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On track for reduced noise pollution and railway safety amplifiers

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BY SARAH WILD

With more people getting on track for sustainable high-speed rail, reducing noise pollution and sophisticated traffic management will boost adoption.

The whistle coming down the tracks is the sound of Europe’s rail renaissance. Coming round the bend is increased adoption of high-speed rail transportation which promises to reduce road traffic and to curb harmful emissions. Cars are major culprits in air pollution, accounting for 14.5% of Europe’s total carbon emissions. Around half the flights in Europe are short haul journeys of less than 1 500km which generates many more emissions than the equivalent journey by rail.

The European Green Deal policy features plans to double high-speed rail by 2030 and triple it by 2050. At the moment, 75% of freight is moved by road, so movement of goods by rail is set to double by 2050.

Making trains more competitive with road and air travel means market reform and improvements to the passenger experience as well as infrastructural upgrades. Prioritising sustainable rail transport promises significant benefits but unfortunately, it comes with unseen dangers of its own and not just for passengers.

Low frequency

One of the lesser-known hazards of rail transport is the kind of noise pollution nobody can hear. Inaudible, low frequency ground vibrations emanate from the rolling stock on the railway as it passes. As well as affecting the structural integrity of nearby infrastructure, these vibrations can have a detrimental effect on people’s health, causing headaches, fatigue and even irritability in people experiencing them.

‘Right now, it is possible to reduce vibrations by putting rubber pads under the tracks,’ said Giovanni Capellari, co-founder of Phononic Vibes. ‘That system is okay for new railways because you can put them in during construction.’ His company specialises in noise and vibration technology. For an existing railway line, rubber pads are very expensive because you have to remove the tracks to install them, according to Capellari.

The BioMetaRail project is researching and developing special submerged barriers that can be deployed alongside the track to absorb the vibrations. The barrier walls rely on their shape for their noise reduction performance, rather than the properties of the material.

Known as metamaterials, these synthetic composite materials have designer properties not found in nature. Their internal structures are engineered to interact with the low frequency sound waves of a passing train to trap and insulate against them.

‘Basically, the idea is that we use shapes that have some resonant effects at frequencies that are typical for vibrations in the railway sector,’ Capellari said. In this context, the frequency of vibrations is typically between 30 and 60 Hertz. The result is a design for a two-by-three metre concrete structure that resembles a large window.

This ‘works for very low frequencies, which is very good for railway trains.’ Additionally, the “window panes” could be divided into even smaller sizes to trap a wider range of frequencies.

Distinctive design

If the panels did not have their distinctive shape and design and were simply slabs of concrete, they would not be able to halt the train’s ground-borne vibrations as effectively as BioMetaRail’s barriers. For ease of installation, there is no need to lift the railway line as these panels can be inserted into the ground alongside the track like a sunken fence, to protect clusters of homes or buildings.

The research team is also investigating the ideal material, thickness and sizes of the barriers for their vibration damping effects.

Capellari’s BioMetaRail project is an offshoot of the BOHEME project, which stands for Bio-Inspired Hierarchical MetaMaterials. BOHEME investigates and develops different types of mechanical metamaterials inspired by principles found in nature.

From spider webs to shell whorls, BOHEME characterises natural systems and studies their possible applications. ‘The goal is to take the results from BOHEME and try to understand the best geometry (for the rail barriers) considering the market, the cost, production and installation,’ said Capellari.

‘The next step is to go to market,’ he said, as well as obtain certification for the vibration-blocking intervention. ‘There’s no such kind of system in the market right now.’

Ultimately, these panels will be lining the ground alongside the track in residential areas, allowing rail networks to significantly boost their train traffic without adversely affecting the people and buildings nearby.

In 2021, it was proposed to increase speed limits on Trans-European Transport Network trains to 160km/h or more by 2040. Increasing rail traffic also makes it vital that network operators are able to monitor the entire length of their railroads in real time. Acoustic monitoring can help achieve both these goals.

Richard Aaroe’s Next Generation Rail Technologies has developed a passive listening device that can provide railroad operators with an early warning about obstructions on the track. It can even predict what the obstruction most likely is, and where it might be found. The SAFETRACK project is working on a standalone system to ‘give accurate real-time warning of anything that happens on the infrastructure,’ Aaroe said.

