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Sustainability & Cardiff University

We impact on this planet in many different ways. Our industries, travel, fuel consumption, diet, all put strain on the Earth’s resources. For that reason, Cardiff University’s Centre for Business Relationships, Accountability, Sustainability and Society is working with national and local governments, companies, professional bodies and other organisations on their economic, social and environmental responsibilities towards a more sustainable world. The University has its own responsibilities locally, and imaginative initiatives are under way to ensure it remains an eco-friendly employer. And below, the story is told of how Cardiff University helped sound the alarm on global warming, and the research now being conducted to stop climate change before it gets too late.

Global Warning

Best-selling novelist Michael Crichton claims in his latest block-buster State of Fear there is no hard scientific evidence that anything is wrong with this planet.

But many others now point to evidence of climate change similar to that which wiped out the villains of another Crichton novel - Jurassic Park.

Paul Pearson, Professor in Paleoclimatology at the School of Earth, Ocean and Planetary Science has studied levels of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) over the millennia and its links to climate and mass extinction.

Single-celled microfossils - image created by Catherine Watling

Image of single-celled microfossils created by Catherine Watling, Artworks Wales artist-in-residence at the School of Earth, Ocean and Planetary Sciences in collaboration with Professor Paul Pearson. Study of these marine creatures can reveal evidence of CO2 levels in the earth's prehistoric past. An exhibition of her work, Minutiae 06 runs at Artworks Wales, Mount Stuart Square, Cardiff until August 4.

Much of the present debate has centred on the next century, with predictions that the planet will warm by anything between 2 and 5 degrees. But Professor Pearson warns that over the next several hundred years, average temperatures could be 10-15 degrees hotter, causing a tropical climate in Britain and devastation around the globe. Such is the long-term prognosis unless a great effort is made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stabilize the atmospheric composition.

His work has involved studying the remains of microscopic marine life and their response to climate change. Rising CO2 levels contribute to the acidification of the seas and the collapse of entire eco-systems. Such sudden switches have occurred periodically throughout the earth’s history and could happen again.

Professor Pearson has established that CO2 levels are now at their highest since 20million years ago. The last time that fully greenhouse conditions existed on Earth was 55 million years ago — when turtles roamed the North Pole and mangoes grew in Southern England. His findings have been included in the most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This is a summary of all the major scientific findings in the field, prepared by the UN and sent to policy-makers around the world.

Professor Pearson said: "The CO2 level, which has been unusually stable since the last ice age, is now rocketing up. What we are seeing is consistent with what we would expect at the start of major climate change. The people working in this field are incredibly concerned - I don’t think the seriousness of this problem has been overhyped at all."

His colleague at the School, Professor Charles Harris, agrees. He has been analysing temperatures measured in boreholes 100 metres deep into the permafrost in Norway, Sweden, and the Swiss and Italian Alps. These holes were first drilled around the turn of century and every case they show that the ground is warming.

Drilling the Janssonhaugen borehole

Drilling the Janssonhaugen borehole in Svalbard archipelago to monitor permafrost

The data from the borehole in Spitsbergen show warming at a rate of some 0.6 degrees Celsius a decade. This has enormous implications for the infrastructure in this area of continuous permafrost. As the permafrost softens and melts, roads, houses and airports could find themselves built on shifting foundations.

The consequences in the Alps could be even more extreme. Professor Harris pointed out that global warming will be associated with more frequent extreme summers such as that of 2003 — the warmest on record in the Alps. The depth of summer thawing of frozen ground in 2003 doubled or trebled, increasing the threat from rock falls and landslides. In July 2003 — the warmest summer on record in the Alps — around 50 climbers were left isolated by a major rock fall on the Matterhorn.

Professor Harris’ work is being taken seriously. The Scandinavian authorities are designing buildings to take account of the shifting ground beneath them. The Swiss are identifying Alpine areas which are likely to degrade. The School at Cardiff is helping by modelling slopes and subjecting them to the forecast stresses in the School of Engineering’s Geotechnical Centrifuge Laboratory.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has funded Cardiff to apply these techniques to possible landslide sites in South Wales.

