Economic, International, Environmental, Life as it is, Advanced science

Blue energy: Can it power a sustainable future?

Statkraft osmotic power prototype is the world’s first osmotic power plant

Ever since global warming became a hot button issue, our leaders have told us umpteen times that “climate change is the greatest environmental threat and the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced.” Yet, they are not “bold enough to do enough” to pull us out of the climate change conundrum soon enough.

In the meantime, impacts of climate change are being felt in communities across the world. Average global temperatures have risen every decade since the 1970s, and the 10 warmest years on record have all occurred since 1997. If the trend continues unchecked, very soon we will be living on a planet with unbearable heat, unbreathable air, inundated coastal areas, widespread drought and wilder weather. Indeed, an Australian think tank warns that climate change could bring about the end of civilisation, as we know it, within three decades.

So, what should we do to tackle the disastrous effects of climate change? Since human activity is responsible for climate change, human activity can also mitigate it. To that end, we have to force our national governments to stop using the suicidal fossil fuels without any further delay. In other words, we need a carbon negative economy, or at the least, a zero-carbon economy.

We already have the potential to produce everything we need with no or very little greenhouse gas emissions. It is “green” energy solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal, nuclear that provides an alternative, sustainable and cleaner source of energy. Promising new green technologies, such as tidal, wave and ocean’s thermal energy, are also on the horizon.

There is a third type of energy many of us are not familiar with—another alternative, sustainable source of energy that could be the next frontier in clean-energy technology. It is energy released during controlled mixing of a stream of saltwater and a stream of less saline water and can, therefore, be found in abundance anywhere a river meets the sea. Since energy at the river-sea nexus is produced in naturally occurring waterbodies, which are blue, it is called “blue” energy.

Blue energy exploits the phenomenon of osmosis, which is the spontaneous movement of molecules of a solvent through a semi-permeable membrane from the side of lower concentration into the side of higher concentration until the concentration becomes equal on both sides. In the process, energy is released which could be used to generate electricity. That is why it is also called “osmotic power,” or “salinity gradient power”.

The energy output would depend on the salinity and temperature difference between the river and seawater and properties of the specific membrane. The greater the salinity difference, more energy would be produced. In fact, based on average ocean salinity and global river discharges, it has been estimated that if blue energy plants were to be built at all river estuaries, they could produce about 1,370 terawatts of power each year, according to the Norway Center for Renewable Energy (a tera is a trillion.)

The concept of blue energy is not new. It was first proposed in 1954 by a British engineer named RE Pattle, although it was not possible to implement his idea for power generation until the 1970s, when a practical method of harnessing it was outlined.

The first osmotic power plant was built in 2009 in Tofte, Norway. It produced only four kilowatts of power, which was not enough to offset the cost of construction, operation and maintenance. Consequently, it was shut down in 2013.

Since then, improved technologies to tap blue energy have been developed at various laboratories, primarily in the Netherlands and Norway. Using these technologies and the difference in salt concentration in the surface water on each side of the Afsluitdijk dam, the Dutch built a power plant in 2014 generating enough electricity to meet the energy requirements of about 500,000 homes.

Blue energy is not limited to mixing of river and seawater because osmosis works with any concentration difference of dissolved substances. It may thus be possible to generate electricity from dissolved carbon dioxide, which could be captured from fossil-fuel power plants. Researchers believe that worldwide, the flue gases of fossil fuel power plants contain enough carbon dioxide to make around 850 terawatts of blue power. Hard to believe that the villain of climate change could be part of the solution after all.

In a paper published in July 2019 in ACS Omega, one of the journals of the American Chemical Society, researchers of Stanford University claim to have made a battery that runs on electricity generated by harvesting blue energy from wastewater effluent from the Palo Alto Regional Water Quality Control Plant and seawater collected from Half Moon Bay. Their work clearly demonstrates that blue energy could make coastal wastewater treatment plants energy-independent and carbon neutral.

An advantage of blue energy technology is that it does not depend on external factors like wind or sun. Another advantage is that a commercial plant would be modest in size, but still produce a significant amount of energy. Moreover, compared with, for instance, wind and solar energy, implementing a blue energy power plant would have a smaller impact on landscape, and it requires less land usage. Besides, once fully developed and deployed, the technology would be able to generate energy continuously and would not emit greenhouse gases. Hence, it would ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and clean energy for all.