The system comprises sensors, which pick up vibrations on the track, and software that identifies where on the track the sound originates and what could have caused it.

Sophisticated microphone

‘In a way, it is a very, very sophisticated microphone,’ Aaroe explained. The acoustic vibrations on the track that are picked up by the sensors have a ‘unique fingerprint’. The sound of a tree branch falling on the track is distinct from a mudslide, for example. Aaroe’s company has built up a ‘library’ of these railway acoustic fingerprints.

He compares the technology to when submarines use sonar to detect surface ships by picking up its acoustic signature. ‘Today, that technology has evolved so that you can not only pick up that there is a vessel passing, but you can pick up the type of engine, the class of the vessel itself, the speed, direction, and so on,’ Aaroe said.

The same principles apply with rail acoustics. ‘Every incident has a uniqueness and we have identified that and then we can report this to either the train controller, operator or even the driver themselves.’

The sensors are relatively small, about the size of a smartphone. An installation includes four sensors, one on each rail of the track and then another two 10 metres further along the track. Because sound travels through solid rails much better than through air, one sensor package can detect acoustic vibrations five kilometres in each direction.

The technology is currently being trialled by national rail networks in the UK, Germany and Spain, and it will soon be deployed in another three countries, according to Aaroe.

The European Union is committed to growing its rail transportation as part of the European Green Deal which aims to make Europe the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050. As more people opt for rail over cars, technology that makes trains safer and quieter will increasingly be important.

The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine. 

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GHG emissions from pyrolysis are nine times higher than in mechanical recycling

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New study published today by Zero Waste Europe (ZWE) finds that greenhouse gas emissions from pyrolysis of plastic packaging are nine times higher than that of mechanical recycling. The “Climate impact of pyrolysis of waste plastic packaging in comparison with reuse and mechanical recycling” study is based on the estimated future recycling content targets in plastic packaging.

BACKGROUND: In the context of the revision of the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD), the European Commission (EC) assigned the independent consultancy Eunomia to consider the possible introduction of recycled content targets for plastic packaging by 2030. Based on the estimated future recycling content targets in plastic packaging, Eunomia determined to recycle quantities that must come as outputs from chemical recycling or mechanical recycling. Chemical recycling, in this case, means thermo-chemical (i.e. pyrolysis) recycling.

With this study, commissioned by ZWE and Rethink Plastic alliance to Öko-Institut, we calculated the impact of Eunomia’s proposed scenario regarding greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and carbon loss. The study compares seven scenarios to meet the projected recycled content target by 2030, and puts them into perspective with the Paris Agreement commitments to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

The study found that: 

  • Pyrolysis GHG emissions are nine times higher than those in mechanical recycling – in all scenarios considered over 75% of greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to chemical recycling;
  • Over half of the carbon content of plastic is lost in the pyrolysis process and has to be replaced by new plastic;
  • Mechanical recycling must be prioritised over pyrolysis wherever possible –  shifting 30% of the production attributed to chemical recycling by Eunomia to mechanical recycling would reduce GHG emissions by 31%;
  • Combining shit to more mechanical recycling together with a reduction of 20% of packaging would result in a 45% reduction of GHG emissions compared to the “chemical recycling scenario”.
  • Combining mechanical and chemical recycling to transform plastic waste into recyclate avoids the GHG emissions associated with the use of primary plastic.


ZWE’s Chemical Recycling and Plastic-to-Fuel Policy Officer, Lauriane Veillard says: “The revision of the PPWD should serve as a lever to make the packaging sector more circular and be in line with European climate commitments to limit Global Warming to 1.5 Degrees Celsius. There are other ways than pyrolysis for contact-sensitive materials. The climate impact of the managing pathways should be considered when setting targets. The revision is the opportunity to rethink the overall volume and the use we make of plastic packaging.“

With this in mind, ZWE urges the European Commission (EC) to consider the reports’ findings in the upcoming revision of the PPWD and to:

  • Introduce legal safeguards to prioritise mechanical recycling over pyrolysis;
  • Consider the climate impact of different recycling technologies when settings targets for recycled content;
  • Incentivise measures such as design for recycling and innovations along the plastic packaging value chain to facilitate mechanical recycling.

