Going green on your car (in a good way)

Going green on your car (in a good way)

As you may already know, the increase in greenhouse gas emissions (mainly carbon dioxide and methane) as a consequence of human activity is one of the main reasons behind the faster pace of the climate change in the last decades. And among the wide range of causes, passenger cars are one of the main sources of CO2 emissions, accounting for a 12% of the total emissions (European Commission).

For this reason, the European Union has been adopting increasingly stricter measures to regulate the levels of emissions. In 2015, a limit of 130 grams CO2/km was set. Moreover, by 2021 a more ambitious target is planned to be fixed at 95 grams CO2/km.

In this context, car manufacturers have been forced to reduce fuel consumption (or increasing the autonomy in electric vehicles) and emissions in his petrol and diesel-fuelled models. How can automakers do that? Besides designing more efficient engines, the main strategy is lightweighting. This technique consists of reducing the weight of the car by replacing the heavier materials (i.e. steel) by lighter ones such as plastic or composites.

However, currently the mismanagement and misuse of plastics rather than the material itself is one of the top environmental issues, since 8 million tons out of the 300 million tons of plastic which are annually produced end up in the ocean (According to data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature). So seems that increasing the use of plastics in cars does not look like and ideal solution, right? Well, how about using an alternative material with similar of even better performance than conventional plastics and reduced environmental footprint? It doesn’t seem an easy task, although bioplastics may be part of the answer.

What are bioplastics, and why they seem to be so trendy nowadays? According to European Bioplastics, it’s a heterogeneous set of materials with different properties and applications which can be biobased, biodegradable or both.

In other words, since they are biobased, their use potentially reduce the consumption of fossil fuels while their biodegradability widens the possibilities of treatment at the end-of-life stage. As a result, these materials could achieve the desired combination of performance and sustainability.

This is what the BIOMOTIVE project is all about. It tries to develop materials (textile fibres, foams made of polyurethane for automotive seating and other polyurethane-based parts for the interior of cars) from biobased sources which combine good technical properties with reduced environmental impact. Starting from renewable raw materials such as forest biomass and vegetable oils not in competition with the food chain, it is expected to produce at industrial scale products with up to 80% biobased content.

The project has received funding under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme and gathers European private companies and institutions sharing the ideal of reducing the impact of the industry paving the way towards a more sustainable economy.

The role of CARTIF in the project is to perform the sustainability assessment of the final products, since the prefix “bio” does not necessarily mean that a product is better for the environment than its fossil-based counterpart. To determine that on a scientific basis, it is important to evaluate the impacts of the product along its whole life cycle (that is, from the extraction of raw materials to the end of life) considering not only the environmental impacts, but also social and economic aspects.

So the next time you are holding a plastic object, before throwing it away, it is worth considering from where it came and where will it go.

From natural gas to biogas and biomethane

From natural gas to biogas and biomethane

In the arduous path towards sustainable development, research to obtain alternative fuels to fossils is presented as a key point. In this framework, two interesting actors have emerged to stay: biogas and biomethane.

Before going into the subject, let’s dig a bit into the current national gas system. Natural gas is one of the fuels most used by society, both in industry and in homes. Chemically, it is a gas composed mainly of methane 95-99% (CH4) and small proportions of other compounds. From its treatment, management and consumption in Spain, we must know two important aspects:

  • Almost all the natural gas we consume in Spain comes from non-renewable sources.
  • All this gas is mainly imported from countries such as Algeria, Norway, Nigeria or Qatar, either through the network of gas pipelines or through the transport of liquefied natural gas in large gas tankers.

While it is true that in comparison with other fuels the use of natural gas is better seen as it reduces emissions of CO2, particles and NOx, it is still a fossil fuel. World natural gas reserves are estimated on 193 trillion m3, enough to cover demand for 52 years.

