, islands and coastal cities will flood, species will go extinct because they cannot cope with their changing habitat.

Will their son know what does a Bornean Orangutan look like? That it even existed? Will their daughter know that there were breathtaking corals reefs in the ocean and how crucial it was to conserve that habitat? Will they remember what was life like when everything that you own wasn’t in grave danger from storms, floods, fire?

Nature doesn’t need people. We need nature. Everything you need to live comes from nature. It is a gift. I think we ought to appreciate it and do everything we can to avoid a future that awaits us. Because it will come if we don’t act. COVID-19 taught us that we can cooperate, we can act and stay strong if necessary. It taught us that governments can stand up if needed. We need leaders who tell the population that there is another, much bigger catastrophe on its way.

The lesson

What happens to the world now is tragic. But I also see the other side of the coin. We now know that you don’t always have to jump in the car to attend a meeting – in fact, online meetings work just fine! We now know how lucky we are to enjoy nature even for a short period of time when we take our daily exercise. After a long time, we have the time to finish that puzzle, play that board game and cook our dinner together, as a family. We now have the time to stop for two minutes and enjoy the Sun shining on our face, taste our coffee like we’ve never tasted it before.

The most important lesson we should take away from COVID-19 is that we never know when will life, as we know it end. We are responsible to protect it, not just for us, but for all the generations after us.

Cradle to grave – The life cycle perspective

Cradle to grave – The life cycle perspective

Everything that you own, buy, keep or throw away has got environmental impacts. It is hard to look at products in such a conscious way, but once you get your head around it, it will change the way you manage waste. Have you ever wondered what happened with a single pen you bought? Or where did your milk come from? Or where did your computer’s “life” started? Probably not! But it’s okay, as the modern world wants us to know that if you need something, you can just go to the shop and buy it. They don’t want you to think about where did your product came from, or what impact it had on the environment. Why not? Because it would encourage you to think twice before you buy or throw away something. It is simply not in their best interest for you to make conscious decisions about your purchase.

Life cycle perspective considers and determines aspects of activities, products and services that one way or another impacts the environment. It is a cradle to grave view, that looks at a subject from the moment it is ‘born’ until it is disposed of. Often organisations and businesses implement a Life Cycle Perspective in their environmental management systems. This approach enables them to identify areas where they can minimise their impact on the environment, whilst adding value to their organisation (economic, ethical and compliance benefits).

What does this mean in practice? To identify environmental impacts, you also need to identify environmental aspects. But what is the difference? Let’s take a bottle of milk as an example. To have milk, we need to keep cattle. You need to feed the cows, you need water, land and veterinary care (treatments, medicine, etc.) This is the input, an aspect of just one stage in producing a bottle of milk. The impact is loss of land, soil erosion, contributing to climate change due to methane emissions, potential water scarcity. And we don’t even have the milk yet! Using the same method, let’s follow a potato from cradle to grave.

Spectacular spuds

Let’s call our project Spectacular Spuds. We will now have a quick look at what impact the potato you bought in the shop has on the environment.

First of all, you need to grow potatoes and for this, you need to treat anc cultivate the land. For this, you need to use water, soil, fertilisers, pesticides and manpower. The potential or actual impact of these activities will be water deficiency, soil erosion, chemical pollution (surface run-off, or groundwater pollution).

Once your potatoes are ready, you will need to harvest them. For this, you will need to use manpower, machinery, fuel in the machinery. Your impact will be air pollution and CO2 emissions.

The spuds need to be cleaned, as nobody likes to buy dirty potatoes. You will use water, machinery, manpower and energy for this, therefore you created air and noise pollution, and again CO2 emissions from energy usage.

Then the potatoes are graded, using manpower and machinery. This will create waste potatoes and thus green waste (that will be either composted or it goes to landfill), CO2 emissions and potential noise pollution due to the use of machinery.

After this, the potatoes are bagged and stored. You will use plastic packaging, energy to control the temperature to ensure your potatoes won’t be rotten by the time they reach the shop, machinery and manpower. Most likely you will have waste plastic packaging, increasing plastic pollution, you emit CO2 while using machinery and refrigerating the product, and you will also create a loss of visual amenity (due to the use of land).

You need to transport the spuds to the shop, so you will use (fuel-powered) vehicles, possibly refrigerated ones. You will, therefore, pollute the air, and emit CO2.

Your spuds are displayed in the shop, using energy, light, temperature control. And only after all this, the spud is sold!

Wow!