Lauriane Veillard adds: “If we are serious about achieving net-zero emission economy, mechanical recycling must be preferred over pyrolysis. However, this cannot be achieved unless legal safeguards as part of the P&PWD revision are introduced to prioritise mechanical processes for recycling packaging waste complemented with ambitious prevention and reuse targets”. 

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UN spotlights transformational potential of family farming for world food supply

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María Fernanda Masís and her family are the owners of the hot sauces brand Xoloitzcuintle, named after their farm. Photo: UNEP

A Global Forum highlighting the UN’s Decade of Family Farming (UNDFF) got underway on Monday, aimed at identifying priority policies to boost support for family farmers and agricultural development worldwide.

The UNDFF runs through the end of 2028, and the Forum is being convened by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

FAO Director-General QU Dongyu, pointed out in his video address to the Global Forum’s opening that the world is moving backwards in its efforts to eliminate hunger and malnutrition.

Growing hunger

He said the number of people facing hunger increased in 2021, and it risks rising further especially among the most vulnerable, of which almost 80 percent live in rural areas and are small-scale, family farmers.

Family farmers around the world are also subject to the new challenges to food systems everywhere, created by the climate crisis, as well as conflict. The war in Ukraine has added further pressure, to already fragile agrifood systems, UN agencies said.

Mr. QU said the forum provides a way, firstly, to discuss “the unique role of family farmers in transforming our agrifood systems; two, take stock of achievements and challenges in the implementation of the UN Decade; and three, strengthen collaboration to ensure global food security, enhance livelihoods and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals”.

80 percent

Family farmers need to be at the centre of efforts to transform agrifood systems if we are to make real progress towards ending hunger,” Mr. Qu said.

He added that “family farming is the main form of agriculture in both developed and developing countries and is responsible for producing 80 percent of the world’s food,” in terms of value.

Family struggle

He noted that often, these family farmers struggle to feed their own families.

Since its launch three years ago, the UN Decade of Family Farming has been promoting integrated policies and investments to support family farmers, and FAO has been assisting national implementation of international tools and guidelines to strengthen family farming, Mr. Qu told the virtual forum.

He also noted that FAO hosts the Family Farming Knowledge Platform to facilitate the exchange of experience, innovation and specialised knowledge.

In addition, the FAO Strategic Framework 2022-31 includes a priority area of work aimed at better supporting small-scale food producers and delivering concrete results.

Push for the future

The main objectives of the Global Forum are to provide a general overview of policy trends and the relevance of family farming to the global push towards reaching the Sustainable Development Goals; highlight the main outcomes of the first three years of implementation; and re-orient the UNDFF agenda through the practical lessons learned so far.

Participants include representatives from national governments, governmental agencies, UN agencies, family farmers and their organizations, civil society organizations, as well as NGOs; the private sector, the media and academia.

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Microalgae promise abundant healthy food and feed in any environment

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By Sofia Strodt

Feeding a growing world population that will reach 9.8 billion by 2050, according to United Nations forecasts, and the need to conserve natural resources for generations to come may seem conflicting at first.

But a solution, while not yet in sight, is certainly not out of reach. European scientists recently have developed an appetite for microalgae, also called phytoplankton, a sub-group of algae consisting of unicellular photosynthetic microorganisms.

Most people are familiar with the largest form of algae, kelp or seaweed. It can grow up to three metres long and, in some forms, is a well-known delicacy. The related species microalgae, which can be found in both seawater and freshwater, have gained attention in research due to their extraordinary properties.

These microscopic organisms can be used for animal feed, particularly in aquaculture, and various foods including pasta, vegan sausages, energy bars, bakery products and vegetable creams. 

Most commercial microalgae cultivation centres on the production of dried biomass such as chlorella or spirulina powder as a food providing considerable health benefits. Some microalgae strains not only accumulate up to 65–70% of protein but also are sustainable sources of omega-3 fatty acids – a substance that is conventionally derived mainly from fish and fish oil.

Additional bioactive compounds, such as vitamins B12, K or D, mean microalgae contain significant health properties, potentially reducing the risk of cancer and cardiovascular illness.

Desert algae

‘Microalgae can be cultivated in many different locations, under very different conditions,’ said Massimo Castellari, who is involved in the Horizon-funded ProFuture project aimed at scaling up microalgae production. ‘We can grow it in Iceland and in a desert climate.’  

