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Carbon Conversion is Key to Solving Climate Change Problems

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed into law an amendment to the Clean Air Act that mandated emissions reductions of the harmful pollutant sulfur dioxide, SO2, from coal-fired power plants. The government did not instruct industry how they were to achieve the reductions, but merely that they were required to. A novel system called ‘cap and trade’ was implemented for the first time that allowed polluters some flexibility in how they met the targets by trading credits.

Cap and trade was a market based policy innovation that broke with the typical ‘command and control’ methods for reducing pollution. The market-based approach led to a wave of innovation in exhaust scrubber technologies and created a profitable market for sulfur products that was not anticipated. There is now a large market for sulfur commodities derived from coal, particularly in agrochemicals, a market that reached 41.1 million metric tons in 2012. The cap and trade model was so successful that SO2 pollution was reduced by 50% far faster than predicted and at one-fourth of the expected costs according to EDF (Environmental Defense Fund), one of the original architects of the plan.

The current model generally promoted for reducing carbon dioxide emissions is ‘carbon capture and sequestration’, taking CO2 that has been extracted from exhaust streams and injecting it underground into geological formations such as saline aquifers for disposal. There are serious flaws in this model, in particular that it fails to recognize the market mechanism that made SO2 reductions so successful, conversion of the polluting element into a marketable commodity.

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Underground CO2 sequestration treats carbon dioxide as a waste product to be disposed of in a post-modern landfill. By definition this process is an economic liability for someone, whether it is the power plant owners or the taxpayers, someone has to pay the bill for all the work. Once disposed of the CO2 deposits must be monitored for leakage into eternity because concentrated CO2 is very dangerous, it is an invisible and odorless asphyxiant that is heavier than air and stays low to the ground. The Lake Nyos tragedy in Cameroon in 1986 saw the deaths of 1,700 people and 3,500 livestock when a natural carbon dioxide formation suddenly released and killed nearly everyone in a 25 km path. Under these circumstances there is no economic rationale to engage in large scale carbon sequestration underground, it could only be imposed by law.

There is another way forward. Convert the carbon dioxide into useful products, just as was done with sulfur dioxide. This is a big challenge as the volume of CO2 that needs to be sequestered is incredibly large, a single coal power plant can produce millions of tons of CO2 per year and global estimates are in the billions of tons per year. But there is proof this model can work, as the only successful carbon sequestration projects so far have been those that sell CO2 for use in oil drilling such as the Dakota Gas Synfuels plant or the new Kemper County, MS coal gasification plant. Drillers inject CO2 into old oil wells in a process called ‘enhanced oil recovery’ (EOR), CO2 reacts with petroleum to make it less viscous and flow better allowing continued production after the initial phase has tapered off. Denbury Resources specializes in tertiary oil recovery using CO2 and owns hundreds of miles of CO2 pipelines. But the market for EOR is not nearly large enough to consume all the CO2 being produced and there are logistical challenges in locating pipelines to move the CO2, so this is not a complete solution but it points us in the right direction. Make CO2 into a commodity and the market will take care of it.

CO2 is a useful molecule and a basic building block of life. CO2 can be polymerized (turned into plastics), mineralized (turned into stone such as calcium carbonate), used to grow plants or put to work in a variety of industrial and scientific applications. CO2 can be converted into fuels as well, but it requires energy to break the molecular bonds so there is a tricky energy balance that must be worked out for any CO2 to fuels process to be effective. With that in mind there are a number of firms seeking to take advantage of cheap forms of energy such as industrial waste heat or desert solar to produce CO2 fuels.

Many entrepreneurs see the opportunity in this emerging market and the science has leaped forward in recent years. Examples include Novomer, a small chemicals firm that has developed novel catalysts that convert CO2 into polymers and plastics. Joule is a biotech startup that is using waste CO2 to feed bacteria that produce ethanol and diesel. Skyonic and Calera corporations are mineralizing CO2 for use in construction materials.