This was a fairly simplified overview of what impact you can have on the environment by just buying a bag of potatoes! I am sure you are aware that whatever you buy, will have an impact! So how can we reduce our impact? We need to eat, we need clothes to wear, and sometimes you can’t help it, you need to buy products!

We can look at reducing our waste! Don’t throw away food if you don’t have to! Respect all the energy and work that has gone into a bag of potatoes (or bottle of milk, a box of eggs). We need to be more thoughtful about our food, and most importantly be grateful that we have it.

Don’t buy a new one, as long as the old one works. It is easy to get into the habit of buying a new phone every year, or buying a bigger, and nicer television. However, as long as the current one works perfectly fine, is it really necessary?

Choose local! There is a lot of emission and pollution you can cut out if you choose local. You won’t just support the farmer, but you will have significantly less impact buy buying a product that did not need to be transported.

Be mindful! Choose and live consciously, and be more thoughtful about your shopping habits. Overconsumption puts a lot of pressure on our environment, as we use much more resource than what we could sustainably manage.

Fusion and fission

Fusion and fission

As climate change becomes more and more of a reality, humanity must turn to alternative resources. There is a great deal of controversy surrounding nuclear power, especially after the Chernobyl series been released. It is crucial to understand, however, that not all nuclear energy source is the same, and we should consider this when determining whether it is a good alternative energy source, or not.

It won’t be a surprise if I say, that the very first working nuclear power plant was in Obninsk (Soviet Union back then). Its production of electricity did not last long. It was only grid-connected from 1954 to 1959. After that, it served as a research facility, until 2002 when it was finally shut down. But the most important factor in this is, that nuclear power started its journey at this point. But what is happening exactly in a nuclear power plant?

Nuclear fission

Conventional nuclear power plants produce energy today by nuclear fission. It is a truly amazing discovery, and the science behind it is mesmerising. In 1938 Lisa Meitner and Otto Frisch (both physicists) discovered that a Uranium nucleus can split in two, and also realised that the byproduct is energy. It didn’t just change the way we produce energy, but also lead to the atomic bomb later.

To better understand the process, we will need to touch the structure of an atom. But don’t worry, we won’t go into too much detail!

The atomic structure

As you can see, in the middle of an atom there is something called nucleus. The nucleus is made up of neutrons (no charge), and protons (positive charge). Around the nucleus electrons (negative charge) are “orbiting”. In nuclear fission, the nucleus is hit by neutrons, and the impact causes the nucleus to split in two. Two new atoms are formed in the process. Sometimes when the nucleus splits, additional neutrons are released in the fission. This will then cause a chain reaction by providing more neutrons that can hit the new atoms. Nuclear power plants today use Uranium atoms to produce energy. But why was this such an amazing discovery?

Nuclear fission isn’t just producing energy, it is producing a tremendous amount of energy! The energy produced by 1kg of Uranium equals to the energy produced by over 10000 litres of oil, or almost 20000 kg of coal. In the nucleus protons and neutrons are held together by a force called ‘strong interaction/nuclear force`. That is why they stay together. The neutron hitting the nucleus breaks this interaction or force, and all the energy that was used to keep the nucleus together is now released.

Nuclear fusion

In nuclear fusion, the exact opposite happens. While fission requires the atom nucleus to be split in two, during fusion they combine the nucleus. This, however, only work with small atoms, such as Hydrogen isotopes. The problem is, that due to the same charge in their nucleus protons repel each other. That is what we call the Coulomb force.

Fusion is something that we see very often, but having difficulty so far to recreate. How is that? The fusion of Hydrogen atoms creates helium. This is the energy source, that powers the Sun. Fusion reactors today use Hydrogen isotopes (such as tritium or deuterium), as these atoms require less temperature to fuse than the Hydrogen isotope itself. Only 1 g of these isotopes can produce as much energy as over 10000 kg of coal.

However the problem with fusion is, and the reason why we still cannot grid-connect a fusion plant is a temperature issue. To break the above-mentioned force, that makes protons repel each other in Hydrogen atoms, an enormous amount of temperature is required (as previously said, the Sun gains its energy from fusion as well). How can we recreate the environment the Sun provides for fusion, and how could we possibly build anything that withstands that heat? Fusion has been on the horizon for a very long time, but I believe that one day we will harness this power.