The technologies for the intensive cultivation of microalgae have been in development since the 1950s.

Today, microalgae are cultivated in open- or closed-system photobioreactors, which are vessels designed to control biomass production. The closed-system version, while more expensive to build, offers more control over experimental parameters and less risk of contamination. 

The substance is by no means just a trendy food supplement. For example, in Chad, a landlocked, low-income country, the consumption of spirulina harvested from Lake Chad has significantly improved people’s nutritional status because spirulina is an excellent source of proteins and micronutrients.

On top of its nutritional value, microalgae offer climate benefits by sequestering carbon dioxide as well as economic advantages by using farming areas more efficiently and – through the use of non-arable land – expanding the possibility of biomass production. 

With a total of less than 57 000 tonnes cultivated in 2019, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), production of microalgae is still very much in its early stages. By comparison, primary-crop output was 9.4 billion tonnes in 2019. 

Food inflation

Russia’s continuing war in Ukraine has highlighted just how vulnerable global food supply can be. Halts to Ukrainian grain exports and increases in energy prices have helped push food inflation around the world to record highs, with developing countries being hit disproportionately hard. In May this year, costs for food had risen by 42% compared with 2014-2016, the UN reported.  

Last year, as many as 828 million people were affected by hunger – an increase of roughly 46 million compared with 2020 and a surge of 150 million since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The FAO projects that some 670 million people will still face hunger by the end of the decade.   

While the benefits of cultivating organic microalgae for food and feed are substantial, market growth will require overcoming obstacles including a lack of automated production in the industry, according to Castellari, who works at the Institute of Agrifood Research and Technology in Barcelona, Spain.

‘The automatisation is still not completely implemented,’ he said. ‘There are small producers in Europe – many steps still involve manual labour. So they are still working on optimising the process.’ 

Processed biomass

The challenges go well beyond cultivation. With microalgae, biomass has to be processed, cleaned and dried before a usable powder can be obtained. The next step is to scale up production to drive down costs. 

In addition, there are regulatory challenges. Only a few species of microalgae are currently authorised in the European Union.

‘In Europe it’s still in a preliminary stage of development,’ said Castellari. ‘There are thousands of species of microalgae, but for food consumption or feed there are only seven species authorised.’ 

To gain knowledge about the possibilities to use other species, Castellari and his team are also investigating these other kinds of microalgae.

Due to these challenges, the portfolio of products containing microalgae remains limited today. But, if these hurdles can be overcome, the overall prospects for the microalgae industry are promising. Besides being a source of food and feed, the plant can be used for biofuels, cosmetics, fertiliser and health supplements.

Astaxanthin, a blood-red pigment extracted from algae, already has notable uses. A powerful antioxidant, astaxanthin can be found in seafood and is commonly used to colour shrimp. It is also sold in the form of pills as a food supplement.

Astaxanthin is thought to have potentially a positive impact on brain function, athletic performance and ageing skin, among other things.

Matteo Ballottari, associate professor of biotechnology at the University of Verona in Italy, helped start the European Research Council’s Horizon-funded project AstaOmega simultaneously to produce astaxanthin and omega-3 fatty acids in microalgae for aquaculture and human nutrition. 

Quality and quantity 

Most omega-3 supplements are derived from fish oils. This, however, raises sustainability concerns such as damage to marine ecosystems as a result of overfishing.  

‘There is more demand for eating high-quality foods, along with an awareness for incorporating omega-3 rich ingredients in our diets,’ Ballottari said. Responding to this trend while feeding a growing world population is ‘a big challenge,’ he said.

Meanwhile, on the astaxanthin front, the AstaOmega researchers have made progress. They have been able to obtain a new strain that can produce astaxanthin on its own, without needing to be “stressed”. This means the researchers don’t have to change production parameters such as light intensity, temperature or nitrates concentration. Also, extracting the substance has become easier, resulting in lower costs.  

Scientists agree that microalgae have the potential to change the ways in which we eat for the better.  

‘Microalgae can help us to increase the protein production within Europe to reduce our dependence on other countries,’ said Castellari of the ProFuture project.  

Research in this article was funded by the EU and it was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine. 

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