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Saw a pretty cool bit of tech on Discovery

By Andrew Pollack on 09/07/2008 at 09:05 PM EDT

Discover Channel ( has a new series called "Project Earth". The series seems to feature each week a new experiment aimed at solving some aspect of the energy or climate challenges we're told we all face. It looks like some of the shows in the series are pretty oddball -- I saw one that involved giant rotating balloons that were supposed to float all the way up at altitudes where the wind is fast and constant. It looked kind of crazy.

I watched one tonight though, via the DVR, that featured some really cool and simple tech. The idea was to pull cold, nutrient rich water from a thousand feet down in a part of the ocean that lacks phytoplankton so that the water at the surface would bloom. The goal was to build a thriving community of diatoms that would live and die near the surface then fall to the ocean floor -- trapping massive amounts of carbon dioxide in the process. The thing is, for a scheme like this to work you'd have to do it on a huge scale, which means you have to do it cheap.

That's where the cool tech is. The "Pump" they used was awesome. It was nothing more than a valve at the bottom of a thousand foot long plastic tube, which itself was anchored to a float. As the float rises and falls, so does the valve at the end of the tube. The valve opens when when water goes in (the tube is going down) but closes when water tries to flow out (the tube is going up). The result is a perfectly simple pump.

The experiment was a partial success. Water was pumped up, it did contain nutrients, and the area of the sea that 12 days before had been barren to the eyes of the divers, was filled with fish and even a whale shark -- the largest "fish" in the sea, and a consumer of nothing but plankton. On the other hand, the pumps themselves didn't hold up. some simple welds failed causing the pumps to come apart. Of the two, the first one failed almost right away and the second half-way failed early on. Even with only half one one pump however, there was a noticeable change in the seas life almost immediately.

So -- they proved with with very simple, very cheap to produce technology; they could mix those nutrients trapped a thousand feet down back to the surface where they could sustain life. The way the math works, about a million of these things would trap all of the carbon produced by the USA over the course of a year. The phytoplankton themselves -- by just living their life cycles -- and then sinking to the floor of the ocean.

The downside, of course, is that a system like this messes with the balance of life in the oceans and that's pretty dangerous. For example, not all diatom blooms are beneficial. Some are quite toxic. How do you pick which kind of bloom you stir up? The ocean is a BIG and HIGHLY complex system. If you're going to do something big enough make a difference, you're really messing with Sasquatch.

There are  - loading -  comments....

What about El Ni■o and La Ni■a?By Ian Randall on 09/07/2008 at 11:51 PM EDT
Given that the water temperature at a thousand feet is significantly lower than
the water temperature nearer the oceans surface, would not this idea have an
undesirable impact on the El Ni■o and La Ni■a southerm oscillations.

These water currents in the Southern Pacifc not only impact weather and climate
in the pacific rim but also have in impact of the entire worlds climate.

Are we not simply swapping one problem for an even bigger one?
re: Saw a pretty cool bit of tech on Discovery By Bruce Perry on 09/08/2008 at 12:38 AM EDT
You can get large plankton blooms even more easily than this. Iron is a
necessary nutrient for plankton, but there generally isn't much available in
the oceans. Seeding suitable areas with iron fillings has generated blooms.

As you observe, it's a complex system. A lot of study would be necessary
before doing something like this on a large scale.

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