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Last March, I wrote an article introducing readers to the Center for Resilient Infrastructure and Disaster Response (RIDER), a research center jointly operated by the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering.
RIDER’s mission is to find solutions that help communities thrive in the face of increasingly extreme natural and manmade threats. This time I want to discuss one of our major initiatives targeting a manmade threat, the Methane Emissions Reduction Initiative (MERI).
The front lines of the fight against climate change are all the places you might expect — coastlines, cities, and gas emitting factories.
It is well known that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, released from the burning of fossil fuels, are a main culprit when we talk about the causes of global warming, resulting in intensifying storms and melting ice caps.
In response we build our sea walls higher, dole out carbon credits, install scrubbers on smokestacks, and anxiously measure the retreat of glaciers. But when you think about the battlefields in the fight to protect our environment — do you picture a professor standing in a landfill measuring methane as one of the essential warriors in this epic struggle? If not, you should.
Good News and Bad News:
Dr. Tarek Abichou is a professor at the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering and one of RIDER’s Executive Directors. He is known as the “The Garbage Guy” for his expertise in landfills and is the founder of MERI. For decades Abichou and his colleagues have been producing research that tells a story about greenhouse gases that includes both bad and good news.
The bad news is that although CO2 is the most abundant greenhouse gas in terms of total gas volume (99%) from emissions and therefore garners the most attention and efforts at reduction, it is methane (almost 1% of the remaining volume) that is much more potent at trapping heat in the earth’s atmosphere and thus more harmful.
In fact, by some estimates, methane could be up to 80 times more potent than CO2. That 1% of methane in the atmosphere could cause more warming over the next ten years than all the CO2. But the world has mostly been focused on CO2 and implementing solutions that will take hundreds of years – imagine your great, great, great grandchildren – to see results.
Methane Breaks Down Faster:
So, what’s the good news? The good news is that methane is a short-lived climate pollutant. It reaches the ripe old age of 12 years and then begins to naturally break down. This means we can do something about methane during our lifetime and have a big impact on global warming now.
If the methane added to the atmosphere doesn’t significantly exceed what is being removed, then we are at equilibrium and the global warming potential is negligible. If we could manage this process, across the globe, we could effectively cross methane off our list of things to worry about. But we aren’t there – at least not yet.
Despite decades of tireless work put into studying methane, this potent behemoth it is still hard to manage. Imagine trying to identify, track, measure, and manage something you can’t see, hear, or smell.
That’s methane – the main component of the natural gas that cooks your food and heats your house. In its natural form it is colorless and odorless. It is only due to the addition of something called Mercaptan that we get the often-quoted “rotten egg smell” of gas leaks. And you can’t fix a problem you can’t identify or quantify.
Landfills and Livestock:
This is where MERI comes in. The largest emitters of methane today are landfills, oil and gas systems, and livestock. These are the methane battlefields, where with research-informed methods, we can knock methane back down to a manageable size.
Thus, we come back to that image of a professor in a landfill measuring methane. Abichou and his colleagues specialize in landfills and have become experts in measuring methane plumes with drones, computer modeling, and other cutting-edge equipment.
MERI can measure and quantify the problems at their source so that we know where the problems exist. They have also created new ways to stop methane emissions at their source with nature-based solutions, i.e., applying bio-reactive covers to landfills which use trapped bacteria to consume methane before it is released. MERI’s methods could impact our environment within years, not centuries.
Mission to Reduce Methane:
Most recently, this leadership has been recognized and supported, by the Environmental Research & Education Foundation (EREF), whose focus is on sustainable waste management practices. MERI and EREF are partnering to provide scientifically validated methodologies that measure emissions from landfills, and that revise and develop protocols for compiling inventories of those emissions.
The gold standard for testing right now is expensive and difficult to implement. MERI and EREF are testing alternatives that could be easier and less expensive, allowing for greater implementation across the US and beyond.
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