There are some drawbacks of blue energy though. Power plants exploiting blue energy may have an effect on the marine life, hydrological systems and water management rules of the region. The main drawback, however, is the cost. Compared to a conventional power plant using fossil fuels, the cost of construction of a blue energy power plant would be several times higher because artificial membrane is very difficult and expensive to make. Nevertheless, once built, the expectation is that blue energy would succeed in generating power at a much cheaper rate than solar and wind.

Finally, blue energy is potentially one of the best sustainable energy resources we have at our disposal. The raw material is free and inexhaustible. “Blue” could be the “green” of the future. And the blue-green combination can match the urgency of the climate change crisis.

Quamrul Haider is a professor of physics at Fordham University, New York.

Cultural, International, Life as it is, Political

The State of World Politics

The world is awash with populist propaganda now. The populist politics gained ground steadily almost all over the world, particularly in America and some of the western European countries. Its phenomenal circulation, comparable only to the greenback, is unprecedented in modern era and is giving many political analysts extreme headache.  It’s hard to find an easy answer to this recent phenomenon. 

The present predicament is a culmination of two conflicting streaks of events. Failure of progressives to efficiently anchor the national economies worldwide and the disenchantment of the grassroots in their economic policies are perhaps responsible in a large measure. In addition, many progressives around the world chose to follow a mid-path that was neither progressive nor conservative. They appear rather meek in manifesting their policy preferences to grassroots. It at times puts in doubt their firm commitment to the progressive policy agenda they are pledge-bound to pursue. This ambiguity of the progressives didn’t go well with the middle and the working-class population.

Contrasting this, the populists took advantages of dithering and inconsistent narratives of the progressives. They grabbed the opportunity to fill the vacuum by floating populist political agendas. No doubt, some of their economic policies were successful in fostering short-term economic growth. Though their long-term impact on the economy is questionable, it further strengthened the populist’ foothold in global political scene. Many of their policies stem from the raw sentiments of a large swath of not-so-politically erudite people mostly living in rural areas. They apparently are frustrated with the performance of the progressive forces and their policies. Many are deeply concerned about the economic, racial and security problems indiscriminate influx of illegal immigration is causing. They are fearful about losing their cultural heritage since most of these immigrants belong to races other than theirs. Fear of terrorism and expansion of Islam in certain territories further amplified their worries.

In contrast to the progressives, the populists appear smart and well prepared in their discourse on various policy issues of national interest. They are rarely found hesitant in propagating their views boldly no matter how substantive or rational they are in the prevailing social or economic context. They care little about whether their radically transformed policies fit in with the prevailing world order. The populists are rather hell-bound to change the world order to fit their policy stance.

Though many of the populist politicians lack political mettle, they were smart enough to read the sentiments of the people correctly. They made it a point to reflect the overwhelming people sentiments in their political agenda.  Not only they religiously captured the popular sentiments in their agenda but also validated them in a way that surpassed their constituents’ expectation. Many of these provisions though are merely a travesty of the truth. Knowingly or unknowingly, the populists ignored the long-term social and economic consequences of these policies at the national and international level.

The whole world is watching this recent phenomenon with bated breath.  People haven’t lost sight of the catastrophes brought about in the past by unbridled proliferation of populist politics. The two world wars are stark reminders of it. There is though not much reason to feel alarmed as yet. It, however, has the potency to engender devastating consequences in the long run if allowed to continue unabated. To nip in the bud such consequences, progressive forces worldwide should double up their efforts in organizing the saner segment of the population and use their energy effectively in containing the arbitrary popular sentiments and their exploitation by sly politicians.

ASM Jahangir is a semi-retired international development practitioner in Texas, USA. 

Cultural, Environmental, Life as it is, Travel

Autumnal Colours in America

In America’s Northeast covering New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and so forth the dramatic explosion of colour during autumn season starts typically in late September. It peaks in mid-October when leaves on the trees are emblazoned in gorgeous shades of red, orange, yellow and gold. After that, a gradual decline would ensue as the locust and maple leaves fall to the ground first, followed by the golden brown oak hanging on until late November, while the beech trees might let their leaves go sometimes in the middle of winter.