The challenge of finding a market for billions of tons of carbon dioxide is undoubtedly enormous, but so are the consequences of not succeeding. Climate change caused by excessive CO2 pollution is an existential problem gripping humanity. Yet coal consumption is growing globally by leaps and bounds as China, India and the rest of the developing world seek to raise the standard of living for billions of people.  Energy is needed to lift the poor up out of poverty and coal is the world’s dominant form of energy. Despite all the advances in alternatives and renewable energy, coal is still king. An effective solution is needed to reduce the carbon emissions from coal burning and simply ordering people to change, or attempting to appeal to them through moral persuasion is inadequate.

The lesson learned from reducing SO2 can apply to CO2, yes the problem is bigger and tougher, but the same rules apply. Convert pollution from a liability into an asset by putting a price on carbon and let the market handle it. Treating CO2 as toxic waste ensures that it ends up as toxic waste, complete with a huge bill and long-term liabilities. But if we can treat CO2 as a misallocated asset and develop a market for it then we can solve the problem. We can convert CO2 into a family of useful products, create new industries and hopefully solve climate change in one fell swoop.

This article originally appeared on Breaking Energy.   
http://breakingenergy.com/2014/02/05/carbon-conversion-is-key-to-solving-climate-change-problems/

Content Discussion

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on February 10, 2014

This is wishful thinking of the highest order. Currently we put almost 10 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels. In total we produce something like 0.3 billion tonnes of plastic. We would need to more than triple demand for plastic and use CO2 in 100% of plastics production for us to handle even 10% of global emissions. A complete non-starter.

And the other suggestions display are also incredibly dubious. Using CO2 to create fuels? Well, what happens to that carbon when you burn that fuel?

Not only this, but the article seems to assume that we can capture 100% of CO2. Not even close. Planes, ships, cars, trains, the gas furnaces that heat people’s houses. Add up the stuff that we cannot possibly capture and you quickly realise that this proposal isn’t even a half solution.

Joe Schiewe's picture
Joe Schiewe on February 10, 2014

Our school teachers told us that to be socially responsible we should reduce, reuse and recycle (RRR) but they generally left the ‘How to” (rightfully so) up to us. I also remember the use of energy provides many benefits to society including reduction in slavery, reduced population growth, moderates the cutting of our forests and provides us time to study and enjoy many other aspects of life other than security, sustenance and procreation.  This being said, it does seem incredibly selfish and socially irresponsible to just point source emit into our biosphere the enormous amount of fossil fuel exhaust CO2, other gasses & particulates, and fly ash in much greater concentrations than the natural environment with very little effort to RRR.  We are doing so little to mitigate for these selfish emissions (or even capturing it for potential later use) that I believe we could do a lot better. At least the nuclear industry, post construction, is required to capture its waste/contaminated fuel (at concentrations lower than the average national natural background levels) for future permanent sequester or fuel in Gen IV fast or molten salt reactors.  I agree that we should allow all proven RRR opportunities of fossil fuel emissions to contribute to us being more socially responsible.  I also believe due to be true to what we learned in school that the enormous quantities of the emissions will make this task a daunting/almost impossible endeavor. 

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on February 10, 2014

Robert,

No where in the article did I claim that carbon conversion was the complete solution.  My claim, and I stand by it, is that market forces can be used to drive people’s behaviors, including converting carbon dioxide waste into useful products.  

There is a geological precedent for storing billions of tons of carbon dioxide in the form of calcium carbonate, limestone, and good old fashioned soil.  CO2 plastics could potentially be a huge industry, and if able to be used as building material could displace lumber and concrete, both of which have large carbon impacts of their own.  CO2 fuels are obviously trickier, but who I am to say that some clever inventer could never come up with a workable solution, I was impressed with what I saw from Joule.  Our modern life is awash with examples of game changing inventions that no one saw coming.

