Tuesday, 20 February 2007

"Save" the world & earn $25 mil by fooling everybody

Richard "VirginAir" Branson's recent competition announcement for successful atmospheric carbon capture & storage technology that scales has peppered the discussion again on geo-atmospheric engineering.

This is not the first time these things have been discussed. Some serious climatologist have already suggested that we should consider "dirtying" the atmosphere to ensure that global dimming continues to protect us from further warming of the climate.

So, drastic times call for drastic measures, eh?

Perhaps, but even drastic measures must obey the laws of physics.

Big technological atmospheric geo-engineering attempts have a high likelihood of being not only misguided, but producing the reverse of the desired result.

Let's use the Branson's competition as an example.

What is required to capture C02 from atmosphere and lessen it's impact on global warming?

  1. Extracting CO2 from air takes a non-trivial amount of energy (at scales we are talking about)
  2. Binding this CO2 into a liquid/solid that is environmentally harmless requires some energy (for 1&2 - if it was highly reactive and not inert, it wouldn't stay in the atmosphere, would it?)
  3. Moving this resulting matter into a place where it can be stored and poses no risk of re-release of CO2, is still available for normal earth carbon cycle (i.e. isn't hermeneutically sealed for thousands of years) and is environmentally safe requires A LOT of energy.
1+2+3=lot of energy requirements.

Where does this energy come from?

What is the most abundant, economical & infrastructure ready fuel we have after oil & gas?


Which in turn releases CO2 (carbon capture & sequestration is pure "on paper" technology, no plants exist for it).

Somebody has to do the calculations, but if the laws of thermodynamics still apply, this may not be a winning proposition overall. Not in terms of energy use or in terms of CO2 bound.

Now, about "passive" systems - these are more interesting, but...

First of all, passive is a misnomer.
All systems require energy to do their work.
Passive here probably means: a free no man-made external power supply (that must be re-filled) is included.

Second, no energy in earth eco-system if by definition "free". Earth has several mass-energy cycles that keep it in equilibrium. As a thought game, if one were to remove all the energy from winds for example, what do you think would happen to the earth wind/cloud/rain atmospheric cycle? It would cease to exist. And so would life on earth.

So beware of anybody bearing gifts of energy with titles like "free" or "clean" or "harmless" slapped onto them.

Still, educated people say that passive CO2 systems are possible, although the energy calculations they base they thinking on is clearly limited to the chemical bond level only.

This is a classic case of defining the system boundary in an EROI (or here CO2) calculation.

Somebody has to build these systems, somebody has to install them, somebody has to service them and the output (e.g. calcium carbonate) must be moved and stored.

All this requires huge amounts of energy that in turn must be produced (currently using C02 releasing technologies).

So is there another solution out of the dilemma?

Can we fix bad CO2 polluting technologies before we actually come up with a clearly C02 binding (better than C02 neutral) energy technology that scales to world wide production FAST, and not in 50 years?

I think the last bastion of research lies in the field of bio-engineering of bacteria, plankton and enzymes. And biologist know this.

The only way any living system may operate in near equilibrium state is when the feces & trash of some species become the primary fuel of other species, which in turn produce fuel for the first (or third) species.

Currently we are fairly far off from this kind of equilibrium. We are producing way too much CO2 (at an increasing pace) and there is not enough living organisms to scale to meet that output and use it up.
Another way of looking at the C02 emission problem is that we have a massive energy cycle non-equilibrium. The resulting C02 is not being bound and used by other energy binding/releasing mechanisms.
Can we manufacture such a beast at massive scale AND not risk the likelihood of tipping the non-equilibrium towards the reverse trend (too little CO2)?

Or... should we seriously consider alternative approaches to all these first order law defying exercises and concentrate on the processes of allostasis on the global human scale?

If I were Branson, I'd seriously consider hiring a group of guys to do a full value-stream mapping of the whole energy use in the air traffic business and figure way to use X0% less fuel, fly X0% less, use a less carbon intensive alternative for kerosene and capture the C02 out of the fuel used.

That's where I'd put my $25 mil to begin with.

But that wouldn't buy Branson publicity, give him an image of a "nice environmental guy" in the minds of the masses and let everybody think that "this problem is now practically solved, and markets will take care of it."
And most importantly: according to corporate speech, it's not the job of profit making entities to fix the climate. Companies are "beyond morality" and only exist to make profit at maximum levels, by offsetting some of their expenses as externalities to others.
No solution. Case closed?