This year, all the precursor conditions—chilly nights and sunny, warm days—were in place for a fabulous fall foliage season. The display of bold colours confirmed that fall has finally taken over from the dog days of summer. But the days are also growing shorter which means the frosty days and nights of winter are around the corner. So, at this time every year, we throw the thought of winter out of our mind and venture into the wilderness to look at the transformation of the leaves. It gives us the feeling of “walking into fire without the heat.”

Some of the best places to see fall foliage are right in our backyard—the Catskills, Adirondacks and Bear Mountain, all within a short driving distance from our home in the lower Hudson Valley.  In the Northeast, New England reigns supreme for fall foliage viewing. Though the entire region is renowned for its vivid display of eye-catching colours, there is perhaps no other place more picturesque than the White Mountains in New Hampshire. Hence, it is one of our favourite places to gawk at the many trees—maple, beech, birch, elm and hemlock—burst into brilliant colours.

The nearest place where we can watch the fall fiesta is the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. One of the greatest attractions in the Catskill is the Hunter Mountain, where leaves change into a multicolour canopy in mid-October. For a glimpse of the delicate brushstrokes of Mother Nature on a larger landscape below and around us, we took the scenic skyride to the 3,200-feet summit of the mountain. The colours on the nearby Kaaterskill Mountain, as seen from the Hunter Mountain, were simply awesome. The mountain also offered incredible 360-degree views that reach out to and beyond the Catskill Mountains.

Few places in New York rival the Adirondacks for viewing fall foliage. The Adirondacks offer a different sort of autumnal splendour—lakes, mountains and forests combine to create a canvas upon which nature paints her annual pièce de résistance.  During our visit to Lake Placid, Adirondack was an unbelievable kaleidoscope of colours. The roads through the mountains of Adirondacks also afforded us one of the finest views of fall season’s palette—a photomontage of colors one finds in rainbows. The banks of the Ausable River were decked out in shades of crimson, orange and yellow.

While driving along the 35-mile stretch of the scenic Kancamagus Highway that cuts through the White Mountains of New Hampshire, we were treated to sceneries of majestic alpine mountains, quaint covered bridges, crashing waterfalls and colourful foliage. The splendid transition of colours throughout the mountains created a wonderful morphing beauty that accentuated our experience of viewing fall foliage.

As they say, “Fall is our jam here in the Northeast—when the colours switch from green to vibrant oranges, reds, yellows and gold.” For us, it is the time of the year to relax and enjoy the ravishing display of nature’s seasonal gift—the gallery of flaming colours, the “year’s last, loveliest smile” before the trees retire for the long winter slumber.

Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

Environmental, Life as it is, Travel

Vacation in Alaska seeing Denali Mountains

Aerial view of Denali Mountains

Alaska may not fit the bill for what most people envision as a vacation, but it has been on my family’s bucket list for a long time. Our 10-day trip started on July 1, 2019 in Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska. We—my wife, myself, son and daughter—visited three national parks: Denali Wilderness in central Alaska, Tidewater Glaciers on the Prince William Sound and Kenai Fjords on the Resurrection Bay near Seward. Tidewater glaciers are valley glaciers that flow far enough to reach out and calve into the sea.

A trip to Alaska is not complete without seeing Mount Denali (formerly Mount McKinley), which is located in the south-central part of the Alaska Mountain Range. Denali is the Native American Athabascan word meaning “The High One,” and with good reason. From afar, it is massive; up close, the sheer granite walls, alpine glaciers and pillowing snow cornices are otherworldly.

Mount Denali is the third highest of the Seven Summits—the highest mountains on each of the seven continents—following Mount Everest in Nepal and Mount Aconcagua in Argentina. At 20,320 feet, it is North America’s tallest peak, rightly celebrated as an icon of all that is awesome and wild in a state where those adjectives are ubiquitous.

There is a fact about Denali unknown to many of us. By one measure, it could be considered the third tallest mountain in the world. It rises about 18,000 feet from its base, which is a greater vertical rise than Mount Everest’s 12,000-feet rise from its base at 17,000 feet.

