Cabot Institute blog

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Monday, 19 August 2013

Geothermal workshop: accelerating the impact of research and development in East Africa

Geothermal power is a carbon free, sustainable and renewable energy source.
Throughout the East African Rift, the prospect of harnessing geothermal energy is huge, with the potential to provide 15,000 megawatts of power - larger than the present-day global geothermal production.

Olkaria Geothermal Power Plant, Kenya.  Image by Elspeth Robertson
This week, the University of Bristol, NERC and the Cabot Institute are hosting a two-day workshop that aims to strengthen the links between researchers and the geothermal industry.

UK universities have a long history of research into the volcanic and tectonic processes occurring in the East African Rift. The data being collected could help industry improve geothermal production and reduce the uncertainty and risk associated with geothermal development by understanding the interactions between magmatic and geothermal processes.

Setting up a GPS site at Corbetti volcano, Ethiopia in November 2012. Corbetti is a potential site for future geothermal power production. Image by Elspeth Robertson
Through talks and discussion groups, the workshop will address themes of ‘Improving Productivity’ and ‘Reducing Risk’ in geothermal research and development.  The workshop will wrap up with a detailed analysis of best practice and future actions in order to accelerate the relationship between academia and industry.

Travelling to attend this workshop are participants from the Universities of Addis Ababa, Nairobi, Edinburgh, Oxford and Bristol. Industry representatives come from the rich geothermal regions of Iceland, Ethiopia, Kenya and Cornwall with colleagues from Schlumberger and the British Geological Survey also in attendance.

Geothermal activity may be subsurface phenomena, but the impact of deep heat sources can be felt on the Earth’s surface, particularly where faults and fissures draw up geothermally heated water to form hot springs. To explore natural geothermal processes in action, workshop participants will visit England’s most famous springs in the Bristol-Bath area with a tour of the historical Roman Baths on Tuesday. The workshop rounds off on Wednesday with a day trip to Kilve in Somerset to investigate fractured reservoir rocks that are now exposed on land.


Keep an eye out for posts in the following weeks exploring the key themes discussed during the workshop. You can follow tweets during workshop using #CabotGeothermal  

This blog has been written by Elspeth Robertson, Earth Sciences, University of Bristol
Elspeth Robertson

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Tales from the field: reconstructing past warm climates

The warmest period of the past 65 million years was the early Eocene epoch (55 to 48 million years ago). During this period, the equator-to-pole temperature gradient was reduced and atmospheric carbon dioxide (pCO2) was in excess of 1000ppm. The early Eocene has received considerable interest because it may provide insight into the response of Earth’s climate and biosphere to the high atmospheric carbon dioxide levels that are expected in the near future as a consequence of unabated anthropogenic carbon emissions (IPCC AR4). However, climatic conditions of the early Eocene ‘greenhouse world’, are poorly constrained, particularly in mid-to-low latitude terrestrial environments (Huber and Caballero, 2011).

I recently spent a week in eastern Germany (Schoeningen, Lower Saxony) sampling an early Eocene lignite seam (Fig. 1). Lignite is a type of soft brown coal that is an excellent terrestrial climate archive. Using palynology, organic geochemistry, coal petrography and climate models, we will try to reconstruct the terrestrial environment of the early Eocene and provide insights into future climate change. 

Fig. 1. A view of the mine with Dr. Volker Wilde on the far right for scale.

During this trip, we were sampling at the base of the mine beside a very large and very dusty bucket-wheel excavator (Fig. 2). A bucket-wheel excavator is a continuous digging machine over 200m long and dwarfs the large NASA Crawler that transports space shuttles to launch pads. Once the lignite is removed, it is placed upon a conveyor belt and transported immediately to a nearby power station. Unfortunately, the Schoeningen lignite will not last forever and the town will have to consider other energy sources (e.g. wind).

Fig. 2. A bucket-wheel excavator at Schoeningen mine.

Our sampling technique was less impressive yet equally effective. All we required were hammers, chisels and pick-axes (Fig. 3.). After a long day of sampling, we were taken to a very special outcrop at the top of the mine. The exposure contained well-reserved palm tree stumps from the early Eocene and provide evidence for white beaches, tropical plants and endless sunshine on the German coastline. An ideal holiday destination!

Fig. 3. Dr. Marcus Badger sampling Main Seam in high resolution.

