Putting the genie back in the bottle

With the new Summary for Policymakers of the effects of global warming out (as pointed to by Brian) it seems clear that if we are to avoid the worst effects of global warming, we will, globally, need to make massive cuts in emissions, and even then we’ll still cop plenty of unpleasant side effects.

However, there is an unspoken assumption here that, in large part, any CO2 we release into the atmosphere is stuck there until natural processes take it back out again. Discussion of conservation, renewables, nuclear power, and sequestration is all about putting less greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. Of the mitigation processes, only revegetation actually takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and sequesters it, at least temporarily, but the capacity of this method is dwarfed by the amounts being added.

Even engineers doodling in their notepads have largely avoided the idea of artificially removing CO2 from the air. Grandiose engineering schemes to counteract global warming have largely been about reducing the amount of solar radiation that reaches the Earth, for instance by dumping materials in the upper atmosphere, or sunshields in outer space. Aside from the costs, such solutions involve a very considerable punt that they will work as predicted, with no nasty side effects.

While the big-G green attitude of simply ruling out carbon capture and storage is in my view erroneous, it is important to note that the much easier task of capturing carbon direct from fossil fuel plants is not yet been demonstrated on the scale of a commercial power plant yet. And, unlike in the power plant, the carbon dioxide in the air is incredibly diffuse. Consider a cube full of air, one kilometer high, wide, and deep. Such a cube (assuming the air was all at sea level pressure, an overestimate) would contain 1290 tonnes of air. Of that 1290 tonnes, only roughly 500 kilograms will be carbon dioxide – roughly as much CO2 as you produce by taking a plane flight from Brisbane to Melbourne.

But then again, there is one perfectly well-known and proven system from extracting bulk CO2 from the atmosphere. It’s been operating for millions of years, in fact. So if plants can do this as a byproduct of living, surely it’s not impossible to for humans to do the same, if perhaps more inelegantly?

Richard Branson and Al Gore want to know, and they’re prepared to throw 25 million dollars at anybody who can demonstrate a commercially-viable technology for doing so – though, frankly, if anybody does demonstrate a cheap-enough way of doing this, the $25 million from Branson will be chickenfeed compared to the intellectual property royalties.

In that context, Joshua Stolaroff’s PhD thesis (from Carnegie Mellon, one of the better engineering schools in the USA) makes fascinating reading. He, and his supervisor David Keith, have published several peer-reviewed papers on this material, but the thesis is free to download, so I’m linking to it.

He examines the cost of extracting CO2 from the air by spraying droplets of concentrated caustic soda through air flowing through a tower, not unlike a power plant cooling tower. From there, the captured carbon dioxide is then extracted from its chemical bind, leaving concentrated CO2 which can be disposed of in the same ways as is proposed for coal-fired power plants. His bottom line? He estimates a cost somewhere between $80 and $250 US dollars per tonne of CO2 disposed of, and identifies some improvements which would reduce that upper bound to $130 per tonne.

The first thing to note that this scheme is highly unlikely ever to be cheaper than capturing CO2 directly from fossil fuel power plants. While Stolaroff’s proposed towers have the advantage that they can be located whereever it’s convenient to dispose of the CO2, the overwhelming majority of the cost is in the capture and conversion of the CO2, rather than the final disposal. However, even at the upper-bound price of $250 per tonne, it might be practical for some purposes. Consider that Melbourne-Brisbane flight. A fully flexible economy airfare to Brisbane costs roughly $600; adding another $300 is a considerable cost, but (assuming the benefits of economic growth are fairly distributed….) by 2025 or so our real incomes should have increased to the point where, even assuming that plane flights haven’t declined in cost in real terms, a $900 flight would represent the same impost as a $600 flight now.

But there are other implications. Several authors referenced in the thesis discussion point out that air capture represents insurance, against the most catastrophic climate scenarios (well, nearly the most catastrophic – it’s possible to imagine scenarios where the change is so sudden that it overwhelms our economies and thus the ability to cope). But this represents a risk in itself; if there is a fallback technology that can save us from disaster, it represents an additional argument to delay action on climate change. This does not seem to have happened yet here in Australia, but it can’t be far away as a carbon pricing scheme comes into view and the opponents of action get increasingly desperate.