Seeing Denali from a distance can be difficult. As it is frequently draped in clouds, one can see only a small portion of the mountain beyond its base. Some days the mountain is obscured completely from ground level. Still, with clouds, storms, fog and sunny high-pressure systems all battling it out around Denali, the peak can appear at any moment. On the day of our visit―July 3, 2019―we lucked out. It was a sunny, calm, cloudless, postcard-perfect afternoon and we could see Denali from a distant vista point on the highway from Anchorage to Talkeetna.

The magnetic appeal of Denali draws climbers from all over the world. They flock to this mountain to struggle for the summit. Wasfia Nazreen, who conquered Mount Everest as the second Bangladeshi female mountaineer, reached the summit of Mount Denali on June 24, 2014. Dogsledders traverse Denali’s lower reaches.

For tourists like us who are not into mountain climbing, flight seeing planes from Talkeetna carry us up the glacier-choked valleys to view parts of Denali hidden from distant eyes. Paradoxically, Talkeetna is a totally flat town 60 miles away from the base of the mountain.

We took a 90-minute flight seeing tour on a ski-equipped de Havilland Beaver. There were six other tourists and everyone had a window seat. A few minutes after takeoff, apprehension of flying in a single engine propeller-driven aircraft gave way to wonder as we entered a world of rugged, high mountain peaks and spectacular glacier-filled valleys. The wind was calm but the clouds conspired with each other and surrounded the Denali peak, with layers floating between the uplifted knives of snow-capped stone.

Clouds may have prevented a flight over the Denali peak. However, as the plane flew at an optimal altitude of 15,000 feet and since we approached from the southeast, then maneuvered toward the south rim, we enjoyed panoramic views of all sides of Denali and had the best perspective of the sheer size of the mountains of the Denali Massif.

The surrounding mountains were shrouded in black stone and white snow with shocking patches of turquoise blue where the snow had melted enough to create little dish lakes. The pilot flew the plane over those mountains, around them, up to their edge so everyone could see them. We got up close to their snowfields, alpine glaciers, deep crevasses and sheer granite walls. At times—especially when the plane banked sharply left or right to provide better perspective for every passenger, it seemed the snow and ice were almost at our fingertips. When we saw the glaciers beneath the towering mountain peaks, we could understand why these immense ice fields attract people from all over the world.

The high point of the flight was landing on a glacier. Because of clear weather and calm wind, our plane landed on the Ruth Glacier, located at 5,600 feet in the Sheldon Amphitheater. From there, we had breathtaking views of mountains and glaciers all around. The experience of walking on a glacier was out of this world. After 30 minutes of walking through Denali’s icy alpine world, our plane took off for Talkeetna, but via a different route.

As one would expect, the vastness of such an experience could never be captured in a photograph, but we certainly tried. It is the memories that are so vivid and intense, as if the trip happened yesterday. Nonetheless, while going through the mountains, we photographed jaw-dropping scenery, including some glacial landforms we had seen only in textbooks.

Quamrul Haider is a professor of physics at Fordham University, New York.

Cultural, Environmental, Games and Sports, International, Life as it is, Travel

Gulf of Mexico – a haven of tranquility

Planning to have a cruise in the Gulf of Mexico in September/October time, invariably the hurricane season in that part of the world, is a risky undertaking. This is because the Gulf Stream – the warm ocean current – which originates on the northern edges of the equator moves through the Caribbean Sea and then forks off to the Gulf of Mexico and the other part to the Atlantic Ocean and when the stream meets northern cold stream, it creates a vortex of hot and humid air in the atmosphere and hence cyclone. Only a couple of months ago, hurricane Dorian utterly devasted the Bahamas. But that did not deter us, as we applied our statistical insight that lightening is unlikely to strike twice at the same place!

We set off from Galveston, a dedicated port some 30 km south of Houston, Texas in a Royal Caribbean cruise ship named Liberty of the Seas on Sunday. Our cruise ship was, what is known as super-cruise ship – nearly 340 meter-long, had five dining facilities, numerous restaurants and shops, a large auditorium, a running track, three swimming pools and many more facilities in 15 decks carrying nearly 3800 guests and over 1,200 staff. It took the whole morning for the guests to board on the ship and at 16:00 we set sail.  

