Maintaining a healthy atmosphere


“People tend to focus on carbon dioxide emissions… but the reality is that for an agricultural country like New Zealand methane and nitrous oxide emissions are much more important.”

Dr Joseph Lane

Popularly known as laughing gas, nitrous oxide has serious consequences when emitted into the atmosphere: it is the largest contributor to the ozone hole.

University of Waikato computational chemist, Dr Joseph Lane, is studying the impact of nitrous oxide on climate change. The results of the research could lead to changes in land use, particularly in relation to intensification of farming. The main contributors of nitrous oxide emissions are agricultural soils.

"People tend to focus on carbon dioxide emissions when they are thinking about climate change, but the reality is that for an agricultural country like New Zealand, methane and nitrous oxide emissions are much more important."

Dr Lane has a $345,000 Marsden Fast-Start grant to develop a theoretical model that will ascertain how nitrous oxide is broken down in the atmosphere and he'll use the model to predict the amount of nitrous oxide being released into the air. 

Previous research on nitrous oxide had looked at the gas only as individual molecules, whereas Dr Lane's research will look at nitrous oxide complexes. These complexes were thought to be formed in the low temperatures of the upper atmosphere and could change our understanding of how the gas affects the atmosphere.

"It may be that nitrous oxide has a shorter lifetime in the atmosphere than previously thought or that we're emitting much more nitrous oxide than we presently think," Dr Lane says.

His work will take three years and include more than a million hours of computer simulations, using the University of Waikato and National eScience Infrastructure (NeSI) supercomputers.