Friday, June 5, 2009

Carbon Recycling, Not "Sequestering" Our Trash Out of Sight.

Carbon sequestration is a hot news topic these days as we search for some way to control the carbon dioxide emissions of power plants, industrial facilities, and manufacturing plants. However just putting pollutants "out of sight" do not mean they can be "out of mind."

As laid out on this chart, if we sign onto sequestration as the solution we are signing onto a scheme that merely pushes the problem further down the road and requires finding a place to dump billions of tons of pollution. We learned this lessons decades ago as landfills started overflowing, raw material prices escalated and, as a result, recycling of glass, aluminum, plastic, paper, and yard waste grew to the common practice it is today.

Instead of pushing the carbon problem down the road or pretending to hide massive piles of pollution a new company, Carbon Sciences, developed technology to convert carbon dioxide emissions directly back into hydro carbon fuels. Think of this like composting. Instead of dumping food and yard waste into landfills this energy containing material is composted, spread on gardens, and returns nutrient to the soils. Likewise, using their new CO2-to-fuel process Carbon Sciences routes high carbon emissions through microorganisms that extract carbon atoms from the CO2 and hydrogen atoms from water to create hydrocarbon molecules, the building blocks of all liquid fuels. The breakthrough is the use of "inexpensive, renewable biomolecules" instead of the "expensive inorganic catalysts, such as zinc, gold or zeolite, with traditional high energy catalytic chemical processes" currently used. Here is technology that takes a waste product and applies tools and mechanisms developed over billions of years of evolution to make something useful instead of merely changing where we throw our garbage from the air to underground.

Click here for an informative and detailed interview with Carbon Science President Byron Elton from the Berkeley Groks Radio Show, perhaps the most detailed, intelligent, and interesting podcast delivering cutting edge science to a general audience.

Besides recycling waste instead of just dumping it turning carbon back into hydrocarbon fuels, instead of growing new biomass to convert to ethanol, is far more efficient on a system wide basis as well. Direct recycling of carbon emissions into fuels can utilize the existing fuel delivery and consumption infrastructure. Converting carbon emission directly back into fuel avoids all of the cost and impacts of growing, harvesting, transporting, and refining biofuels. Converting corn into fuel has caused severe disturbance in world food markets and takes almost the same energy, if not more, to grow and make the fuel that it provides. Brazil has made serious advancements in converting sugar cane into a cost competitive and low emissions fuel. However, this 2008 report by the New Zealand Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority reviews the available literature and finds that while sugar cane does reduce harmful emission by up to 74% compared with the same energy derived from fossil fuels, no reliable assessment of the impacts from land use change is available. As growing sugar cane fields replace tropical rain forest the relative overall impact to the climate caused by land conversion to biofuels production will only increase the true negative impact of biofuels.

Instead of necessitating an entire new fuel infrastructure, converting food stocks into fuel, converting landscapes into more agriculture, or inputting more energy than is returned, direct recycling of carbon directly returns the waste product to a useful state. Like filling an empty glass bottle with new water to avoid the need to transport, crush, reform, refill, retransport, market, purchase, and deliver to your home, direct conversion of waste back into the useful product it came from is the paradigm of reasonable use.

As reported in the N.Y Times, Big Oil, never one to miss out on a chemical engineering revolution, is beginning to throw their substanital weight behind ethanol fuels. Because this entire field is based upon creating new fuels out of new sources the public should be very concerned about the role of Big Oil. Until they take recycling and efficiency seriously then we are doomed to repeat the same failures of: fake fuel scarcity to prop up prices, one time use of products, and ample waste products. The public can change change this path by insisting that utilities and other high carbon emitters recycle their pollution instead of supporting a new and likely disastrous stress on our landscape and pocketbooks from both hiding our garbage under ground or relying on biofuels.

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