And while it is true that there is no effective solution (that I am aware of) to capture CO2 from small combustion devices, we do have proven abilities to capture large quantities of CO2 from coal when coal gasification is employed.  While “clean coal” is often derided by environmentalists, the fact is that these technologies give us the capability of capturing CO2 (as well as the criteria pollutants) in concentrated streams.  The next step is to find a useful purpose for CO2 as opposed to treating it as a toxic waste liability.

There is not going to be a single solution for CO2 pollution, we are going to need to rely on a combination of fuel substitution, efficiency, carbon capture and land mangement.  Carbon conversion is an important  piece of this effort, but not the only piece.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on February 10, 2014

Of course there is a solution to capturing CO2 from small combution devices: pre-combution capture.  Before the fuel is delivered to the end user, used the primary fuel to make H2 or ammonia fuel, and capture the CO2 in the fuel plant.

Of course, we’ll need a supplemental energy source (such as solar or nuclear) to convert the captured CO2 into plastic or more fuel.  This brings up the question, why not skip a step, and use the supplemental energy source to make the H2 or ammonia fuel directly, and not dig up the fossil fuel at all?

CO2 is a feedstock, not an energy source.  Maybe we’ll find a killer application for it, but to gamble our environment on that outcome is wildly optimistic.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on February 11, 2014

Edward

You really need to think these ideas through, and try to actually to quantify things.

Who on earth is going to replace concrete and lumber with plastics? And why would we want them to. Energy intensity of current plastic production is around 80 MJ/kg, while cement is only 5 MJ/kg globally.

And Ed, please don’t try to back down on what the article claims. The article clearly states that we can solve climate change with carbon conversion. It’s a shame you are totally incapable of providing some evidence of how this can add up. So, here’s a challenge. Currently around 30 billion tonnes of CO2 is pumped into the air by burning fossil fuels. How many billion tonnes do you think we get rid off using carbon conversion? If you aren’t capable of answering this simple question I would suggest your article is just hot air.

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on February 11, 2014

Actually Robert I can identify plenty of reasons to substitute lumber for plastics.  As a carpenter who has done quite a bit of home building and renovations I would be happy to use synthetic lumber instead of wood.  Perfectly straight, rot resistant, consistent quality.  Today’s lumber is typically 30 year old pine, full of knots and low quality, not like the old growth wood American homes were originally built with.  Synthetic lumber, if available in the right quantities and pricing could be a huge benefit to the construction trades. Additionally, by displacing lumber in construction we preserve those forest resources for other uses; habitat, carbon sink, etc. 

This one industry could be hundreds of millions of tons globally.  And no, plastic lumber is not a single solution to our carbon problems.  And no I am not going to search out lumber industry trade data for the purpose of this exchange.

Speaking of quantification, you state 30 billion tons of CO2 in this post, but 10 billion tons in your other post, which is it?  10-12 billion tons is the number I generally hear.

So how do we displace 10 billion tons of CO2?  As you state in your article fossil fuel use is not going away.  I happen to think CO2 is a solvable problem.  Do you have solutions or do you merely like to poke holes? 

I never suggested we convert all 10 billion tons of CO2.  I think we can convert a few billion tons and develop healthy new industries that put people to work while we are at.  Second, we need efficiency and fuel substitution to non carbon sources such as nukes and renewables where it is effective, but that does not get us all the way there.  Where we still require hydrocarbons, like in aviation, we emphasize natural gas, synthetic hydrocarbons and biofuels (preferably not ethanol) that have the lowest fossil carbon ratios.  And finally we will have to live with some carbon emissions which will need to be balanced out with land mangement techniques.

Yes this all deserves more quantification and elucidation, but that would require a book not a blog post.

 

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on February 11, 2014

Edward,

I said 10 billion tonnes of carbon, not carbon dioxide. Given the chemical composition of plastic it’s better to start with the weight of carbon going into the atmosphere, not carbon dioxide.