On the more positive side, air capture, particularly at more reasonable prices, might give us a chance to meet essentially any emissions reduction target at a bearable cost, and without radical changes to our lifestyles. Furthermore, it might mean that returning carbon dioxide to pre-industrial concentrations is be the work of decades rather than centuries.

I’m not sure that Stolaroff’s particular CO2-capturing scheme will work out. Neither is he. That doesn’t really matter; there are other alternatives (notably, combining biofuels and sequestration) that might be better. But, regardless, this kind of research makes me even more confident that the technologies we need to reduce our CO2 emissions as much as necessary, and without radically changing our lifestyle (or our political philosophies) are out there. All we need to do is decide, as a species, that CO2 reductions are to be made and how the burden of cost is to be shared.

Posted in environment, science, Technology
21 comments on “Putting the genie back in the bottle
  1. tim says:

    I think this is the crux of the issue, for me, Robert:

    “if there is a fallback technology that can save us from disaster, it represents an additional argument to delay action on climate change”

    More specifically, currently so few resources are allocated to climate change mitigation that efforts to draw down carbon are going to have be at the expense of efforts to prevent emissions. That, in my view, is seriously problematic. It is symptomatic of a very sick attitude to continue with a behaviour that is clearly dangerous and hope that somehow we’ll be able to deal with it later on.

    Of course, that’s what we humans do all the time, isn’t it? Keep smoking, eating too much, etc, trusting in modern medicine to fix us up when we get sick.

    By the way, I’m not at all saying that your attitude is sick, Robert. I totally see your desire for both prevention and cure. Indeed, I think anyone who understands how urgent and serious climate change is is also looking for some safe way of drawing down carbon.

    Stolaroff’s thesis, for me, suffers from the same problem of geoseq – you’ll still end up burying a supercritical toxic substance and hoping that it’ll stay there. If it doesn’t, you’ve completely lost any climate benefit you may have gained in the meantime.

    Bioenergy plus sequestration for me holds the most interest. Have you heard of Terra Preta de Indio? http://www.css.cornell.edu/faculty/lehmann/terra_preta/TerraPretahome.htm

    There’s some fascinating research going on at Cornell into using bioenergy to produce bio-char and sequester that in soils, getting multiple benefits of increased fertility and climate protection. In particular, check out the Lehmann, Gaunt and Rondon article linked from the bottom of this page:http://www.css.cornell.edu/faculty/lehmann/biochar/Biochar_energy.htm

  2. tim says:

    Ooops. That second link again:


    Actually, this may work to get you straight to the article itself:

    http://www.css.cornell.edu/faculty/lehmann/publ/MitAdaptStratGlobChange 11, 403-427, Lehmann, 2006.pdf


  3. Tim, the key part of Stolaroff’s thesis is how you get the carbon out of the air in the first place. You could adapt it to any sequestration technology you choose, including mineral sequestration.

    As to the concern about the cost of this displacing emissions reduction efforts, that’s why carbon charging is so important, so that the most cost-efficient ways to reduce carbon emissions are taken.

    I just want to see a bit of early-stage R&D money thrown at air capture technologies now, so that if in 2020-2025 or so we realise we have to actively start sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere if we want to save existing ecosystems we’re able to do so.

  4. Enemy Combatant says:

    Robert, many people have moved away from the cargo cult mentality that a magic scientific bullet, like Mighty Mouse, will save the day. These folk are hard at work adding the finishing touches to the costumes that their kiddies will wear to the Extinction Party.

    Apparantly, Malcolm Turnbull is terribly excited to be making his entrance as Little Lord Fauntleroy, but is set to dazzle us all with an outfit switch to AquaBoy before he deivers the eulogy for our Great Barrier Reef.

    Havn’t you heard? Malcolm and his government have known about all this for quite some time. This isn’t just another Black & White Ball, you know.
    It’s our Biosphere!

  5. Brian says:

    I just want to see a bit of early-stage R&D money thrown at air capture technologies now, so that if in 2020-2025 or so we realise we have to actively start sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere if we want to save existing ecosystems we’re able to do so.

    I’d have to say I agree with this 100%. Not as the main game, but an avenue to be explored in case we need it.

    I’m by nature a bit of a hoarder, and in principle if we suck carbon out of the air, or out of fossil fuel power plants, I’d like to put it somewhere that we could get at it if we need to in say 500 or 1,000 years time.