Biogas and biomethane are considered an interesting sustainable alternative in the fuel supply chain. Biogas is the fuel gas resulting from the degradation of organic compounds through a biological process. Depending on the precursors used, the volume composition of biogas ranges between 50% and 70% methane and 50% and 30% CO2. Biogas is an ideal fuel to generate heat or electricity, but, due to its low concentration of methane, it can not be used in its original form as a fuel for transportation nor can it be injected into the natural gas network. However, it can be ‘upgraded’ to be suitable for these last two applications. This improved biogas is known as biomethane. The CH4 / CO2 ratio of biomethane ranges between 95/5 and 99/1, a composition very similar to natural gas.

The key to make biogas and biomethane sustainable gases is to use as waste raw material that can not be reused or recycled. Not only do we talk about the typical urban waste that goes to the landfill, but also agricultural, livestock or wastewater are of high interest. These residues, when degraded, spontaneously emit methane into the atmosphere, whose impact on greenhouse emissions (GHG) is 21 times higher than CO2. In this way, this methane is generated in a controlled manner and after combustion is transformed into CO2, thus reducing the impact of GHG emissions.

The potential that Spain has to develop biomethane is very wide. Agriculture and livestock, one of the main engines of the national economy, generate an extensive amount of waste that contains very good “methanisable” characteristics. Likewise, every year each Spaniard generates half a tonne of direct waste, which is around 22,000 tonnes/year. The fact of being able to convert this waste into a fuel makes it possible to reduce greenhouse effect emissions at the same time as covering part of the imported natural gas consumption. The advantages are not only environmental; this new model allows the creation of new green jobs.

For the generation of biomethane there are multiple technologies, the anaerobic digestion followed by an upgrading is one of the best known and exploited. Anaerobic digestion consists on introducing a residue in a digester in absence of oxygen. In this digester the waste comes into contact with a biological culture (yes, bacteria) that are responsible for breaking down (hydrolysis) the long carbon chains, typical of organic matter, into smaller chains. After a few days, these bacteria continue to degrade the most simple carbon chains into methane. The product of this process is a mixture of gases, known as biogas, mainly composed of 60% methane, 40% CO2 and a minimum concentration of impurities such as hydrogen sulphide. In the process is generated a liquid waste called digestate that can be reused as a fertilizer because it is rich in nitrogen and phosphorus.

Once the anaerobic digestion is finished it is necessary to improve the quality of the biogas so that it can be used as fuel for vehicles or injected into the natural gas grid, this process is known as upgrading. After upgrading, the biomethane has a concentration close to 99%. There are different technologies that allow this process to be carried out:

  • Amine Absorption: Amines have high selectivity to attract CO2. The process is about “showering” the biogas with a dissolution of amines, which will sweep away the CO2, leaving the methane almost pure. The major disadvantage of this process is that the amines are not environmentally favourable.
  • Pressure swing adsorption (PSA): At high pressures, gases tend to be attracted to solid surfaces, or “adsorbed”. The higher the pressure, the more gas is adsorbed. Once the pressure is reduced the gas is released or un-adsorbed. This process requires a very high initial investment.
  • Membranes: This is a physical separation, as the biogas stream is passed through a porous membrane. The CO2 passes through the pores, while the methane remains. In order to obtain good separation yields, it is necessary to apply high pressures, making the process more expensive. In addition, methane slip is usually around 20% through the membrane pores, especially as they deteriorate.
  • Membrane contactor: These are the newest of those exposed. This technology agglutinates numerous membranes in the same shell, allowing the gas to pass through the inside of the membranes and a liquid flow through the casing. This combines physical and chemical separation. In this way, it is possible to work at lower pressures than in traditional membranes, as the water is able to dissolve part of the CO2, as well as reducing methane slip.

Once purified the biomethane would be almost ready for final use, or injection into the network. The last necessary process would be to compress it until the normal working pressure, for example, the natural gas grid is at a pressure of between 16-60 bars, or if it is desired to use as fuel a pressure of approximately 200 bars is required.

In some European countries such as Germany or Italy there are already industrial facilities that allow the production of biomethane, however, in Spain the biomethane market is still to be exploited. Aware of the potential that we have to develop the technology, policies are needed to make this market open gradually and be able to produce our own biomethane. This would reduce gas imports, the amount of waste produced and greenhouse gas emissions (and their corresponding EU fines) at the same time as creating jobs.