And again, these numbers are well known, so telling me the numbers that you generally hear doesn’t give me much confidence. In particular you end up talking about “converting all 10 billion tons of CO2”. Please make an effort to get the basic facts correct. CO2 emissions are well documented, e.g. by the CDIAC:

http://cdiac.ornl.gov/trends/emis/meth_reg.html

And Edward, you are the one who put forward a solution here. If someone pokes holes in it, don’t complain, explain why they are wrong.

And again you just wave your hands when I ask how much CO2 we can deal with using carbon conversion. What exactly do you mean by a “few billion tonnes”? Do you have anything concrete to offer up here?

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on February 11, 2014

Robert,

The real thrust of my argument was that we need to put the proper economic incentives in place to promote carbon conversion and that carbon sequestration underground is doomed to fail precisely because it lacks any economic incentive for anyone to do the job correctly.  Any argument there?

CO2 can be a useful feedstock for a variety of commodity products in industries with potential to scale dramatically.  I stand by this argument.

We are going off into the weeds a bit into some of the technical details.  I will admit that I don’t know all the chemistry, if I did I would go into the business myself.  But the world is full of talented, inventive problem solvers and this is kind of thinking that is required to get us out this mess.

I will accept the criticism of being an optimist.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on February 11, 2014

Edward

Your piece claims that carbon conversion is the key to solving climate change. Yet you are completely incapable of giving me a figure for the percentage of CO2 we can save using carbon conversion. Why do you write such poorly thought through articles? Get an envelope and use the back of it. How much carbon do we put into the atmosphere each year? How much plastic do we produce each year? Get these numbers, compare them, and see where things stand. Telling readers that something is a solution to climate change without even making a half effort to quantify it is ridiculous.

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on February 11, 2014

Robert, you are parsing the headline, not the heart of the argument, which is that proper economic incentives are needed to resolve our carbon problems.

I don’t have a number for how much carbon dioxide can be converted, these would be new industries, any numbers would be pure speculation.  This does not change my argument.

But you think I am full of shit, that is fine, everyone is entitled to their opinion.

What is your prescription for solving our climate and energy crisis?  I would love to hear it.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on February 11, 2014

I think we all debate from personal experience. Then we get frustrated when others don’t “see” what we see.

Living in the agricultural upper midwest US for over half a century, and family back to the fur trading days, I think we are already seeing profound re-use of CO2. Sandy areas like Nebraska and the Dakotas are incorporating huge amounts of carbon in the soil, and crops show it. And forests are growing bigger and faster to Hudson Bay. I urged European post-docs to see what grows here.

On the flip side, I was laughed at around here for using rock and more rock and more steel and concrete in an area that thinks tin stapled to sticks is a great building if it doesn’t have wheels. Then my kids moved to Europe and cities. I got to visit Oxford and was totally blown away.

I suspect if we learn to get along we might “see” we are making good progress on many fronts advocated here. The world isn’t done yet. Did anyone “see” that 15 year old woman Russian skater in the Olympics? You got to believe in a better tomorrow.

Joe Schiewe's picture
Joe Schiewe on February 11, 2014

Robert: You caught me.  I am a dreamer, a wishful thinker and perhaps even some would say that I am an optimist.  I appreciate your candor and passion on the subject.  I humbly admit that I am as socially irresponsible as the next. My family owns two petrol fueled cars, a home heated with natural gas and we are a consumer of electric power that has some component from coal generation.  I would say that I am currently just as addicted to fossil fuels as the rest of the world.  I, like most reasonably intelligent people, have preferred ideas on how to RRR & C fossil fuels and I also realize that to make any substantial inroads to this massive, complex and highly economic challenge, it will require changes that will be resisted by those who will be required to sacrifice unequally (probably me to some extent) in this endeavor.  For me, those discussions are outside the scope of the article.  In fact, I consider many of the current efforts to stem the dumping of billions of tons of fossil fuel emissions into the air and land are wasteful, counter productive and line the pockets of some who are socially and politically connected.

