Newsletter Digest: Seismic hazards, lignite and hydrogen, and SCANZ 2011

“Plenty more earthquakes” to come

Canterbury University engineering expert Professor Andy Buchanan wasn’t mincing his words in this week’s Science Media Centre media briefing – he considers it a “fluke” that no one was killed in September’s 7.1 quake in Canterbury.

The time of day – the quake struck at 4.35am on a Saturday morning – meant people who may otherwise have been hit by falling masonry and non-structural building facades were safely tucked up in bed.

But in a paper he and his colleagues contributed to for the Royal Society, he points out that some pioneering research conducted in New Zealand, particularly from the 1960s onwards, underpins building practices that have radically improved the earthquake resilience of New Zealand’s buildings.

Professor Buchanan said similar-sized earthquakes in other areas closer to the Alpine fault line, such as Wellington, would most likely result in loss of life. Areas that required research focus in the wake of Canterbury were the effects of liquefaction, lateral spreading of soils, non-structural building damage and the impact of earthquakes on underground infrastructure and transport networks.

His comments came as a Greater Wellington Council report appeared estimating the city could face a death toll of up to 1500, severe damage to buildings and infrastructure and would struggle to cope in the immediate aftermath of a quake similar in size to the Canterbury quake. The paper this week sparked a war of words between Civil Defence and health authorities in the region on the preparedness of health services for a disaster.

Professor Buchanan for his part says many cities throughout the country face continuing threat from older buildings with unreinforced masonry

On the web:

The Press: Alpine shake ‘no worse’ say scientists

NZPA: Lack of quake deaths part ‘fluke’ and part good design

Lignite and the future of hydrogen

This week Dr Jan Wright, Parlaimentary Commissioner for the Environment, released a report – subsequently backed by academics – condemning moves by Solid Energy and the L&M Group to exploit low-grade lignite coal reserves beneath Southland. Plans include the conversion of lignite to diesel fuel, as well as the production of fertiliser and coal briquettes for export.

As Dr Wright points out in her report, this is not a new issue. Lignite has been considered for its potential to free New Zealand from dependence on imported transport fuel since the oil price shocks of the 1970s. The technology for converting lignite to diesel has existed since the 1920s, and is heavily relied upon by South Africa.

However, the poor quality of lignite means that burning it or converting it to other fuels releases large quantities of greenhouse gases. Lignite, or “brown coal”, falls along the spectrum between peat and coal, and has a high moisture content, which substantially reduces its efficiency.

According to the report: “In greenhouse gas terms, [lignite-converted] diesel is almost twice as bad as the diesel we use now.”

Many plans for future coal exploitation rely heavily on the prospect of carbon capture and storage (CCS), envisaging technologies that will efficiently lock away excess carbon dioxide from the conversion process deep underground in geological formations. However, the technologies that underpin CCS have not yet been developed for use on a commercial scale, and are likely to be a long way off. (See this earlier Science Media Centre alert)

Interestingly, a major strand of clean energy research in New Zealand is geared towards the production of hydrogen from coal and lignite. The FRST project ‘Hydrogen Energy for the Future of New Zealand‘ provided for creation of a coal gasifier and further research into high purity hydrogen production for fuel cells from lignite.

Underpinning the investment is an idea that still seems to hold sway decades after it was first proposed: “Given that the country has significant coal reserves, but dwindling gas supplies and insufficient economically viable renewable resources to meet likely future demand, there will be several decades during which hydrogen production from coal will play a major role.”

Full line-up confirmed for SCANZ

Navman founder Peter Maire, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor Professor Sir Peter Gluckman and Australian science communication expert Dr Andi Horvath will lead the line-up at the Science Communicator’s conference set down for Feb 21 – 22, 2011 at the University of Auckland.

SCANZ this year will focus on “Listening to the other side” – so as well as scientists and communications officers, we’ll also hear from artists, farmers, activists, journalists and business people about what they need from science and science communication.

Registrations are filling up fast so get in quick to reserve your ticket to the two day SCANZ conference and conference dinner hosted at Auckland Museum.