Welcome, self-supply!

Welcome, self-supply!

Undoubtedly, the electric sector in Spain has evolved during the past years, especially with regard to self-supply aspects. Time has elapsed since 2004, when the premium regime for the renewable energies was established. Gone are the first regulations about self-supply (RD 1699/2011) which for the first time considered the existence of individual facilities within the houses and set out the procedure and administrative conditions that they must fulfil, at the expense of a new Royal Decree that, due to policy issues, never was materialized.

Also far away is the regulation about the elimination of the bonus for sustainable energies, being the first blow suffered by this sector; what followed was not better. The subsequent law 24/2013 was branded as restrictive and discriminatory by the National Energy Commission (CNE), since not only was the self-supply not fostered among citizens, but also the register required complex administrative procedure and the document was not clear. Besides that, it referred to a potential economic tax on the self-consumed energy.

The following years were governed by some uncertainty, since the Royal Decree that should legally regulate all the proposed aspects was not published, thus, although the previous RD was still in force, it was feared that the new regulation was published at any moment. This caused a big paralysation of the electric and sustainable sector, which meant a fast disappearance of companies and jobs.

Finally, the so-feared Royal Decree (RD 900/2015), better known as the sun taxed RD, saw the light. Its more controversial aspect was the establishment of a tax on the self-consumed energy, which raised up plenty of social and environmental organizations and official organisms against it. This legislation considered some transitory provisions exempting the small facilities of paying some taxes but, due to its temporary nature, citizens did not show interest on this kind of investments.

After some years of inactivity for this sector and by means of a government change, some months ago the Royal Decree – Law 15/2018 was released, opening the door for the active participation of the citizens in the electric market through the self-supply, in line with the current European energy policies. Recently, the Royal-Decree 244/2019 described and regulated the administrative, technical and economic conditions of the electric self-supply, including concepts such as the collective facilities or the net-billing, besides different modalities not considered up to date, which will facilitate the creation and incorporation of energy communities to the electric system.

This will enable a faster transition towards a more sustainable energy system thanks to the increase of the renewable energy generation rate. A fairer system, as the real needs of the consumers will be considered. A more autonomous market, since the dependency on external fossil fuels for power generation will be reduced.

At last now we can say… Welcome, self-supply!

Is there natural radioactivity in drinking water?

Is there natural radioactivity in drinking water?

In our daily life, we are surrounded by radioactivity, from natural or artificial origin. Most of the radioactivity in the environment results from natural elements. In fact, there are radioactive elements in many foods and drinking water. But… How do these elements reach drinking water?

The radionuclides or radioactive isotopes are naturally present in the rocks of the earth’s crust, being the uranium mines a good example of this phenomenon. The content of these natural radionuclides varies between different rocks and soil types, with granite formations being one of the ones with the highest radionuclide content. When groundwater is in contact with these subsoils, it progressively degrades the rocks, dissolving and dragging radionuclides that can be integrated in his chemical composition in concentrations that exceed the standards required by Council Directive 2013/51/Euratom of 22 October 2013. The radionuclides that may be present in drinking water are mainly radon (222Rn), uranium (238U, 234U) and radium (226Ra), among others.

In Spain, the control of radioactive substances in water for human consumption is established according to Royal Decree 140/2003, which indicates the radioactivity parameters to be measured and the maximum values allowed. This RD quotes “all the data generated from the controls of radioactive substances in drinking water or water for the water production for human consumption must be notified in the National Information System on Drinking Water (SINAC)”.

But, do citizens really have access to information about the radiological quality of drinking water? During the development of one of the transversal activities of the LIFE ALCHEMIA project, it has been concluded that, really, the answer varies greatly depending on the country. This European project, co-financed by the LIFE Programme of the European Union, aims to demonstrate the feasibility of environmentally sustainable systems based on oxidations with manganese dioxide and bed filters to removal/reduce the natural radioactivity in water, and minimize the generation of Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (NORM) in the purification stages.