    Also, in principle, it seems to me a good idea that we can remove the carbon at the point where we want to keep it. The CO2 molecule is 3.67 times heavier than carbon. Most of what we are storing is actually oxygen. But CO2 is awfully difficult, say, to capture in the Hunter Valley and then lug off to the NW Shelf to sequester. So the cost of transport needs to be figured into the equation somewhere. Or you put the power station next to the sequestration site and transport the electricity.

    I assume mineral sequestration includes the concept enunciated by Klaus Lackner of using an alkaline igneuos rock, including above ground storage:

    Lackner presents a more permanent method of CO2 disposal through neutralization in carbonate form. This could be accomplished by injecting CO2 into alkaline mineral rich layers of the Earth. When exposed to alkaline minerals, CO2 gas reacts with the alkaline mineral to form carbonates or bicarbonates. Another option is to mine, crush, and react rock that is rich in magnesium silicates with CO2 to form insoluble carbonates. Although this latter method is still more costly, it “would enable above-ground mineral sequestration that has the capacity of binding all CO2 that could ever be generated and limiting the environmental impact, including terrain changes, to relatively confined areas.â€?

    I’m sure pulling it directly out of the air and powedering up the rock would be very expensive, but we need to let the ideas flow at this stage.

  6. Steve D says:

    Due to to the greed that has gotten us to this point in the first place, BioFuels appear not to be the answer.

    In the Phillipines they are clearing rainforest to grow oil palms. In the Americas the price of corn has almost doubled because it is now a sought after to make fuel. If you are a poor Mexican this really sucks.

  7. Brian, that’s exactly the mineral sequestration I’m referring to.

    Steve D, yes, biofuels from conventional crops are a crock of farmer-subsidising pigeon poo. Biofuels from non-food crops, like algae, are more practical.

    Furthermore, the idea of converting biomass to liquid fuel is terribly complicated and necessitates selecting your feedstock carefully. If you just burn the stuff to boil water, it’s much simpler and lets you burn virtually any biomass you want.

  8. Brian says:

    tim, I had heard about the fertile soils in the Amazon basin, presumably from earlier indigenous agriculture.

    A soil scientist I met at a party recently told me (if I remember rightly) that a very small amount of carbon was left behind in the soil through plant growth in the normal carbon cycle, but taken across the planet it was a very significant carbon sink. She said little was known about how/why this happened, but soil disturbance through tillage in industrial farming tended to release this carbon into the air.

    Obviously if the ancient Amazonians had farming methods that added to soil carbon it’s worth finding out about.

    Robert, when I first heard about biodiesel it was from a radio interview with this bloke who was taking waste fat from fish and chips shops and turning it into diesel, not to save the planet but because it was cheap.

    I’ve since heard of farmers making their own through an apparently low entry, small-scale technical operation.

    I don’t know what potential it has but on the face of it, if you are using waste as feed-stock and bypassing the multinationals it can’t be bad. I guess it ends up with CO2 in the air just the same, though.

  9. Brian, there’s nothing wrong with that as far as it goes.

    The trouble is when you calculate how much biodiesel or ethanol you can get from a hectare of cropland, and look at the amount of cropland available, you rapidly come to the conclusion that biofuels from current food crops can only replace a small fraction of our current liquid fuel.

    The optimists point to massive tracts of “wasteland” not currently under agriculture using crops like switchgrass to produce cellulosic ethanol, but, really, does anybody seriously think it’s a great idea to radically expand the amount of land currently being cultivated for human needs?

    The other issue that makes me question the whole idea is that the tropical crops with the best potential to produce biofuels – sugarcane and oil palms – have serious environmental consequences of their own sufficient to make you seriously question the wisdom of radically expanding production of either.

  10. carbonsink says:

    If you ever need convincing that biofuels are boondoggle, and electrifying transportation is the way to go, look here.

  11. Brian says:

    Robert, I’ve always been sceptical about biofuels, basically for the reasons you mention. I think I’ve mentioned before, but there was a long and I thought fruitful discussion on the topic at Quiggin’s post on dead zones in the ocean, also a worry.

    As I recall, BilB was arguing in favour of biofuels. Carbonsink used to favour them but the more he read, the more worries he had. There were contributions by wilful and Gordon. I thought carbonsink won the day.