There was no fanfare, no gunfire; the massive ship just quietly and smoothly slipped away from the port. As we were chatting and admiring our staterooms, I noticed that the building on the shore are gradually going further and further away and then started to disappear completely. Getting to know the various facilities, particularly the dining facilities – which one is for breakfast, which one for supper etc – is quite an adventure. On top of that, my friends had to learn the naval terms like port side (left) and starboard side (right) as well as aft (back) and forward (front). I had a head start on my friends as I was a Civil Servant at the Royal Navy for a number of years.

We kept cruising along the western part of Gulf of Mexico for nearly 40 hours until 07:00 on Tuesday morning, when the ship docked at the international pier at Cozumel, Mexico’s largest island off the eastern coast of Yucatan Peninsula. As the ship was scheduled to stay there until 16:30 in the afternoon, we were given a number of options for shore excursions. The one I chose was a trip to see Mayan Ruins in Yucatan Peninsula, which entailed a ferry trip of 12 miles to Tulum from the ship. We had to come back by 16:30 when the ship will sail again.

Mayan civilisation is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, civilisations in the chronicle of civilisations of the world. It flourished nearly 2000 BC in the central American area covering Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Columbia and Venezuela regions. Mayan progressed from pure agricultural living to sophisticated communal living in towns and cities. Around 600 BC they developed logo-syllabic writing script, astronomy, sculpture, art and mathematics. In the western world, they were the first to have developed the concept of zero (rivalling India). Their counting system was based on fours, not tens (Modern day computing algorithm is based on binary system). However, there is an enigma about Mayan civilisation – the early Mayan civilisation which lasted over two thousand years and then it disappeared – cities they developed had been abandoned, agriculture vanished etc.

And then from 250 AD to 900 AD, the civilisation surfaced again. After 900 AD it just collapsed. Subsequently, the Mayan people had been literally massacred and annihilated by the invading Spaniards in the 16th century.

Tuesday night was the Captain’s night. Although Captain could not be present in all three dining facilities that normally takes place simultaneously, his representatives were present in all dining facilities. But, more importantly, after dinner, at about 21:30 there was convivial music and dance, performed by the catering staff and any guest who felt brave enough could join in.

At 16:30 the ship sailed again from Cozumel heading eastward and reached Grand Cayman and docked at George Town the following morning (Wednesday) at 10:00. We hired a minibus to take us to the tourist spots. Although Caribbean islands won independence in the 1970s from Britain, British influence was very much in evidence – they drive on the left side of the road. We saw the Governor’s house (probably unoccupied), reminiscent of the Governor’s house in the then East Pakistan. The highlight of this visit was a trip to a village called Hell. People are welcome to Hell. If our so-called religious hell is anything like this Hell, people would be grateful to be allocated to this place by our non-existent creator!

At 18:00 we left George Town and set sail for Jamaica and docked at Falmouth, which is on the northern side of the island, at 08:00 on Thursday. Jamaica may be renowned for sprinters (Usain Bolt, the fastest man on earth), fastest cricket bowler, best basket-ball players etc, what we saw in Falmouth the artistic side of Jamaica. The whole precinct was full of artists painting, wood carving, engraving etc and there were Art Galleries, Florists etc. We had the whole day to soak up the Jamaica life in general. There were no restaurants or cafes for the obvious reason that people can pop in to the ship and have gorgeous meal at no cost and come back again to the precinct. However, coconuts and some mangoes (not very sweet) are too good to miss.

At 17:00 we got into our boat for the last leg of our journey back to Galveston. But then we had nearly 40 hours of uninterrupted cruise through the eastern side of the Gulf of Mexico. This was the opportunity to lazy around, indulge in excessive eating and breathing the freshest air one can get. The catering staff were always too keen to please us.

Altogether, Gulf of Mexico cruise was very relaxing and enjoyable. Cruising is becoming a choice holiday event for the public these days away from the hustle and bustle of big cities and towns. On top of that, because of tough competition, cruise standards are improving and prices are very competitive.       

– Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist