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01/10/2014

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How dying stars can help in the fight against climate change

By Katie Griffiths, Young People’s Programme Assistant at the British Science Association

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Dying stars on the other side of the universe could help us deal with climate change on Earth, Professor Jon Gluyas, Professor of Geoenergy Carbon Capture Storage at Durham University told the British Science Festival today.

When stars collapse, they emit cosmic rays that shoot across the universe. Our atmosphere is constantly being bombarded with these cosmic rays, and if they happen to bump into an atom of oxygen or nitrogen in the upper atmosphere, the resulting collision produces a muon. This happens more frequently than you might imagine: in an area the size of my thumbnail, approximately one muon passes through every minute. Our planet is effectively being showered by muons.

Scientists can now detect these muons by using chemically imprinted plastic rods. When muons hit the chemical coating, they are converted into photons, particles of light. These photons can then be detected by fibre optics. The potential uses of this muon detection technology are varied and exciting, for example, they may be able to be used in homeland security to detect dirty bombs or nuclear matter being brought into the country. Not only that, they might even be able to help us in our struggles to combat climate change and global warming. Professor Gluyas spoke at the British Science Festival today about a project he is involved in, which aims to use muon detectors to monitor the long-term effectiveness and safety of carbon capture and storage methods.

Carbon capture is the process of capturing waste carbon dioxide from power plants, and sequestering it in underground stores where it cannot escape into the atmosphere. However, up until now, one of the key associated costs with this method of dealing with climate change has been monitoring the stores. Seismic surveys can provide information, but they are expensive, and only provide a snapshot of the environment, rather than long-term monitoring. Muon detectors, on the other hand, could provide a constant monitoring of the density of the CO2 layer in the store above them.

Over the next three years, Professor Gluyas and his team will be testing these detectors in mines under the North Sea. They are hoping to use their equipment to sense and measure tidal changes in the sea level above them, according to the changes in the muons passing through. If their equipment proves to be sufficiently sensitive and robust, then within the next ten years we could see this technology allowing cosmic rays from across our universe to help solve the problems of climate change.

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