    My query at this stage was that there seemed to be a low entry, niche industry based on waste fat/oil from plant sources. I don’t know how much such waste there is in the world, but I expect it wouldn’t be much. So it is probably nothing more than a curiosity. As soon as you star growing it for the purpose, I suspect it becomes a rather bad idea.

  12. carbonsink says:

    Mark, IMO the authority on all things ethanol (and biofuels) is Robert Rapier.

    For further reading try: Peak Energy, The Oil Drum and Energy Bulletin. Warning: the last two are inhabited by hard core peak oil “doomers”

  13. Brian says:

    carbonsink, thanks for the comment and links.

    My last comment and your first were cross-posted.

    You seem to be having a few problems with names-:)

    I’ve taken the liberty of correcting Catbonsink in the name attribution of your first post.

    Also Mark hasn’t commented on this thread yet. I’m the good looking one, albeit without a gravatar just yet.

  14. Dany le roux says:

    The way you get caustic soda is usually by the electrolysis of sea water.Suddenly Howard’s saying solar can never replace something like coal or nuclear for baseload (because you cannot store solar generated elecricity for after dark use) is, on the face of it in danger of losing meaning.
    You can store the caustic soda produced from eg solar panels from quite easily when the sun goes down but the big problem with the electrolysis of seawater is the concurrent production of chlorine which is not very pleasant stuff-needs to be sequestered.

  15. Dom says:

    While I think that cleaning up excess carbon or offsetting are worth doing, there’s a need for humans to adopt a sustainable lifestyle at some point (and, I sense, pretty soon). The analogy that comes to mind is being diagnosed with cancer. It’s not necessarily fatal. However, most people with a will to survive typically adopt some kind of remedial actions with a sense of urgency (and are prepared to sacrifice significantly in order to turn things around).

    Excess carbon is purely a symptom of “the disease”. There is a cause and effect chain that has its roots (IMHO) in the values of consumption. To me, it’s those values that are “the genie” – not the carbon. What if there was a way where people can get what they want and need out of life without risking the ecosystem?

    There would be immense value in finding a way to redesign communities of people who can operate in an eco-friendly way – pre-industrialised farming techniques based on current knowledge of nature and technologies, green-manufacturing, etc. I’m relatively new to Australia and still in the process of building local networks. But this is a project that I will have a go at – one way or another. Setting up a charity for the perpetuation of primary living techniques, getting some land and designing and running a functioning community along with a visitor centre to facilitate people making radically different choices about their interaction with the ecosystem.

    Who else should I be engaging with?

  16. observa says:

    ” All we need to do is decide, as a species, that CO2 reductions are to be made…”
    Of course many people like to think that somehow we are not part of the natural environment. Perhaps it was our intrinsic role to unlock all that sequestered carbon locked up over the millenia. All part of the Creator’s grand plan, or was it simply that we evolved over time to do so eh?

  17. Dom, while there would be some contributors here who would agree with you to a greater or lesser extent, you might have gathered I’m not one. Consumption is not the problem in and of itself. It is what we consume, and how we dispose of it, that is the problem, and in my personal the solution is in large part about more and better technology rather than less.

    That said, you might be interested in CERES in Brunswick, a suburb of Melbourne.

  18. Dom says:

    Thanks for your reply, Robert. I will check out CERES.

    I don’t mean to be simplistic about the consumption thing and I am not anti-technology (per se). But, in my view, technology needs to be carefully guided by conscience and eco-awareness.

    You can’t stop progress – that is human nature and it is what makes life interesting. However, you can revisit what you define as progress. The industrial revolution (intro of steam-engine, etc.) precipitated a quantum shift in productivity. It coincided with economic models such as those of Adam Smith, the empire-building of the West and a major departure from religious ideals (facilitated by alternatives to creation as origin theories – e.g. Darwinism).

    Trade and commerce have always been around and always will be in human society. However, the scale which the industrial revolution enabled was exponential. Religious leaders – formerly providing the basis of society’s moral codes – lost their credibility and influence over nation’s laws (with the exception of some unstable, fundamentalist states). Governments are now driven by corporate agendas – which are typically wealth accumulation for shareholders without much consideration of conscience or collective wellbeing.

