Lasers vs Global Warming

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If you’re a regular reader of our blogs, you’ll know we keep up to date with how lasers impact on our day to day lives. From something as simple as a light sensor, to space exploration, there are a number of ways that laser technology has revolutionised the way we live – however, there’s a new use of lasers that could potentially change the very future of our planet.

Earlier in the year between 18th- 21st August 2014, scientists from around the world attended an important geoengineering conference. It’s the first of its kind, and they discussed some of the most important environmental issues concerning the planet.

An interesting proposal to come out of this event was from two separate scientists, Isabelle Dicaire and Aiden Cowley, who spoke about modifying the earth’s climate to combat global warming by using lasers from space. This may sound like something out of a sci-fi film, but both scientists showed strong support for the idea.

The Challenge Of Climate Change

One of the scientists proposed using a satellite that was equipped with a high powered laser. This technology would then produce clouds that are below the atmosphere, the layer of gas that surrounds Earth. Other lasers would then remove any greenhouse gases from space, theoretically completely removing the catalysts for climate change.

It is important to state that it’s a theoretical proposal and that it’s still in the early stages. This proposal is just one of many strategies that aim to tackle climate change. However, unlike this one the other plans that are being discussed don’t incorporate state of the art technology.

Due to this theory, utilising existing technology has attracted a lot of attention. European Space Agency expert Isabelle Dicaire has focused her attention on this research. She held a global warming conference in Berlin to talk about how a satellite can be equipped with powerful LIDAR lasers to do climate engineering processes such as cloud brightening.

Dicaire then went on to discuss how eventually this technology could be used for climate engineering. She is a world leading expert that conducts research for the European Space Agency. Just by looking at the following link you can see the number of papers she has published that focus on these intricate technologies.

LIDAR is a remote sensing technology that is able to fire a laser at a specific target. It then analyses its own reflection to get an accurate distance. It may sound quite futuristic, but it’s already being used on various satellites and even Google’s driverless car.

What interests Dicaire is what an extremely powerful LIDAR could do when placed in space. The theory is that it can detect when particles move in a cloud, and even potentially create new ones.

Cloud Brightening

The other theoretical study that was incredibly popular at the geoengineering conference is what has been named ‘cloud brightening’. This actually isn’t a new theory; it has already been discussed for a number of years.

A cloud is simply a mass of water vapor that condenses into water droplets. These droplets create a cloud before they are released back down to earth. The more droplets a cloud encompasses, the more sunlight will reflect off of it.

This fact has led to the discovery that if you increase the overall surface area of a cloud, or put more than one together, you can reflect a suitable amount of sunlight so the globe can cool down.

At the moment, solid research has been limited due to funding issues. However, Dicaire has been a firm supporter of this technology and is a firm believer that LIDAR can help scientists have a better understanding of how the technology works. Other than that, this can also be utilised for a process known as ‘cloud seeding’.

Cloud seeding is a type of weather modification that involves the amount of type of water vapor released from the specific cloud. In a lot of cases this is done to increase rain or snowfall, but it has also been used to suppress hail and fog.

Experiments are already being done on this technology. Various scientists at the University of Geneva have show that laser based cloud seeding is possible, and they’ve also shown that by using a laser you can create water droplets. This technology is still a far cry from being used in space, but it’s promising now the basics are being understood.

The Next Step

In theory, it should be possible to use the already existing Earth Observation System to find where the clouds are, along with the type of cloud you want to seed. Once targeted, a beam is fired at it.

This all sounds exciting, but it’s important to stress that at the moment it’s only a scientific theory. At the moment, there isn’t a laser that can work properly in space whilst completing the stated task. Yet it isn’t impossible and it’s believed that existing technologies can be adapted for this in the future.

The biggest problem, surprisingly enough, is the economic and political barriers that stand in the way of progression.

Existing laser technology can only be found on the ground at the moment, which means if they were to be put into a satellite, they would need to be adapted for space. This is a task which is extremely challenging, but industries are searching for the best way to take the first step towards laser cloud seeding.

The Reality

It isn’t going to be economical for this technology to make clouds brighter. Previous methods have suggested using boats that spray seawater to the skies, something that could be another avenue to explore. Compared to the theory, it’s a lot more feasible, not to mention how many cloud expanding laser satellites would be needed.

However, this is far from discouraging for Dicaire. She’s focusing on the research LIDAR needs to help scientists work towards the appropriate technologies.

Leading scientists are trying to see if it’s possible to send a laser beam from a satellite to the ground. Depending on what the results are, we could see a large investment for these tests.

The Alternative Method

LIDAR isn’t the only experiment that is being proposed by scientists. A professor named Aidan Cowley at Dublin City University believes we could utilise a laser device to completely remove any greenhouse gases present in the atmosphere. The theory is that solar powered satellites, complete with a plasma, could detect heat trapping gases and break them apart.

There have already been experiments on earth that show air plasmas can dissipate certain pollutants such as carbon dioxide and sulfur hexafluoride. There are a number of studies available on the progress of this.

The fundamental idea is that plasma will excite any gas it moves through. As it gives off energy to the gasses, they will start to break apart. Even in the case of sulfur hexafluoride, it will become a non harmful greenhouse gas. This has excited a lot of people in the industry, as sulfur hexafluoride is a notoriously hard to get rid of greenhouse gas.

It’s widely reported that the earth’s carbon dioxide emissions is having a very negative impact on the environment. If we could simply remove it with a laser we wouldn’t have that problem. This brings up an interesting question, why haven’t we already utilised this technology?

It’s Not Plain Sailing

One of the biggest problems in using lasers as a way to control our climate is that the energy that is used needs to be created on earth. In order to destroy emissions you are producing more as well. You can end up creating as many greenhouse gases as you’ve removed if the technology isn’t perfected. This is why the idea is to utilise solar panels to power the lasers.

Sunlight is of course a renewable energy. It’s an unlimited amount of energy that is used everyday, but the biggest problem is creating the power to actually use it with this technology.

The main issue to fix is to do with greenhouse gases themselves. They diffuse into the atmosphere, making it a tough task to target them properly with a laser. A solution that has been brought forward is to use multiple lasers at a single time, but that’s without thinking about how much it would cost to build, test and then release the technology.

What gives Cowley hope is how it can be used to create parts of the ozone layer. We’ve created multiple holes due to aerosol use but a specialised satellite laser could patch them up. It could also be used to destroy parts of the ozone layer in certain locations, something that could potentially be used for warfare.

Will we be seeing this technology created any time soon? It will be worked on, but we still have a long time to wait. Utilising solar panels whilst in space is a great idea, but the technology doesn’t exist to do this at the moment. It’s going to take a lot of time and money to do.

The Future Of Our Planet

All of this technology is important, after all it has a massive effect on the future of our planet. It’s exciting that laser technology can be used, but it boils down to one key point, will it be possible to create and fund what’s necessary? That’s up to the Government, but if it can stop the worst weather conditions that cause problems all over the world then it’s invaluable.

What do you think of this development? Do you think we’ll ever see this technology created and released? Leave a comment below, or join the conversation on Twitter: @YorksProfiles

Yorkshire Profiles Ltd

Yorkshire Profiles Ltd