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Automotive Emissions and the Greenhouse Effect

Texas State Energy Conservation Office

This is a laboratory activity in which students will compare the amount of carbon dioxide in four different sources of gas and determine the carbon dioxide contribution from automobiles. They test ambient air, human exhalation, automobile exhaust, and nearly pure carbon dioxide from a vinegar/baking soda mixture.

Activity takes one 90-minute class period to conduct experimental work. Additional materials are necessary

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Climate Literacy
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Humans may be able to mitigate climate change or lessen its severity by reducing greenhouse gas concentrations through processes that move carbon out of the atmosphere or reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
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A combination of strategies is needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The most immediate strategy is conservation of oil, gas, and coal, which we rely on as fuels for most of our transportation, heating, cooling, agriculture, and electricity. Short-term strategies involve switching from carbon-intensive to renewable energy sources, which also requires building new infrastructure for alternative energy sources. Long-term strategies involve innovative research and a fundamental change in the way humans use energy.
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Human activities have affected the land, oceans, and atmosphere, and these changes have altered global climate patterns. Burning fossil fuels, releasing chemicals into the atmosphere, reducing the amount of forest cover, and rapid expansion of farming, development, and industrial activities are releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and changing the balance of the climate system.
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Energy Literacy

Earth has finite energy resources.
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6.4 Earth has finite energy resources.
Amount of energy used can be calculated and monitored.
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6.8 Calculating and monitoring energy use.
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Human use of energy.
Greenhouse gases affect energy flow through the Earth system.
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2.6 Greenhouse gases affect energy flow.
Physical processes on Earth are the result of energy flow through the Earth system.
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Physical processes on Earth are the result of energy flow .

Excellence in Environmental Education Guidelines

1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:C) Collecting information
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C) Collecting information.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.4 Environment and Society:A) Human/environment interactions
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A) Human/environment interactions.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.4 Environment and Society:C) Resources
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C) Resources.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.4 Environment and Society:D) Technology
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D) Technology.
3. Skills for Understanding and Addressing Environmental Issues:3.1 Skills for Analyzing and Investigating Environmental Issues:C) Identifying and evaluation alternative solutions and courses of action
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C) Identifying and evaluation alternative solutions and courses of action.

Benchmarks for Science Literacy
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By burning fuels, people are releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and transforming chemical energy into thermal energy which spreads throughout the environment.
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Teaching Tips | Science | Pedagogy | Technical Details

Teaching Tips

  • Instructions are provided to the educator for collecting exhaust from a vehicle; this will need to be done prior to class and the educator may wish to seek the assistance of another adult for this process.
  • Educators should describe the pH changes that occur when brothymol blue is combined with CO2 (forms an acid), and when an acidic solution is treated with ammonia. (Ammonia is a base and thus neutralizes the acid.)
  • Students with a latex allergy should observe this lab, but not directly handle balloons.
  • Educators might discuss the relative concentrations of CO2 in air (0.04%), human exhalation (5.5%), automobile exhaust (varies), and pure CO2 (100%) and how these concentrations relate to the amount of ammonia drops added.
  • Educators could use dry ice as an opener for this activity or add it to the list of substances to test.

About the Science

  • The lab's application section walks students through the steps for calculating the amount of CO2 created by 3 different automobiles to understand the difference in contribution.
  • The activity uses brothymol blue to indicate the presence of carbonic acid, formed when CO2 from various sources is bubbled through water. Drops of ammonia are used to indicate relative amounts of CO2 present between the samples.
  • Correction from expert scientist: The activity states that the CO2 content of the atmosphere of 380 ppm is an unprecedented value. Based on the latest ice core data, this value is unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years; however, prior to 150 million years ago the values have exceeded 1000 ppm - see IPCC AR4 chapter 6.

About the Pedagogy

  • Students will need to construct their own data tables.
  • Students will likely need assistance bubbling the collected CO2 through the water in the vials/test tubes.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • Required materials can almost all be found in a typical chemistry laboratory.

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Automotive Emissions and the Greenhouse Effect --Discussion  

I was wondering how to get the automobile exhaust into the balloon. Does any one have a suggestion?


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