TU Delft Students Look to Improve Environmental Future
Shane Laros posted on November 25, 2016 | | 1965 views

The environment may be in dire straits given recent events, and climate research is showing that despite global efforts, things may be getting worse.

In the event of the world’s ecosystem breaking down, humanity may need to turn to technology to save the day. Student-led research out of the Delft University of Technology’s faculty of Aerospace Engineering has proposed a solution to reduce carbon emissions - but we aren’t going to like it.


Pollution is a major contributor to global climate change, which is kind of a big deal. (Image courtesy of World Bank/Kim Eun Yeul.)
Pollution is a major contributor to global climate change, which is kind of a big deal. (Image courtesy of World Bank/Kim Eun Yeul.)

Stratospheric geoengineering, or more specifically Solar Radiation Management (SRM), is a temporary solution to rampant climate change. It can be used as a last resort if other environmental protection efforts fail to stem the tide. The concept might sound like the claims conspiracy theorists make about how airplanes are poisoning us with ‘chemtrails’ - but hear me out.

Implementing SRM involves the injection of aerosols in the stratosphere, which produces stratospheric clouds that reflect part of the incoming sunlight. The science is similar to volcanoes spraying sulfuric acid into the stratosphere. This thin, high, long-lasting haze reflects a little sunlight, which will potentially help keep the planet cooler.

The engineering student researchers have developed plans for a fleet of aircraft capable of distributing these aerosols into the atmosphere. The plan employs a fleet of 344 unmanned aircraft to enable 572 flights per day. This fleet is designed with a focus on efficiently delivering the required 5 Megatons of sulfuric acid into the stratosphere as an aerosol. The study suggests this would theoretically be enough to halt rising temperatures.

Isometric view of the student-designed SAGA unmanned aircraft. (Image courtesy of TU Delft.)
Isometric view of the student-designed SAGA unmanned aircraft. (Image courtesy of TU Delft.)

The aircraft’s design is governed by the high altitude needed for the SRM plan. It would require efficient lift generation and high thrust, which is provided by a wing surface area of 700 m2, and four engines, each providing over 600 kN of thrust at sea level.

TU Delft students plan for the sulfuric acid to be ejected from the aircraft in a gas phase to facilitate efficient aerosol particle formation.

This isn’t a quick fix to the problem of climate change, however. According to Herman Russchenberg, director of the TU Delft Climate Institute, we should be very cautious in applying techniques like these, as we don’t know their influence on the earth’s ecosystem or human health, nor have we sufficiently considered the legal or ethical aspects of such an attempted solution. We may even increase the problem by temporarily masking temperature rise.

“But there may come a time when we will actually be needing techniques like these, like it or not. The sooner we start investigating practicalities, potential pitfalls and consequences, the better prepared we will be,” Russchenberg noted.

Steve Hulshoff, who supervised this student project, also stated that this plan would only be a last resort, after other efforts to curb carbon emissions have already failed, due to the potential side effects of geoengineering.

“There will also be severe drawbacks to SRM, like acidification of the oceans,” Hulshoff warns.

“We will not see a blue sky as often as we do now, and ozone depletion, deposition through precipitation and climate effects other than temperature reduction, will inevitably affect the environment.”

Though it’s a frightening proposition, as our global climate continues to warm we may need to turn to technology and engineering to save our species. It will be the next generation of engineers to do this, less inspired than required to fix the errors made by past economic growth.

For more information, visit the TU Delft Climate Institute and see NASA’s research on global climate change.

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