Energy

Who among us with even a wisp of steampunk in our soul does not love the idea of an airship renaissance? Airships are beautiful and majestic, and modern hybrid airship designs are extraordinarily capable. They far transcend inappropriate fears of Hindenberg-like disaster. No wonder some enthusiasts foresee a coming day when airships will again fly in great numbers as replacements for some fixed-wing aircraft, as new vehicles for air cargo transport, and as floating luxury liners.

Unfortunately, for reasons I explored in a series of posts back in 2011, I’m skeptical of this glorious airship resurgence. Hybrid airships work but to triumph on those terms, they need to make practical, economic sense and be better than the transportation alternatives. I’m not convinced that’s true for most of the listed applications. (The important exception is for luxury cruising: any business that’s built on rich people’s willingness to pay top dollar for great experiences can defy some of the usual constraints.)

Start with my Txchnologist story “Lead Zeppelin: Can Airships Overcome Past Disasters and Rise Again?“, then continue with my Gleaming Retort posts “Does Global Warming Help the Case for Airships?” and “Zeppelin Disappointments, Airship Woes.”

The tangled knot of politics, culture, and perceptions of the science behind climate change has been the topic of a series of my recent posts at The Gleaming Retort. A thoughtful but in my opinion wrong post by one of my fellow PLOS BLOGgers pushed me over into writing something I’d been thinking about for some time, and the result was “The inevitable politics of climate change (part 1)” and “The inevitable politics of climate change (part 2),” in which I tried to make the case that however much some scientists might like to try to stay out of the ugly politics around this issue when discussion climate science, there was no hope of doing so and little point in trying.

A misstatement in the first of those pieces then led me to set the record straight in a followup post, “A correction on Lomborg and Schneider’s quotation,” in which I noted that Bjorn Lomborg didn’t… you know, maybe you should just read it.

Commentary on those stories then led me to summarize several other things that have been on my mind in “The cultural challenge to climate science writing,” which concerns the powerful filter that our cultural loyalties exerts on our understanding of this subject, and the unsatisfying choices involved in trying to overcome them.

Read them for more.

Everyone who has thought about industrially driven climate change has at some point, however briefly, wondered why we can’t solve the problem by pulling the unwanted carbon dioxide back out of the air. Surely, if burning fossil fuels can blast so much extra carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, some other act of chemistry on an equally gargantuan scale ought to be able to recapture the gas.

That’s the possibility I explore in a pair of columns for SmartPlanet. “Why not scrub CO2 from the sky?” reviews several ideas for using innovative materials to recapture carbon dioxide released by industrial processes and then safely cache it where it can’t contribute to climate change—in theory. “Throwing rocks at CO2” looks at the related concept of using naturally occurring minerals to accelerate the removal of CO2 from the air.

Methane hydrates, the astonishing “ice that burns,” seem to represent a hugely abundant energy source that could help power the global economy as it shifts away from dirtier coal and oil. They could make some countries energy independent, and might even be able to help counter global warming. That is, the hydrates could become all of those things if engineers and scientists can develop a cost-competitive way to use them.

Read more about it in my story for Txchnologist, “The Ice That Burns: Are Methane Hydrates the Next Big Resource?