You probably know black carbon as soot or smoke, the stuff that comes from burning fossil fuels like coal and diesel as well as forest fires and cooking stoves. What you may not know is that scientists believe black carbon is second only to carbon dioxide as a contributor to climate change.
“Like most other particles, it floats through the atmosphere, it interacts with clouds, and because it’s black it absorbs sunlight,” says Tami Bond, an environmental engineer and a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “That radiation turns into heat that then heats the atmosphere.” The Environmental Protection Agency also says black carbon can contribute to complications with asthma and other respiratory problems.
While many may associate soot with industrialized nations, black carbon is a global problem, Bond says. And now she's recieved a prestigious MacArthur Award — often called the "genius grant" — to track and quantify soot's sources, among other things. According to the MacArthur Foundation, Bond’s work "has the potential to unlock the role of energy in our climate system and to help millions breathe cleaner air."
Bond and her team have traveled the globe to measure the black carbon being emitted from cooking stoves, brick kilns and diesel engines.
“When you start making global models of soot or black carbon, you have to look at everything,” she says. “A lot of studies on emissions that have been done were focused in the industrialized world because they’re large there. When we started asking questions about where exactly does this material come from, we realized that there were a lot of things that had never been measured because they’re not here.”
Those questions led Bond far beyond standard industrial sources. “As it turns out, the largest sources of black carbon right now are in the developing world,” she says. “They have not yet gone through this fantastic transition that the US did decades ago.”
Fixing the black carbon issue in the developing world will require a range of techniques. "There are solutions — in the developed world we call them clean fuels,” says Bond. “There are also things you can do to make brick kilns burn cleaner. I don’t think there is a magic silver bullet. The interesting thing about this challenge is there are many solutions — we have to look at each situation and figure out which one is appropriate.”
According to Bond, designing solutions begins with understanding the specific needs of a community and working with individuals on the ground to implement new systems.
“There are things that we know about combustion that simply need to be taught to the people that are designing stoves in these countries,” she says. “There’s also a component of bringing cleaner fuels farther out to rural areas. That’s how we solve the problem.”
Each MacArthur Fellow receives a no-strings-attached $500,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. At this point, Bond says she is still deciding how she will spend her new source of funding.
“Everyone wants to know what I’m going to do with the money — including myself,” Bond says. “One of the things I want to do is engage in a little more listening, because it opens up a space to not do just technical work. When I’m actually in these countries, [I want] to hear what’s going on. I think, as an engineer, one of the things we need in order to get better solutions is to really understand the constraints and limitations.”
Many researchers are limited by the time they have on the ground, but Bond is hoping the grant money will allow her to expand the time she has in the communities that she focuses on.
“I realized [the grant] is an incredible gift," she says, "and it’s an incredible responsibility."