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Combating Climate Change

CSUF Scientists, Students Tackle Ways to Help Earth
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As world leaders agreed to a landmark pact to curb greenhouse gas emissions, Cal State Fullerton scientists and student researchers are doing their part to help our warming planet.

“It’s nice to see a unified consensus regarding the human impact on Earth’s climate. However, actions speak louder than words,” said Matthew E. Kirby, professor of geological sciences, in response to the Dec. 12 Paris climate agreement.

The climate agreement — for the first time — asks countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to keep a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

“I look forward to seeing how the various countries work together, and individually, to manifest action to achieve the less than 2°C mark,” added Kirby.

Global warming is the long-term increase of Earth’s average temperature caused by human activities, such as the consumption of fossil fuels and the subsequent release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, Kirby explained.

Darren R. Sandquist, professor of biological science, also said the climate accord means “taking responsibility for the future of the planet, not just our generation or the next, not just our country, and not just our species — the whole planet and for many generations.”

The professors and their students are among those engaged in different areas of research related to climate change — the long-term and widespread change in Earth’s climate, including warming, cooling and changes besides temperature, said Sandquist.

Kirby studies how California’s climate has changed in the past 11,700 years before significant pre-human influence, the nature and frequency of past drought in the state and what causes past drought.

“These studies provide a baseline understanding of natural climate change and variability from which we can view potential future climate change scenarios.”

In Sandquist’s lab, he and his students study the effects of drought on plants.

“We study how that translates into population and ecosystem changes with the goal of being able to make better informed decisions about the management of Southern California ecosystems.”

With the need for renewable energy sources, John Haan and his students are developing a clean-energy alternative using fuel cell technology. Their fuel cell device turns nontoxic chemical energy into electrical energy that is carbon-neutral, said Haan, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry.

The device uses solar energy to convert dissolved carbon dioxide — the primary greenhouse gas emitted through human activities — into formate, a liquid fuel, which stores the energy, much like a rechargeable battery, to be used when needed. A significant benefit of the device is that it does not release carbon into the environment, Haan said, since the formate converts back to dissolved carbon dioxide that is recycled within the device.

Chemistry students designed the fuel cell device using a 3D printer and are working with engineering faculty and students to build a prototype.

“It’s a very environmentally-conscious way of storing the energy and offers comparable efficiency to that of a battery,” said chemistry major Steve Saric, who works in Haan’s lab. “We’re hoping to create a viable energy source you can use in the home and in industry that could help solve some of the energy issues we face.”  

Paula Hudson, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and her students study aerosol particles emitted from a variety of sources — from trees to fast-food restaurants cooking meat — that prevent light from reaching the Earth’s surface, in general, resulting in a cooling effect on the planet. They also examine how aerosol particles form clouds that affect climate change.

“By better understanding the properties of aerosol particles, and how those properties change because of our pollutants, we can provide information to atmospheric modelers to better predict climate change,” she said.

To reduce carbon dioxide emission, Zhuangjie Li and his students are investigating gaseous chemical processes that would reduce environmental impacts.

“We are looking at a chemistry that can convert carbon dioxide into other chemicals that can be used as fertilizer by reacting the carbon dioxide with water and ammonia in a gas phase,” said Li, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry.

“Our work can be part of the world’s efforts of reducing the carbon dioxide emission by chemically converting this greenhouse gas into fertilizer.”

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