The not so beneficial side of nuclear power

As an environmentalist nuclear power is rather concerning. Although there are various methods to manage the radioactive waste produced by the power plants, none of them is totally risk-free. There is a very interesting statement on the Stanford University website. It says: ” 1 tonne of fresh fuel rod waste from a nuclear reactor would give you a fatal dose of radiation in 10 seconds if placed 3 meters away.”. This is rather alarming. Although the fission process itself does not emit carbon dioxide, the mining of uranium surely does!

Another important factor to consider the existence and evolution of nuclear weapons. In 1945, more than 75000 people died in Nagasaki as a result of a nuclear explosion. A few days earlier more than 130000 in Hiroshima for the same reason. This was exactly 74 years ago. The soviets then tested the Tsar bomb, in 1961. This was over 3000 times more powerful then the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Today we have even more powerful weapons, and the number of them grew dramatically.

The destruction that nuclear power can cause and environmental concerns due to uranium mining and radioactive waste makes this alternative source rather controversial. What do you think?

Read more in the Endangered Species series:

Or read about the Keeling Curve:

Team oUFO – Inspiration to all of us

Team oUFO – Inspiration to all of us

I had the luck to be invited to the Women in Engineering conference in Birmingham this weekend. It was a brilliant experience for many reasons, but certainly outstanding in terms of speakers. I am a science student, and mostly interested in climate and environmental science. Engineering is similar in many aspects. Most importantly it is also a STEM subject. On the other hand, they have the kind of analytical approach that us, scientists have.

This event showed me how big is the STEM family, and what an amazing thing is to belong to it. I am proud to be a woman in STEM! Out of all the speakers however, two of them scored a touch down for me. Faye Banks, who is today on the UK energy policy committee delivered an incredible speech. I won’t go into too much detail this time. After the conference, I contacted her and asked her if she would be interested in featuring an article on Beyond Science. I can happily confirm that she said yes. I honestly couldn’t find words, and I am very grateful.

Team oUFO, however, was an absolutely unique speaker. The team was undoubtedly a great success. The audience, as well as myself, loved them. I would love to tell you why.

The challenge Team oUFO faces

On a nice and sunny day, a bunch of engineer students from The Open University decided that they want to participate in an engineering competition. They had 4-5 alternatives as to which competition they choose. Ultimately they decided to enter the Imeche UAS challenge. The competition is strong, the participants are familiar with it years and years ago. But The Open University has never entered a team before. In the challenge engineer students have to build an unmanned aircraft. Naturally, they have several milestones to hit before the fly-off event.

They need funds and they need to find sponsors. They will also need to outreach and promote STEM. The aircraft has to satisfy an immense amount of requirements. In October 2019 they will register on the event, but they spent the last year working on essential tasks, in order to be able to enter at all. The team has to decide on aircraft design and proceed with planning and drawings. Once the detailed designs are complete, they have to submit a bill of materials and costs and produce final design document.

After the design is complete, they will have to start to assemble parts, complete build and test all systems. A test flight then have to be carried out. By all means, this is a very, very simple description of the task. When the aircraft is complete, they are officially ready for fly-off and to complete the competition.

What’s the fuss about?

All team members are on different level in their engineering journey. Some of them are first-year, some of them second and third. Some of them part-time student, some of them full-time. Due to the nature of The Open University they all lead busy lives, studying whilst being a mother/father, working extreme hours, et cetera. To make it even more challenging, they are all living in different cities of the UK and some of them aren’t in the UK currently.

Other universities have the advantage of having their students on campus, at least roughly within the same location. They also have facilities they can use to build the aircraft, such as workshops, labs and so on. On the other hand, they are familiar with the challenge, as they are regular participants.

Team oUFO took on an immense challenge. They will have to tackle challenges that no other team has to. I have to admit, they are the bravest, and smartest people I know, and wherever they finish in the competition, we will be extremely proud of them. They have received a great deal of support from The Open University as well as from the public. They have already secured a 2/3 of their targeted funding, and it is not even registration time yet.

The team is made up 40% female student, and that is incredible compared to the 12% industry average! What people possibly don’t realize that the team is us. They are from amongst us. Studying, working, taking care of a family/household. But still fighting, and always wanting more. Humanity is developed and improved by people like them, and if all engineers of the future are like them, we stand a very good chance to thrive. They are an inspiration to us all. I have absolute faith in you, and I know, all those late nights, meetings, brainstorming and tiring challenges will pay off.

You are the people the next generation can look up to and you are the people that can lead us to a brighter future. I cannot thank you enough for being able to hear your speech this weekend. It was exciting, motivating, ambitious but humble, and truly outstanding!