Professor Harris said: "As climate change impacts, we will see more extreme events. Coalfield landslides become more likely as we get more heavy rainstorms and wet winters. If we can monitor the coalfields remotely, that will give us some warning of instability."

Demand for Cardiff University’s expertise has grown as politicians come to terms with the scale of the problem. The School of Architecture’s Centre for Research in the Built Environment  (CRiBE)  has been advising on sustainable building projects around the world for more than two decades. The Centre for Business Relationships Accountability Sustainability Society (BRASS), set up by the Schools of Business, Law and City and Regional Planning, advises on sustainability in its widest form, taking in social, economic as well as environmental dimensions.

Professor Terry Marsden and Dr Andrew Flynn of the School of City and Regional Planning completed a report for the Sustainable Development Commission on the Welsh Assembly Government’s progress on sustainability. The report commends many aspects of the WAG’s Sustainable Development Action Plan, including a move to renewable energy in public buildings and encouraging alternative fuels across Wales.

The report highlights the need for more research into the sharing of best practice across the UK. The team also calls on for greater ambition in Wales in dealing with climate change, renewables and energy efficiency measures, involving the private business sector, and in developing a Welsh eco-economy.

Drilling boreholes in the Arctic permafrost

Boreholes like these provide vital evidence of the impact of global warming on the Arctic permafrost

The School of Engineering is providing expertise internationally in a number of areas of energy technology. Projects in the field of power generation include leading a team of European partners enabling co-firing of plants with bio-fuels, developing an efficient natural gas engine for trucks with a Dutch partner and assessing the replacement of ozone-depleting chemicals with water in explosion protection devices on oil and gas drilling rigs.

Other international areas of research include electrical power distribution and storage, energy waste management, and new materials for energy generation. In this last field, Professor Mike Rowe has built up an international reputation which saw his work showcased at the 1997 UN climate change summit at Kyoto.

Professor Rowe’s interest in thermocouples began 40 years ago, at a time when the environment and sustainable energy barely registered as political issues. A thermocouple is a junction of two different conductors which produces current when heated. Alloys developed by Professor Rowe for his PhD are now outside the solar system, having powered the Voyager spacecraft.

In the late 1970s Professor Rowe started talking to the Japanese about converting industrial waste heat into power as a means of tackling global warming. This led to a grant of around £2m — at the time the largest in Cardiff’s history - to create a 1.5 kiloWatt system, powered by water at less than 100 degrees. The device he came up with was shipped to Kyoto, where it stood in the foyer of the climate change summit. He also memorably demonstrated the device on GMTV, taking a bath and using the waste warm water to power a television.

The Japanese have embraced the system, with industrial-government partnerships installing the device to recover heat energy from chimney stacks. Meanwhile Professor Rowe is also talking to the US Department of Energy, BMW and General Motors about the use of thermocouples in cars. This could reduce petrol consumption by 5%, make the alternator redundant and reduce emissions.

The efficiency of thermocouple materials has remained almost static for about 40 years. Now the Americans have come up with very thin nanotechnology materials about three times as good. Professor Rowe and a European consortium are now trying to replicate those results in thicker bulk materials.

He said: "If we can crack this and make chunks of material, it will have tremendous implications both for the developed and underdeveloped world. Wherever there is heat or cold you can have electricity - you can power a car using a nuclear pellet as a heat source."

Many of these strands have been brought together through Engineering teaming up with Architecture and Earth and Ocean Sciences to create an MSc in Sustainable Energy and Environment. The finest young scientific and engineering minds will be trained to think across traditional discipline boundaries about cleaner transport systems, sustainable buildings, ‘smart’ electricity distribution systems, ‘clean’ coal technology and the potential of wind, biomass and the oceans as energy sources.

Professor Phil Bowen, Chair in Energy Systems at the School of Engineering, said: "It is clear that a cross-disciplinary international approach is needed to develop long-term solutions to these problems, and we know there is a shortage of professionals looming in several areas of this vital field. The MSc is designed to help create a new generation of energy specialists who can contribute towards addressing these very challenging problems."


Find out more about sustainability at Cardiff University here: