A way to reduce atmospheric concentrations of CO2?

A reader of mine recently e-mailed with a list of ideas on how to deal with our energy and environmental crises. One that struck me as interesting, and I hadn’t given it much thought before, was to use biomass — or municipal solid waste, for that matter — directly as a fuel for generating electricity, combined with the ability to capture and sequester carbon emissions from that approach. In the case of “clean coal,” this ability to capture and store carbon might make a generating plant greenhouse-gas neutral, but in the case of biomass it would actually take carbon out of the atmosphere and put it back into the ground. “Ultimately, I think that we need to put the carbon back where it came from,” said the reader.

Then, today, I was reading reports about British Columbia’s new energy plan, which calls for proposals to produce electricity from sawmill waste, forest slash and trees that have been killed by the notorious pine beetle. The ambitious and comprehensive plan also requires that all new electricity projects, including coal plants, be greenhouse-gas neutral. To do that with coal, however, means employing carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology. And if you’re going to do that with coal, why not do it with biomass and actually suck CO2 out of the atmosphere?

After a few Google searches, I realized there’s been a lot of good research in this area. For example, in 2005 a paper published in a journal called Biomass and Bioenergy concluded that gasifying biomass and then using CCS on the carbon emissions “could be roughly cost competitive with more conventional methods of achieving deep reductions in CO2 emissions from electric power.” David Keith, from the department of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Calgary, co-authored the paper.

This got me thinking more enthuastically about the potential for CCS. I’ve been down on it because, for one, I’m not convinced yet that permanent sequestration is possible to verify or monitor, or that it actually works. Also, in connection with coal, I thought it merely encouraged our use of fossil fuels at a time when we need to start thinking hard about ways to wean ourselves from them. I do, however, see tremendous potential in gasifying wood and municipal waste and capturing that carbon, if only because it helps to reverse — not just halt or slow down — the growth of atmospheric CO2 concentrations. It’s also a terrific way of getting some value from, and giving more purpose to, the pine beetle-devasted forests of British Columbia.

16 thoughts on “A way to reduce atmospheric concentrations of CO2?”

  1. An even better way to sequester carbon from biomass is in the form of char (charcoal or graphite.) Brazillian terra preta soils were created thousands of years ago by aborigines mixing char into the soil, which has the effect of sequestering the carbon there… and also making the soil much more productive. This is carbon sequestration that not only puts the carbon somewher, it also has a productive use.

    Biomass can be pyrolysed (heated with restricted oxygen) which converts it into char, syngas (CO+H2), and pyrolysis oil. The first is fertilizer, the second can be used to generate electricity or an amazing array of chemicals, and the third can be refined into green gas or diesel.

  2. I dont get it. What is the point of mixing char with the soil to make fertilizer, causing the char to be absorbed by plants, which will then release it into the atmosphere in the form of CH4 and CO2, when the plant decays?

    The whole point of sequestration is to prevent the carbon from getting into the atmosphere in the first place. lol

    What you want to do is sequester the char, and NOT use it for fertilization.

  3. A US company called Magnegas uses sewage and liquid manure to produce magnegas (CH4 like), sterilized fertilizer and clean burning coal. Seems to become quite a serious solution for several problems. Not a major solution maybe, but many small but good solutions might work even better.

    Another way to re-use CO2 is the combination of CO2 and waste heat from energy plants, sunlight and algae to produce biomass or home grown diesel.

  4. Here’s a very interesting post from David Baker of the distributed computing project rosetta@home. I’ve been contributing to greenhouse warming for a couple of years now by participating in this project that harnesses computers across the internet to predict how proteins fold. 😉 They’ve specifically targeted HIV vaccine sites and Alzheimer’s proteins among many other things.
    He states in this diary entry: “We have spent the last several days devising simplified biochemical cycles that would convert carbon dioxide into simple sugars using enzymes we would computationally engineer with your help on rosetta@home.” If the enzymatic reaction is efficient, it could potentially be used to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.
    Stephen

  5. Suri1,

    No, the carbon (char) stays in the soil and binds nutrients and water. Plants get their carbon from CO2 in the air. This is still the same. You get ever increasing amount of carbon retained in the soil. Sort of an agricultural mimickery of the creation of thick fertile forest floor soils over time.

  6. I like the terra preta idea. Improves soil fertility and increasing human population will need this.

    Think about this biomass for electricity long term though. Wind, Solar, Waves, Tidal, Geothermal, and improved Nuclear are all going to be making very large contributions in the next 10 or 20 years. Solar alone is just starting into a disruptive growth rate that will make the growth of wind look weak. Solar will not be limited by the large utility permitting process. It will happen like PCs and cell phones. Leave the biomass there, use it for terra preta, or use it for bio-butanol or bio-diesel feed-stocks for industrial plastics.