Actions speak

Actions speak

Plastic pollution has emerged as an important aspect of today’s environmental issues. It is now a crucial element of the threats our oceans and marine biodiversity facing. I am sure you have heard of the young whale recently washed up in the Philippines, with a staggering 40 kg of plastic in its stomach. According to a report by the United Nations, 8 million metric tonnes of plastic ends up in our oceans annually. It also says, that 500 times more plastic particles are found in the oceans, than stars in our entire galaxy. Shocking!

Why do we use it?

There are properties of plastics that makes it attractive for industries. First of all, a very good reason for its widespread use is its flexibility, and incredible resilience to organic materials and water. The more polymer chains it contains, the more dense it is, therefore it can be used as piping in the water- and gas industry. In addition, it has an impressive strength, but it is still easy to shape and colour if needed.

When I say plastic, you must think of those PET bottles everyone heard of. You might think it further, and picture your shower gel, washing up liquid, or bin bags. However, one cannot simply quantify the number of items that can be produced from some sort of plastic. It is literally everywhere! In your car, in products you buy, in your house, even in the food you eat.

A profound problem with plastic is that very small percentage of it actually floats on the ocean surface. The vast majority sinks to the bottom of the ocean. We are not just talking those PET bottles here, but tiny tiny particles. It contaminates everything that lives in the ocean, including animals, and those plants that provides vital oxygen for you and me.

Make a difference

There is a steady rise in terms of talking about plastic pollution. What we really need is a radical shift in attention. No organisations, foundations or governments can ease this disease so long as the population doesn’t stand behind it.

We live in a world, where things are given to us on a silver platter. We don’t think, we don’t act. Although I cannot blame anyone. We forget that if our generation looks away, there won’t be anything left for our children.

I’ve recently had the luck to work with a brilliant team of scientists, and conservationists. A very great team gathered for the Hamworthy beach and Ham Common clean. We also did a survey for the Marine Conservation Society by digging up a 100 metres long, and 25 metres wide beach area and collected data on various types of litter we found there. It is always heart warming to work with enthusiastic and passionate people who work tirelessly to protect our environment.

The results just came back, and I am genuinely shocked. When we arrived at the beach, I’ve looked around, and I thought we will hardly find anything. It looked so clean. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

A hundred metres beach, 48 kg of plastic

Just because you can’t see it, it doesn’t mean it is not there.

It’s not just our marine biodiversity and oceans that face this threat. It is us, collectively. Almost 250 pieces of plastic pellets, over 500 metal pieces, fishing nets and shopping bags, crisp packets and rubbers, and countless more.

Take action, and get together with your family and friends and participate. Stand up for the environment, and stand up for our future! If you don’t know where to start, join a beach clean with the Marine Conservation Society, and be with us through the Great British Beach Clean!

The Keeling Curve

The Keeling Curve

It is 1957. The Scripps Institution of Oceanography convinced Charles David Keeling to set up a base in Hawaii. The Mauna Loa Observatory presents unbiased data about the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere since 1958.

Why is this so important?

Because the observations maintain the longest, continuous record of this particular data set.  It is far from other sources of air pollution. Furthermore, not influenced by the fossil fuel burning of the cities, as it is on an island, way above (3000 m) sea level. Within only a few years of Keeling setting base it was very clear, that the carbon dioxide levels are rising in the atmosphere. It is of paramount importance that these reading made it possible to compare the results with those recovered from the past.

Scientist are able to capture data from trapped air bubbles in ice cores. Today they can present data 400.000 years back, and that is just incredible! It is clear from the NASA recording, that during ice ages the atmospheric carbon was around 200 ppm (parts per million). During warmer periods it was closer to 300 ppm. After the 1950s we have reached and left behind this 300 ppm, and never looked back.

We are now at levels never seen before in the last half a million year. This is just not something that we can avoid anymore!

Keeling Curve and photosynthesis

An interesting fact about the CO2 levels on an annual basis. Looking at the graph you can see, the concentration drops suddenly from time to time, and then it climbs back up. And why is that? The considerable decrease happened during spring and summer. It is because that is when a chemical reaction called photosynthesis is the most efficient. Throughout photosynthesis plants absorb carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight, and produce glucose and oxygen.

This is one in a million reason why we need to protect biodiversity, and look after our planet. Plants not just absorb and store carbon dioxide, but release essential oxygen.

Although the report never stated what is the reason for the increase, it is not hard to read between the lines. Anthropogenic activities are pushing the limits of the environment, the only question is:

How long we can keep doing it?