The LIFE ALCHEMIA project is developing databases that show the levels of natural radioactivity in treated water in drinking water treatment plants throughout the European Union, and it has been observed that in countries such as France or Estonia, citizens have free access to this information, while in countries like Finland or Sweden this information is not public or is not easily accessible. Spain is within this second group. In fact, looking at the SINAC (National Information System on Drinking Water), it is verified that the information on the radiological quality of water, is not accessible to the citizen.

Therefore, hundreds of water managers and City Councils have been contacted to request information, but only a few have responded to this request. This situation is more worrying when the high levels of uranium and thorium present in the subsoil of provinces such as Almería (province where LIFE ALCHEMIA is operating three pilot plants), Pontevedra, Ourense, Salamanca, Cáceres or Badajoz are verified.

This lack of transparency may be due to the fact that the concept of radioactivity does not have a good reputation due to the different catastrophes associated with it, so it is thought that radioactivity is indicative of “death”, even though these catastrophes have no relation to natural radioactivity.

As a final reflexion, three questions:

  • Did I know that water from my tap may contain natural radioactivity?
  • Do I know the radiological characteristics of water I drink daily?
  • And if I want to know them, do I know where I have to go and can I really get that data?

If you try to answer these three questions, you can draw your own conclusions about how this environmental problem is addressed in your locality.

Marta Gómez and Nicolás Martín

The beginning of Valladolid as Smart City

The beginning of Valladolid as Smart City

R2CITIES, the Smart City project with which our city began the road towards efficiency and sustainability, has come to an end. Five years of project, and some more until it materialized, have been necessary to design, implement and evaluate the energy rehabilitation of three districts in cities as different socio-economically and urbanistically as Valladolid (in Spain), Genoa (in Italy) and Kartal (in Turkey). The project, funded by the European Commission under the FP7 program and coordinated by the CARTIF Technology Centre, has developed a methodology that guarantees success in its implementation for large-scale interventions in the energy rehabilitation of districts.

The main activities in Valladolid have been carried out in the neighborhood of Cuatro de Marzo. For a few months, the 13 residential buildings which have been rehabilitated energically are perfectly recognizable, although without losing the identity that marks the aesthetics of the neighborhood. Each of these properties has undergone a series of common modifications:

  • Installation of a thermal insulation in facade and roofs.
  • Replacing and bending windows.
  • Installation of solar panels to cover 60% of the demand for domestic hot water (DHW).
  • Renewal of boilers.
  • Installation of high efficiency luminaires in the common areas of buildings.

To complement the works and verify their effectiveness, the information on energy consumption and the comfort parameters of the interior of the dwellings (temperature, humidity and CO2 concentration) has been analyzed in order to evaluate the efficiency of the implemented solutions.

As I commented at the beginning of this text, R2CITIES was the first major city project that CARTIF proposed to the City Council and, therefore, to the city of Valladolid. In 2012, the concept of “Smart City” was still unknown to most citizens. In essence, what the EU tried to promote was the awareness of the consumers of resources, since our consumption was excessive and, what is worse, unsustainable. For this reason, these projects proposed solutions at the district (or neighborhood) scale to drastically improve the energy efficiency of those homes built decades ago, when the current environmental saving and sustainability standards were not determining factors for the construction sector.

Applying state-of-the-art technological solutions, these projects wanted to demonstrate, in a practical and measurable way, that the cost of electricity and gas could be reduced and, in addition, the comfort of the tenants of the dwellings could be considerably improved.

In the specific case of the Cuatro de Marzo, a residential neighborhood located in the center of Valladolid and whose homes were built in the 50s, numerous problems caused by moisture condensation in facades or in rooms that do not achieve rise of 17ºC with heating at full capacity have been solved. All this thanks to the isolation of the buildings. In addition to achieving significant savings in the heating bill, which is crucial in a region with a climate of extreme temperatures.