    Cars? Same as solar, but not quite as far along. Only few years behind it though. Li Ion, graphite/carbon Lead acid, or EEStor super-capacitors are going to usher in the age of EV or PHEV cars. I can’t tell which will dominate yet. There are multiple new technologies just entering the market. You can bet that price and performance will improve. EVs and PHEVs are already there, we’re just getting the price down…just like solar. Solar will reach a larger market this year. (Accept you might not see the true drop in cost due to over-demand.) PHEVs a few more years.

    It will take time to switch over. We’ll need that cellulosic biofuel to help out in the interim. Burning this stuff just doesn’t make sense to me. Look at all the electric power solutions out there right now and tell me that the cost of electricity will not come down in ten years time.

    short term – cellulosic biofuel will hellp

    long term – leave it, use for terra preta, or use for cellulosic bio butanol or biodiesel sustainable feedstocks to industry

  7. Very interesting. Thank you!

    Doesn’t change my position on solar or EV/PHEVs. We need to move to these solutions to get away from the middle east oil problem…but solar and EV/PHEVs are going to happen anyway.

    The earth is heating up, but anthropogenic CO2 as the cause has never been clear to me. I figured it probably isn’t helping. What about the much more abundant GHG H2O? It’s known that high clouds heat and low clouds cool the earth? Could deforestation, which has been going on since long before the Romans, be part of the problem? (forests are reservoirs for water and produce water vapor by transpiration) What about the more recent jet contrails be having a large effect one way or the other? What about the effect of the sun and the earth’s albedo? Interesting they mention an effect from cosmic rays interacting with the solar wind to effect cloud formation. Is it possible that the underwater eruptions discovered in the Indian ocean last year are increasing CO2 concentrations and causing the worlds oceans to release more CO2 into the atmosphere when they should be absorbing it? Sorry to ramble. Both sides have strong points on the CO2 issue. I’m interested in both. This does look like some new information. Thanks again.

  8. Careful what you’re (implicitly) endorsing, mds. This is an undisguised propaganda piece by a producer who takes it as a matter of faith that global warming isn’t anthropogenic. He’s been censured before for using misleading tactics in a documentary.

    I’m not saying he has no right to make his case, or that people shouldn’t watch it. I just think people should be informed. Because if you think that Al Gore’s movie was unscientific and biased, or did not present the full picture; well this documentary is even more so. Yet people who criticise Gore for those reason are holding this piece up as “fair and balanced”. It’s ridiculous.

    One take on it is found here.

    Sorry if I come off as a bit of an arse, mds. It’s just that I found your post a bit too eager to find data which support your initial “hunch” about AGW, and that’s been the problem of both sides in this debate….

  9. No, not at all. Very level and fair response.

    Thank you also!

    I am interested in both sides.

    Here’s what I think:

    1. The earth is getting warmer. Everyone seems to agree on this.

    2. “The Arctic” The world’s snow and ice are melting. Satellite measurements of this over the entire earth don’t lie. What do you expect if the earth is getting warmer? You cannot leap to the assumption this is due ONLY to increased CO2. Other factors could be involved.

    3. “The Sun” The sun’s activity cycles are a large factor. There is a huge amount of data on this and the correlations are just too neat to be wrong. You need to show a deviation from these cycles to make a case for additional global warming from new causes. This would appear to be the case though.

    4. “Temperature” Increased CO2 will increase the atmospheric green house (GH) effect. I’m very familar with the GH effect. You can boil water and cook a steak in a cardboard box with a glass cover. I’ve done some work with this and a lot of reading. Showing a nice correlation is not enough, though. There may be more significant causative factors that we are missing. Then what?

    The problem with what your “green side” link has to say under “Temperature” is that they ASSUME this is the only causative factor. What if the majority is wrong? What if CO2 is a relatively small contributor to global warming (GW)? Maybe mowing the Brazilian rain forest down to grow biofuels is more detrimental than helpful because those trees are producing water vapor that is far more important to cooling the planet. Maybe jet contrails are a larger factor. Maybe all three wiegh equally. No “hunch”, except I am not clear on the answers and we need to know more to make our actions count for more. I’m not “implicitly” endorsing the “anti-GW view”, although I see your point, that it may seem that way to some. Do you know anything of the debate over the demise of the wooley mammoth? Changing climate verses Human Predation? Some very nice population modeling was done showing that both could have been cofactors and neither acting alone would have killed all the mammoths. What is the rest of the picture for GW? There is a very good correlation between the number churches and the rate of crime in cities. Bigger cities have more of both. Does anybody think churches cause crime? Correlation is not enough. Understanding causation is paramount.