I agree with you that, with the status quo and perhaps never, that capturing 100% of fossil fuel CO2 emissions is probably far fetched in the near and medium future.  I am also pretty sure that my hope was to not emit more the average national background from a point source – again something that may be far fetched due to the complexity of the challenge and the immense investment that we have in that industry.  My current preference would be too invest in efforts along the lines that Nathan raised but I realize that every real effort will have pros and cons therefore I don’t like to discount out of hand other potential ideas to address the issue. I appreciate Mr. Dodge’s efforts to contribute and allow us to share our thoughts on fossil fuel emission carbon reuse – I don’t take this opportunity lightly.  It seems that with the magnitude of the issue, we should be discussing it more with our families, friends, co-workers, bloggers, politically connected and politicians, for our addictions typically lead to much greater sacrifice in the future if we don’t get control of them.  I like having fuels that improve my life style without enslaving others but that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t consider, not squander and perhaps mitigate the full cost of it.  Call me selfish, fool hardy and/or enlighted but perhaps that is why I prefer the potential of a fuel born in the stars that has over a million times more energy per ton of waste.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on February 11, 2014

Edward

I am not saying you are full of shit, I am simply asking that you actually attempt to quantify how much carbon dioxide can be saved through carbon conversion.

And defending a fantasy solution to climate change by asking me what my solution is does you no favours. Either defend your own proposals or admit they are flawed.

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on February 11, 2014

Robert,

My argument is that we learned something from the highly successful experiment in using market based solutions to control sulfur dioxide emissions.  With the proper economic incentives in place new and unanticipated markets were created for the molecule previously considered pollution.

I believe we can the employ same mechanisms to help solve the problem of CO2 pollution, CO2 can be put to good use.

We can quibble all day on how many tons of CO2 can be converted to this or that, but no one has hard data because it has hardly been tried before.

And I still have yet to read in any of your articles a positive prescription for any solutions.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on February 11, 2014

Edward

I don’t think you can with this debate, if that’s the word, by pointing to me not providing solutions. This is not a schoolyard. We are discussing your proposals. You are either capable and willing of defending them or you are not. The fact that I normally don’t act as a policy advocate is beside the point.

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on February 11, 2014

Policy proposals are precisely what I am interested in.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on February 11, 2014

comment moved to top of thread.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on February 11, 2014

Edward, the defacto solution to climate change advocated by groups like the IEA is for humanity to stop emitting CO2 from energy use with renewables, nuclear power, and even CO2 capture and sequestration (plus other stuff like land use changes etc).  

It is fine to suggest new areas of research, which might be economically preferred should suitable breakthroughs occur, but as of today, there are no other proven solutions (other than the degenerate solution of eliminating the vast majority of the human population).  It is important to distinguish long-shot ideas that might help from  the established solutions that are advocated by mainstream scientific/technical organization. 

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on February 11, 2014

Nathan, I stand by my premise that carbon conversion is more promising than sequestering underground because it provides an economic incentive.  Where sequestration underground has worked it is because they were able to sell the CO2.

This is already an active area of research with very promising results and companies bringing products to market.

http://www.netl.doe.gov/research/coal/carbon-storage/research-and-development/co2-utilization 

I am not opposed any and all legimate alternatives to coal.  I want to reduce coal usage as much as anyone else, but lets face the facts that coal usage is absolutely massive and not going away anytime soon.  We have to find some kind of solution for CO2 that works. 

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on February 11, 2014

Small hydro is a tiny resource (at least in the US) and has terrible seasonal load correlation (most annual energy is delivered during the spring snow melt, when electricity demand is lowest).  Obama is not to blame for that.

Earth’s big sustainable energy resources are solar, wind, and nuclear.  No matter how many small resources (e.g. hydro, biomass, hydrothermal, wave, etc) we find and develop, they will never add up to the majority of our energy.

David MacKay’s free on-line book, Sustainable Energy – without the Hot Air, has a great section describing how much annual energy is actually available from different sources.

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