Leaded gas dies. And carbon-free fusion power inches closer.


Clean air figures into three of our briefs this week. One development in Iceland reflects the thinking that a range of solutions is necessary to address climate change.

1. United States

A superconducting magnet developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology brings scientists closer to commercial fusion energy. The fusion of abundant hydrogen atoms releases huge amounts of energy, and experts say a reliable carbon-free technology like this will be essential to slowing climate change. However, the resulting 100 million degree plasma can only be contained by a powerful magnetic field, usually using conventional copper electromagnets configured in a doughnut-shaped structure called a tokamak. The challenge is that fusion technology currently consumes more power than it generates. But MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center has worked with Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) to create a magnet made with 16 layered plates of high-temperature, superconducting ribbonlike tape that may revolutionize the field.

Why We Wrote This

Our progress roundup highlights a century of energy consumption. While it took decades for the harm done by leaded gas to be widely recognized, today many people are eager for the possibilities of power without fossil fuels.

In a September test, the team’s device achieved the necessary magnetic field with only 30 watts of energy, whereas a similarly sized copper magnet would have required 200 million watts. Researchers say the successful experiment proved the feasibility of their fusion reactor called SPARC, which is still in development. Bob Mumgaard, CEO of CFS, predicts the superconductor technology will allow for a commercial fusion plant to be built by 2030.

2. Brazil

Eraldo Peres/AP/File
The capital of Brazil was built in the Cerrado, the savanna eco-region southeast of the Amazon that covers about a fifth of Brazil. Rapid agricultural expansion threatens the area and its people.

Thousands of families in Brazil have used a new digital mapping platform to outline territories previously unrecognized by the government. Traditional communities have a unique understanding of local ecology, and are often credited with helping to keep deforestation and large-scale agriculture at bay in the Cerrado, Brazil’s second largest biome. Savannas like the Cerrado are often overlooked by sustainability programs. Despite the rights guaranteed by the 2007 National Policy on Sustainable Development of Peoples and Traditional Communities and their stewardship of the land, many self-identified groups don’t appear on official maps and lack access to legal services that would help them claim rights. There are currently 3.5 times as many traditional communities in the northern Cerrado than are recognized, according to the Institute for Society, Population, and Nature (ISPN) and the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM).

The Tô No Mapa app – “I Am on the Map” in Portuguese – was created with input from traditional communities, the ISPN, IPAM, and several other Brazilian nongovernmental organizations in order to remedy these oversights and help smaller communities fight back against agricultural encroachment. According to a September report, the app has helped map more than 5,000 families in 76 communities across 23 Brazilian states since its launch in October 2020.

3. Iceland

The world’s largest carbon removal plant went online in Iceland. Built by Swiss company Climeworks and powered by geothermal energy, the Orca plant features high-tech fan and filter systems that can pull about 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year, roughly the equivalent of taking 870 cars off the road. Technology by Carbfix mixes the CO2 with water and pumps it into deep basalt caverns, where it eventually cools into stone.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
A carbon injection site well near the Hellisheidi Geothermal Power Plant, photographed in 2017, was a precursor to the Orca carbon capture and storage facility that became operational Sept. 8.

Carbon removal is essential to achieving global carbon neutrality, say experts, but the direct air capture technology is still too expensive for widespread adoption without government subsidies. It costs $600 to $800 to remove 1 metric ton of carbon dioxide at Orca, where Iceland’s combination of renewable geothermal energy and underground geology helps enable the process. However, engineer and Climeworks co-founder Christoph Gebald expects costs to decrease to the more competitive $100-$150 range by the late 2030s as installations become more efficient. “This plant that we have here is really the blueprint to further scale up and really industrialize,” he said. (Here’s a 2017 story by reporters Peter Ford and Sara Miller Llana when they previewed these developments.)
The Washington Post, Interesting Engineering

4. Algeria

The last nation to use leaded gasoline in cars and trucks has officially exhausted its supply, concluding a decadeslong push to end use of the toxic auto fuel globally. Leaded gasoline was used in most vehicles from 1922 until the 1970s, when mounting evidence linked emissions to severe health issues and environmental degradation. Over the next 40 years, most countries phased out tetraethyllead for standard cars and trucks. Sustained lobbying by the United Nations Environment Program and a public-private partnership begun in 2002 has pushed governments still allowing leaded fuel to acknowledge the risks of leaded gas, ban its importation, and change tax systems to promote clean fuel consumption.

The UNEP recently announced that Algeria, where refineries stopped producing leaded gasoline in early 2021, depleted its supply of the fuel this July. “The end of leaded petrol is more than a celebration of the end of one toxic era,” said Thandile Chinyavanhu, Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner in South Africa. “The phase-out of leaded petrol in Algeria ... is a testament to the world’s ability to achieve a common goal – together.”
Quartz, Euronews

5. Sri Lanka

An innovative tagging program in Sri Lanka is helping scientists fill gaps in migratory bird research. The island nation is the southernmost landmass on the Central Asian Flyway, a loosely defined corridor traveled by more than 200 bird species every year. Scientists say most of what we know about the CAF is based on anecdotal evidence, but a satellite tagging system initiated last year is now offering real-time information on bird movements throughout the corridor.

The project is a collaboration between the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka at the University of Colombo, Wetlands International, local sponsors, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which provided the costly tracking equipment. With most avian tagging systems, researchers need to physically retrieve the tracking devices in order to view the data. During the most recent migration season, the project attached 35 GPS transponders to several species, including the Eurasian wigeon, Caspian tern, and the Heuglin’s gull. The efforts are yielding interesting results. The gulls, for example, are born in the Arctic tundra and overwinter in Sri Lanka; satellite data shows that the birds fly day and night to complete the 4,350-mile journey back to Siberia in 60 days. The research team has received an additional 35 tracking devices to attach to birds next season.

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