    FOR THE RECORD:

    1. I’m endorsing a reduction in CO2 output, using increased solar, waves, wind, geothermal, CLEAN coal, and nuclear, pretty much in that order. I’m endorsing use of electricity from these sources to run EVs and PHEVs to solve the transportation problem. Besides radically cutting fuel-use, storage batteries in EVs and PHEVs will be used storage for clean renewable energy sources. (Not should be, but will be. The technology to do this stuff is here and it is starting to make economic sense, regardless of environmental benefits.) WE NEED TO REDUCE OUR CO2 OUTPUT BECAUSE IT CAN ONLY BY MAKING A KNOWN PROBLEM WORSE. We need to reduce our use of limited fossil fuel resources anyway.

    2. I’m endorsing continued study of the GW problem to determine the proportional effect of the various causative factors. YOU NEED TO UNDERSTAND A PROBLEM COMPLETELY IF YOU ARE GOING TO DO A GOOD JOB OF SOLVING IT. It seems to me that we don’t understand this one completely yet.

    Lastly, I’m sorry for the delay in response. I was busy working. Missed the Thursday show too, darn. I’m sure it will be back. The cosmic ray stuff sounds very interesting.

    Thanks again to both sides here!

  10. Hi concerned citizens,

    Sounds reasonable, except in your point 2 I don’t see such a need to achieve a complete understanding, in order to arrive at success. I would place a far greater emphasis on achieving a complete undertaking, in all that implies.

  11. OK, let me explain by way of taking a counter hypothesis position. Your hypothesis is that CO2 is the dominant factor causing global warming. My counter-hypothesis it is a lesser factor, that several other factors are more dominant, chief among them is that deforestation is causing global reduction in H2O vapor.

    So, based on your philosophy we should push the use of biomass, even when this is resulting in the loss of forests. If the counter-hypothesis is true, then in a few more years you are going to find you’ve been making the problem much worse instead of better.

    I see no problem with carbon sequestration using biomass that is already just waste from existing industry processes. This can only help. Some other approach might not, eg farming of ethanol crops that requires forest clearing.

    Now I don’t know that this counter-hypothesis is true. It may be completely false. …but I do know that ignorance is not bliss. It can lead to trouble. I think point 2 should stay. It is possible that CO2 reduction is not enough. It is possible that more needs doing. We need to know.

  12. `You are right, but the allarmists are right, evererybody is right, the trouble is it is apparent that somehing has to be done now. From what I have read, it seems that a billion years or so ago that the atmosphere contained 10 times the amount of CO2 that it does now. It was around 4000 ppm. The sun was very dim. if the CO2 was not high our planet would have been an iceball forever. Gradually this CO2 was stored in our oilfields and coal and natural gas fields. Now that our sun is in its hot adolescence, we cannot, similar to adding alcohol to a bunch of teenagers, re release the stored CO2. It is a disaster of enormous proportions.

  13. mds, my initial post (up 4) was to point out that “The Great Global Warming Swindle” was probably going to be unbalanced, misleading garbage. Now that I’ve seen it, I can say definitely: it is.

    You make some excellent points, mds, and I’ve rarely seen such a commitment to balance in anyone attached to the climate issue. Which is why I’m surprised you’d be interested in that documentary. It uses the complexity of the situation not to draw the viewer into a better understanding, but merely to undermine the AGW case, while demonizing its proponents. It is bald propaganda and as such, it’s part of the problem, not the solution.

    I agree almost completely with what you say: that this is a complex issue that needs to be better studied, but it’s also an important one that needs to be taken seriously. And your take on the precautionary principle: let’s use the safest technologies first–solar, aeolian and geothermal, not forgeting the safest of all: conservation. These are what Amory Lovins calls the low-hanging fruit. It would be harmless to pursue them, even aggressively, and in a few years’ time we might find that we have much more of the solution in our hands than we’d previously assumed.

    The problem is getting other people to see it that way…For this, I found An Inconvenient Truth, though flawed, to be a much more positive influence on the debate. Even if it presents a simplistic picture, it at least encourages people to take this REAL ISSUE seriously, and thus to engage with the world rather than sleepwalk into an uncertain future. Durkin’s documentary encourages only cynicism, not skepticism, and as such is much to be deplored.

  14. I agree. The problem isn’t trees and bio-whatever.

    We’re pumping liquid poison out of the bowels of the Earth and spraying it all over the kitchen, our children, etc.

    We needn’t be distractingly arguing about whether a sponge or a rag is the best approach to sop up the mess, we need to pinch off the hose, have a laugh, and get dirty cleaning up!

    Pass the vice-grips!

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