Additionally, and available to electric vehicle users throughout the city, it has been installed a recharging point powered by solar energy that captures a 3.7 kWp photovoltaic marquee located inside the neighborhood.

Another feature common to smart city projects is that practical demonstrators are located in several cities. In the case of R2CITIES, the elected ones were the districts of Lavatrici, in Genoa, and Yakacik, in Kartal. In total, more than 49,500 m2 have been renovated in the three cities involved, achieving an overall reduction of 5,342,672 kWh / year in primary energy consumed (which represents an energy saving of 54%), while at the same time they stop emitting 2,393 t of CO2 per year.

Through the journey carried out in R2CITIES, we had the opportunity to expand our knowledge and experience in the energy renovation of urban residential spaces. With the future goal of having almost zero energy consumption cities, our project has implemented a set of technological solutions in the three demonstrators to reduce their energy demand and increase the use of renewable energy in them. This has allowed us to face both technical challenges and overcome numerous socio-economic barriers, allowing us to gain experience in large-scale district renewal strategies that we would like to share with all the professionals involved in the sector.

Both results obtained and experience gained, we share them with you through the material available on the website of our project, as well as we did in the conference By & For Citizens that was held in Valladolid on September 20 and 21. A conference where, in addition to R2CITIES ‘experience, the other city projects that we lead were presented: CITyFiED, REMOURBAN, mySMARTLife and UrbanGreenUp.

What do we make with the large wind farms when they become waste?

What do we make with the large wind farms when they become waste?

In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind… an ingenious knight glimpses on the horizon old windmills. Believing that they were giants, he tries to defeat them with the help of his squire and the available weapons of the time. Do you recognise this scene? What if we frame it in the current era?

We are driving on the motorway and suddenly we glimpse on the horizon something that nowadays we do not consider giants: it is a wind farm composed of more than 20 wind turbines in charge of generating energy in a more sustainable way, but, once its function is fulfilled generate a large amount of waste that must be managed in an appropriate manner.

My question is, why do not we fight current problems with the resources of the moment: legislation, financing and research?

Allow me a brief description of the current situation. Since the second half of the eighteenth century, thanks to the industrial revolution, the ways of production and consumption changed radically, encouraging a rapid transformation of production systems to an unsustainable linear system due to the large amount of material and energy consumed, reinforced by the growth in consumption. Incompatible situation with a world of resources and capacity for adaptation limited to the growing impact generated by emissions of pollutants and the production of waste.

Therefore, with the aim of radically changing the current linear system of production and consumption, the European Commission, through the publication of a set of directives, has adopted an ambitious package of new measures to assist in the transition of a Circular Economy (EC) that allows the use of resources in a more sustainable way. This fact will allow to close the life cycle of the products through greater recycling and reuse, that is, what is known as “cradle to the cradle”, bringing benefits both to the environment and to the economy.

From the conjunction of the above, together with the LIFE program and a consortium of companies of Castilla y León, including CARTIF, emerged LIFE REFIBRE, a demonstration project that aims to close the circle of a specific waste, the wind turbine blades.

The environmental problem generated by this type of waste is the result of two factors. On the one hand, the forecasts about the growing need to manage it, together with the inconvenience of its too large volume, give rise to problems in the land use of landfills where its final disposal is made. On the other, the management of this type of waste through other types of treatments, chemical or thermal, cause the emission of toxic substances into the atmosphere, as well as a greater energy consumption of these processes (Composites UK Lcd).

For all this, the actions that are being carried out within the LIFE REFIBRE project are aimed at reducing the waste of wind turbine blades sent to landfill through a mechanical recycling process, designed within the framework of the project, which will generate a new raw material, fiberglass. Once the fiberglass has been recovered and classified according to its size, it is introduced as a raw material in asphalt mixes. This process aims to achieve the improvement of the technical characteristics of this product, as well as a more sustainable management of wind turbine blades in disuse.

To conclude and as a farewell, I ask you a question: why do not we apply the concept of Circular Economy in our daily life? I can think of an example: reuse plastic bottles as pots.