    We’re pretty much talking about the seven things which Gandhi said would destroy us:-
    – Wealth Without Work
    – Pleasure Without Conscience
    – Knowledge Without Character
    – Commerce (Business) Without Morality (Ethics)
    – Science Without Humanity
    – Religion Without Sacrifice
    – Politics Without Principle

    The effects (which are clearly accelerating) are only now becoming obvious:-
    – imbalances between developed countries whose consumption often perpetuates the poverty of others
    – increasing instability of the eco-system
    – potential Pandora’s box in terms of genetic experimentation – and shocking practices such as farming embryos (only tolerable on account of the gradual desensitising and secularisation of society)
    – etc.

    Will nature restore homeostasis through her own interventions – plagues, environmentally-cataclysmic events (e.g. New Orleans), etc? Or will humans either revise their current trajectory or, as Jared Diamond warns in his book “Collapse”, will the human race fundamentally undermine the sustainability
    of its ecosystem and, like many societies in the past, eventually succumb (and perhaps take many, if not all, species with them)?

    I joined this forum because I’m interested in dialogue. I have some strong views but I’m also open to influence. Humans could immediately make significant reductions in carbon outputs just by governments’ deciding that only green cars can be manufactured. Of course, this still requires production of metal and plastic. But what if we returned to a situation where more people were involved in primary living skills – e.g. producing something essential to their sustenance (like food) rather than trading their time for a meagre wage from a wealth-driven “industrialist” and then going to the food factory (supermarket)? Much of what is produced (and, in turn, produces ecological imbalance) is not essential to people’s sustenance. And, for many hundreds of years, humans lived full lives without jeopardising their ecosystem. There has always been travel and transport and manufacture. We’re now aware that carbon-fuelled methods produce threatening consequences. So why not provide a deadline for the full adoption of alternative technologies or revert to previous (non-harmful) ones? And, just because carbon-fuelled forms of transport has enabled people to live far from their work, or do business with people great distances away or live far from other family members doesn’t mean that we can’t revisit such practices if it turns out that there’s no safe way to keep doing them.

    Too radical? Like I said, I don’t expect too many people to joyfully embrace what I’m saying. In the same way, many cures for potentially terminal diseases are radical and, perhaps, a little unappealing. However, if we want to go on living….?

    I have a vision of providing a holistic and functional societal model – albeit small scale – based on sustainable, ecoistic principles. I have served as a community leader on big acreage in the past. I have also spent time living a pre-industrial lifestyle – my uncle’s farm in Wales. I currently work in the field of organisational-design, etc. I will find a way to make this happen. I don’t expect to convince many people of my views. I will convince more people if they can SEE a working, viable and appealing alternative – i.e. “Be the change you wish to see.” Quality of life is not about STUFF, it is very much about the matching of VALUES with living. When our values and behaviours are misaligned with nature then there are consequences. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his book “Flow”, has outlined the correlation between pre-industrial living and higher incidences of happiness.

    Let’s have some debate. If you prefer not, then I’ll happily bow out.

  19. observa says:

    Those 10 percenters still keep making noise http://www.news.com.au/story/0,23599,21542331-1702,00.html

  20. Brian says:

    He said he found that about 0.1 per cent of the atmospheric carbon dioxide was due to human activity and much of the rest due to little-understood geological phenomena.

    Observa, I’d be interested in how Ian Plimer explains how the increase of CO2 from 280ppm to 380ppm is definitely due to these “little-understood geological phenomena” and how the very considerable emissions in recent times from fossil fuels, from land use changes (deforestation) and from agriculture are absorbed or vanish. He’s saying that only 0.38ppm of the 380 is due to human activity!

    Other than that, much of what he says is unremarkable.

    Dom, much as some people may be interested in a discussion of alternative societal forms based on different values and production systems, I suspect it is unlikely to break out on this thread. It probably requires setting up in a separate post.

    I guess you’re not thinking of the many alternative lifestyle communes established in the late 60s and 70s, of which Nimbin is the most famous Australian example. (More sites here and here.)

    Possibly you’d be interested in the permaculture concept, which you can learn about at a price.

  21. Dom says:

    Thanks Brian. I’ve been to Nimbin once – it just seemed to be a cannabis-fest with little else going on. Right now I’m hooking in with ICLEI – I’m serious about social change not just mixing with people of a “new-age” disposition. Perhaps I should have a deeper look there

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