Following fieldwork we were taken to the new Schoeningen museum containing, amongst other artefacts, the Schoeningen Spears (Fig. 4). The Schoeningen spears are 300,000 years old and are the oldest human weapons in existence. The spears were found with approximately 16,000 animal bones, amongst them 90% were horse bones, followed by red deer and bison. It has been proposed that these spears were the earliest projectile weapons and were used for 'big game hunts'. Although this theory has been questioned, it remains one of the worlds most exciting archaeological finds.

Fig.4. The Schoeningen spears. Most were preserved fully intact.

Now we are back in Bristol its time to start processing our samples so we can understand what the early Eocene terrestrial climate was like. Watch this space!

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The trip was in collaboration with members of Bristol (UK), Royal Holloway (UK), Gottingen (Germany) and Senckenberg (Germay).

This blog was written by Gordon Inglis (http://climategordon.wordpress.com).

Monday, 5 August 2013

A new green revolution for agri-tech?

Prof Sir John Beddington,
Cabot Institute External Advisory Board Chair
“A world food crisis can be expected in the coming decades as our demand for food outstrips our ability to produce it.”  This was the ominous forecast in 2008 by Sir John Beddington, then chief science adviser to the UK government, and now Chair of the Cabot Institute External Advisory Board. In a bid to avoid such a catastrophe, the UK Government has introduced its new Agricultural Technologies Strategy, which it hopes will put Great Britain at the centre of a new ‘green revolution’. Recent advances in technology such as the growing field of genomics present scientists with novel opportunities for innovation in crops and farming. Cabot Institute member, Prof. Keith Edwards at the University of Bristol researches how the genomes of different kinds of wheat diverge in the hope of finding out what makes some more productive than others. These new scientific developments and emerging challenges like climate change present opportunities for innovation in agriculture. As growing conditions across the world begin to change, previously elite varieties of crops may no longer be suitable for the areas where they have historically been grown.

Prof Jane Memmott, University of Bristol
Although UK agricultural scientists are at the forefront of some of the most important advances in understanding this doesn’t necessarily lead to practical advances in the field. Gaps in worker skills and understanding may be preventing farming progress and reducing associated benefits for society. The UK Agri-Tech Strategy hopes to address this by putting a greater emphasis on the role of scientific research in providing enough nutritious food for everybody. At the same time scientists hope to minimise the detrimental effects of agriculture on natural resources and biodiversity. Bristol academic Prof. Jane Memmott studies the effects of conventional and organic farming on other species in the area like the local insects.

The Agri-Tech industry is currently worth just under £100 billion to the UK economy. Last year, we exported £18 billion of food, animal feed and drink, including £3.7 billion of fresh produce and 15 million tonnes of wheat, making us one of the top 12 food and drink exporters in the world. This came with a price tag of around £450 million spent by the government on research and development in agriculture last year. In addition at least a further £100 million was spent by private companies like Syngenta, who opened a state of the art wheat-breeding facility in January of this year.  The government hopes to see the UK become a world leader not just in food production but in agricultural technology, innovation and sustainability.

The new Agri-Tech strategy aims to vitalise the farming industry with a cash injection of £160 million. This money will go towards improving the application of research into real gains in farming, and at enhancing the declining infrastructure that supports the livestock industry. For instance, the number of dairy farms in the UK has halved over the last decade. The research funding pot includes £70 million to establish a partnership between the Technology Strategy Board and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. The new Agri-Tech Catalyst organisation will be aimed at translating research into best practice by supporting firms bringing their new technology to market. This builds on the €2.8 billion commitment made by the European Commission in 2011 to establish a Knowledge Innovation Community (KIC) to drive innovation of technology in agriculture and food processing.

The other main investment is £90 million over the next five years that has been ear-marked as funding for several regional Centres for Agricultural Innovation, aimed at bringing cutting edge science like better pesticides and climate adapted crops into the fields.  It is hoped that these Centres will lead research into the development and exploitation of new technology and processes, focussing research on sustainable intensification. They will also contribute to educating and training a skilled workforce to bring the results of research into the field.

Not everybody’s reaction to the new plans has been completely positive. Tom MacMillan of the (organic food and farming) Soil Associationhttp://www.soilassociation.org/news/newsstory/articleid/5647/press-comment-governments-new-agri-tech-strategy worried that investment would concentrate on unpopular technologies such as GM farming. Other areas of research such as agroecology (the ecological study of food systems) that do not lead to technology that can be commercialised may lose out on funding.  However many groups such as the  British Growers Association, the Society of Biology and the UK Plant Sciences Federation have come out in whole-hearted support of the new plans.

This blog has been written by Boo Lewis, Biological Sciences, University of Bristol.
Boo Lewis, Cabot Institute blogger