World-Famous ASU Physicist Lawrence Krauss brings us up to date on the latest science news.
Ted Simons: It's time again for our monthly science news update with ASU physicist Lawrence Krauss. Tonight we talk about unprecedented carbon dioxide levels and potential breakthroughs in both solar and electronics technology. Here now is Lawrence Krauss. How are you doing?
Lawrence Krauss: It's good to be here, as always.
Ted Simons: Good to have you here as always. Let's start with this business of new info on monitoring of CO2. It's getting up there.
Lawrence Krauss: Yeah, you know, there's a curve called the keeling curve named after Professor Keeling, who was started in the 1950s, moderating the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere, which goes up and down during the year as vegetation grows and dies. But in fact, it's the basis of our understanding of the fact that the greenhouse effect is happening. And it's been elevating up every year, and it's now reached a threshold that many people feared. In fact it was 315 parts per million when he started, I believe. And now it's past the 400 parts per million. There was one day last week where for a full 24 hours, because it depends on the time of day, it goes up and down, but for a full 24 hours it passed the 400 parts per million level, which was a threshold we hoped not to get to.
Ted Simons: How do we know this is the highest level ever? We know this index, but what about ever?
Lawrence Krauss: Ever, since humans have been human, at least. One of the ways we can do that is by look at ice cores, drilling deep ice cores down in Antarctica. The ice builds up, and as ice forms, air bubbles get trapped in the ice. And you can like a tree in fact, by looking at rings of a tree, by drilling down and looking at those cores, you can see -- You can measure the air bubbles as a function of height, and that's as a function of time. And you go back 500,000 years, and measure the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, and you can see that it was never near, never near what it is now. Over the last 500,000 years. There are times in human history when it was much greater. It was very important for the history of the earth actually when the earth formed, the sun was 15% cooler, or -- Basically 15% cooler, and the earth would have been an ice cube except there was 10,000 times more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere back then. And that greenhouse effect kept the oceans liquid. So in fact it was important for the evolution of life. But that was 4 billion years ago.
Ted Simons: We didn't have New York City or civilization going on.
Lawrence Krauss: We can measure the sea levels at the same time as we measure the carbon dioxide levels over those 500,000 years, and the sea levels have gone up and down. Even though it's never achieved the level it has now, the sea levels have gone up and down by 80 meters.
Ted Simons: So with this in mind, you wrote something about us being able to remove and sequester CO2 from the atmosphere.
Lawrence Krauss: What people don't realize is they think, OK, we can put it off, we have a bad economy now, we can put it off. But this is cumulative. The carbon dioxide that is in the atmosphere now will stay there, even if we turned off everything now, would stay there for a few thousand years. So no matter what we do, and we're not doing much, unfortunately, address the production of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we're going to have to begin to wonder whether we need to reduce it. Because at 400 parts per million, there is going to be severe consequences. And as I say, we stopped all industrial production now, it wouldn't go below 400 parts per million. So we began to think about whether it's necessary to at least begin to investigate the need to reduce it from the atmosphere. And that means directly take it out from the atmosphere. Right now at coal plants, we can try and remove the carbon dioxide in the flues. But people have proposed actually trying to just have devices that will trap carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and eventually reduce the level. Because we're in a situation now, and there's no evidence that we're cutting back, so as bad as it was is nowhere near as high as we're going to get. We could get to 450,500 before we get to our senses.
Ted Simons: So how would you capture this stuff in the air?
Lawrence Krauss: There's a lot of proposals out there. And one is to -- One that is particularly interesting is to use resin that when it's dry will capture carbon dioxide and when it's wet will release it. And you can use -- Otherwise the energy cost of doing this is incredibly -- You know, trees store carbon dioxide, and -- But it all has an energy cost. And you don't want to use more energy to trap the carbon dioxide than you need to otherwise it's pointless endeavor. So this is interesting, because what you basically do is go to dry parts of the country, trap the carbon dioxide, then you run water over it and as the water evaporates, you run the water out, release the carbon dioxide which you then sequester underground, then let the water evaporate by sunlight and then repeat the whole process again. The question is, is this practical? And the answer is we don't know. But the point is, we're spending hundreds of billions of dollars on subsidies for fossil fuel exploration and amenities, but we're not funding research at all. At the level of even millions of dollars. So what we've argued is we have to start thinking about these new technologies and fund research to see if they're practical.
Ted Simons: Is anyone thinking about these new technologies?
Lawrence Krauss: There are lots -- Yeah. We had a meeting here at ASU and there's a group at Columbia that's been thinking about these new technologies that claim it's practical. But they don't have any government support. Or any private investor support. So there are a lot of ideas about ways to trap and sequester carbon dioxide, and we don't know if they're practical. I'm skeptical about many of them. But unless you invest the money to see, then you'll never know. And I guess the point is we're approaching a climate emergency. We've been saying that for a while. But hopefully maybe the 400 part per million level, which we've been dreading getting to, will be enough of a wake-up call that maybe we should spend some money.
Ted Simons: It's almost like someone who has clogged arteries decides to exercise and eat right, that's great, but the arteries are still clogged.
Lawrence Krauss: Exactly. We've created a mess -- A lot of people say, why should we in the United States be thinking about this right now China is a big polluter. But the point is, we created the mess. Most of the carbon dioxide that's up there was based on industrial activity in this country. And so in some sense you'd say we have an ethical obligation to at least think about cleaning it up.
Ted Simons: Let's talk about something that I think you would be even more skeptical about. I thought this was fascinating. A guy by the name of Ronald Ace. It's a good name. He invents what he's calling a flat panel solar trap that could be able to -- It sounds to me, I'm talking to you like I know what I'm talking about, but it sounds like it would be able to store high temperatures. Store solar energy.
Lawrence Krauss: It sounds too good to be true.
Ted Simons: It does.
Lawrence Krauss: And most things that sound too good to be true are too good to be true. It was announced in an article that this guy had filed a patent for this new technology. But I have to say, it has all the ear marks that make me worry. First of all I'm always skeptical about any new claim. Revolutionary discoveries are usually wrong. But this has another trap. He doesn't want to talk about the details because he wants to wait until the patent. So it's all secret. So no one has been able to peer review it. It's this incredible discovery -- Except a friend of his who's reviewed the calculation and says oh, it's obvious when you see this. I have seen this happen so many times before. If you want to make a bet about whether it's going to work -- there are a lot of smart people who have been spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to make solar panels more efficient. If we could, it would be incredibly important. Now, it's not impossible that someone working in their basement comes up with some idea that many, many scientists who spend their lives on this haven't come up with it. It's certainly not impossible, but it's highly unlikely. As I've told you before, I have this policy, I like to keep my mind open but not so open my brains fall out.
Ted Simons: There's no peer review, no working prototype --
Lawrence Krauss: Just calculations.
Ted Simons: OK. And the best friend says this guy is a genius. Besides all that, why can't we store energy over like 1,400 degrees -- Whatever it is? Why is that so difficult?
Lawrence Krauss: The problem is it's a law of physics that you radiate more efficiently the higher the temperature. The hotter you are, the better you radiate. And so you want to get these things hot to make it efficient turbine to run power, but the hotter they get, the more quickly they radiate the energy that you put in. And it turns out at about 1,400 or 1,600 degrees these things radiate out more energy than you're putting in. It's a simple law of physics. The power radiated goes as the fourth power of the temperature. And -- of any system. So black bodies radiate more efficiently when they're hotter. And it's hard to overcome that basic law of physics.
Ted Simons: Last point on this, he's describing it as something similar to a black hole in space. Everything goes in there and it's captured, you're not buying that.
Lawrence Krauss: That makes me even worried more.
Ted Simons: Alright. We'll move on and talk about something called graphing, which apparently there's some new discovery here, what is graphing?
Lawrence Krauss: Graphing actually won the Nobel prize in physics in 2010 for two guys at the University of Manchester. Really interesting physicists, one of whom had a hard time finding a job, have you got -- So what graphing is, it's carbon, just plain old carbon, like graphite, but it's a single atomic layer. It's carbon atoms layered in hexagons over a single plane. Carbon is a fascinating material. In a certain case it looks like coal, or graphite for a pencil, diamond is another configuration. Another Nobel prize was given a while ago, if you let the carbon molecules form carbon atoms for molecules, they form these Bucky balls. 60 carbon atoms form something like a dome. And they're strong, and they can conduct electricity in an interesting way, and they were given Nobel prize. People have predicted if you could somehow make a single atomic layer of carbon, forming these hexagons, it would be incredibly strong and have really interesting electronic properties. In fact it would be so strong, a single layer of this, like a layer of paper, would be able to hold up a four kill gram cat, but the material would weigh as much as the cat's whisker. It would be the strongest material. So these guys --
Ted Simons: We've been looking at this, what is this?
Lawrence Krauss: The hexagons are a carbon layer that's built on a substrate, but they've put this weird hot complex molecule on top of it, and they found out that it orders itself to produce kind of a magnet. That's interesting. The conduction properties of graphene are interesting. It's been produced. They produced it, let me just say, not by that very fancy substrate layer, but they just peeled graphite off and used scotch tape to pull off a single atomic layer, then melted the tape and that's how they did it. It was literally in the Nobel museum they have scotch tape dispenser. That is really low tech, not high-tech. But -- And they produced this single layer and found out it has these incredible electronic properties, but if you could make a magnet on it, then you could use it to store magnets -- Store more information. Because the electrons that are on that surface that move around in a magnet, if they're spinning, if they spin in one direction, they have a different energy than if they spin in the other direction. And that allows you to store information, and that allows a whole new set of possibilities for creating magnetic storage, optical storage, all sorts of new things. The amazing thing about graphene is they won the prize, because it had great promise. It hasn't yet produced new devices. But this is one big step towards -- If you can make a magnet on top of graphene, you can use it to make all sorts of new storage devices.
Ted Simons: When you mention spinning, is that when they talk about spintronics?
Lawrence Krauss: It's like electronics but Spintronics You can store -- Obviously these devices can be used to move currents, because they have very high conductivity, but if you want to store information, you can store it by storing charges, which is one of the ways we do in computers, but if you can store information using electronic spins you have twice as much information to store. If they're spinning this way the magnets turn this way, if they're spinning this way, the magnets produce that way, and there's two spin states as well as each charge state. So spintronics is a way to make storage smaller and quicker. It's the next stage of information technology.
Ted Simons: OK. The next stage, how soon before this next stage arrives? How big a deal is this?
Lawrence Krauss: Well, it's very exciting. I'm always worried about the hype, but it's an important step. I was kind of surprised, frankly, they gave the Nobel prize for graphene when they did. It was something that clearly had great promise, but usually something has to show the promise works before it does. But every bit of evidence suggests it's going to be a material that's the strongest material ever made, let me say that. The strongest material ever made. It's got conductivity levels that have never been observed before, and now that you can create magnets on it, it's almost on the threshold of revolutionizing information technology. We'll see if it does, but I'm much less skeptical of that than I am of the solar power--
Ted Simons: You mean the black hole of solar energy--
Lawrence Krauss: The picture you saw was based on electron micrograph, so it's been done. Promising to do something and actually doing it are two different things.
Ted Simons: You scientists.
Lawrence Krauss: What can you do? It's a tough life but someone has to do.