Showing posts with label green new deal. Show all posts
Showing posts with label green new deal. Show all posts

Sunday, January 10, 2021

The Great Pause Week 43: Two Physicists Walk Into A Bar…

"The question is not how long or for what cost it would take to scale up Carbon Dioxide Removal, but the opposite — what is the potential to scale down to village and family scale."

On a hot summer night in 1992, or so we are told by a writer for MIT’s Technology Review, two particle physicists at Los Alamos National Laboratory were staring out over the moonlit desert and sipping cold beers. Given the story that followed, I kind of wonder whether something more aromatic than beer was involved. 

“What if,” Klaus Lackner wondered out loud to his companion, Christopher Wendt, “machines could build machines? How big and fast could you manufacture things?” It was not a new idea. Science fiction writers had been drawing from that meme for half a century to populate whole galaxies. But Lackner and Wendt were real scientists, working at a real National Laboratory, the same one that invented the atom bomb.

They decided that the only way the scheme could work would be if you designed robots that dug up all their own raw materials from dirt, harnessed renewables to power the process, and taught succeeding generations of robots to copy themselves. Quoting from Technology Review, March 2019:

They eventually published a paper working out the math and exploring several applications, including self-replicating robots that could capture massive amounts of carbon dioxide and convert it into carbonate rock. “My argument has always been we need to be passive,” Lackner says. “We want to be a tree standing in the wind and have the CO2 carried to us.” The robot armada, solar arrays, carbon-­converting machines, and piles of rock would all grow exponentially, reaching “continental size in less than a decade,” the paper concluded. Converting 20% of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would generate a layer of rock 50 centimeters (20 inches) thick covering a million square kilometers (390,000 square miles) — an area the size of Egypt.

In 1999, Lackner released a government study titled “Carbon Dioxide Extraction from Air: Is It an Option?” It was a bit starry-eyed, imagining that direct CO2 removal could be accomplished for $15 per ton. The machines that actually do that today require $1000 per ton but many working in the field hope to get that cost down to $600 or even $50 with further investment, at scale. Still, the idea had Lackner in its grip. He left Los Alamos in search of sponsors. Gary Comer, founder of the Lands’ End apparel catalog, gave him $8 million. Lackner founded Global Research Technologies and built a small prototype… and ran out of money. GRT was sold and its buyers went bust, too. The idea’s time had not yet come.

Still, Lackner had definitely started something. Other researchers he influenced became more successful by being less idealistic. They prototyped chemical removal processes by working on coal stack effluents. They sold CO2 to hothouse, dry ice, and beverage companies —a process I like to call “catch and release.” More importantly, they attracted enough venture capital from corporations like Stripe, European Space Commission, various airlines, and Bill Gates to form loss-leader companies — Carbon Engineering (Canada), Climeworks (Switzerland), Global Thermostat (USA), Antecy (Netherlands), Hydrocell (Finland), Infinitree (USA), Skytree (Netherlands) —to begin to commercialize designs and scale pilot plants. Articles in the scientific and popular media have proliferated. Now it would appear they even have the Biden transition team interested in moonshot level funding in the first 100 days of the new Administration.

For a generic DAC system in the long term, experts expect the costs for captured CO2 to go down to $37, 87 and 129 per ton CO2 for optimistic, realistic, and pessimistic assumptions, respectively. They estimate rates (in dollars per ton) of 0.12 for capital costs, 0.17 for energy costs and 0.17 for operational and maintenance costs. Under these assumptions, by 2029, DAC will drop capture costs to $55 per ton CO2, with possible further reduction to $28 by 2050 and $17 by 2100.

I have been for many years calling Direct Air Capture technology “artificial trees.” In a recent colloquy with Peter Eisenberger of Global Thermostat, he bristled, responding that each “tree” (a DAC capture unit the size of a shipping container that costs $500,000) can sequester the equivalent of 20,000 to 100,000 natural trees. I’ll have to check his math on that one.

First, the DAC unit is only part of the price, both in dollars and surface area. To go with DAC you need CS (carbon storage) and since DAC produces CO2 in a hot (>212°F) gaseous form that can be frozen and liquified, you’ll also need refrigerated pipelines, deep wells for geologic storage, pumps, etc. Also DACCS (DAC+CS) requires power to run, typically 200–300 kWh-e/tCO2. The cycling of chemicals requires significant heat, 1200–2100 kWh-t/tCO2. Add to the shipping container’s cost and land footprint, a solar array or wind farm, battery storage, road access, fencing, etc. and you are looking at considerably more capital cost (CAPEX) and operating cost (OPEX) than your average tree, or many hundred trees. What is the CAPEX of DACCS compared to the CAPEX of reforestation, on a per tree basis? What is the OPEX? Actually we already know that, because for millennia humans have profitably inhabited forested landscapes, drawing from them most necessities of life. Which of these necessities do artificial trees provide? Just one, it seems: carbon dioxide removal.

To withdraw the 1500 GtCO2 required to keep us under 2 degrees warming this century, builders, be they Lacknerian robots or mere human stainless steel or aluminum welders, would have to produce 51,368,863 artificial trees, each averaging CO2 withdrawals of one ton per day for the next 80 years, at the cost of $25 trillion in capital cost, excluding power plants and pipelines. 

Bruce Melton, an engineer who heads the Climate Change Now Initiative and is drafting a carbon neutrality plan for Austin, Texas, responded to Eisenberger that “In WWII we spent $19 trillion dollars globally (2019 dollars) in 7 years, 1939 through 1945, on industrial expansion and mostly heavy manufacturing or $2.71 trillion 2019 US dollars per year. Total global GDP 1939 through 1945 in 2019 US Dollars was $44.6 trillion in 7 years or an average of $6.37 trillion 2019 US dollars per year. Average annual global WWII spending then, was 43 percent of global GDP. If we were to mimic WWII industrialization infrastructure spending today at 43 percent of global GDP of $87 trillion annually in 2019, this would be $37 trillion per year, or $261 trillion in seven years.” 

“It’s all about motivation and risk, not money,” Melton concluded.

Of course there are many other problems with technofixes that do not involve money. The chemicals used in sorbent manufacture and the disposal of sorbents at the end of their useful lives must be handled in a responsible way. Sodium hydroxide is highly corrosive and the chlorine gas that is emitted during its production from brine is extremely poisonous. Concentrated CO2 is also potentially deadly. Deep geological storage of the captured carbon gas involves not negligible risk of leakage and upwelling because nowhere is the Earth completely stable. Deep ocean disposal raises issues of salinity, contamination, fragility and cost. The biological carbon pump operates everywhere, even in the deepest depths of the ocean.

Another consideration — which regular readers of this blog will recognize as a recurring theme — is not how long or for what cost it would take to scale artificial trees up to billions of tons carbon sequestration per year, but the opposite — what is the potential to scale down to village and family scale implementation, and to make that worth doing even during the decline phase of a civilization? With other negative emissions technologies — mineral fertilizers, biochar, tree-planting — there is palpable benefit to be harvested at an individual farm-to-kitchen scale. Who would spend $500,000 to have a DACCS container in their village and feed it the heat and electrical energy it requires, with no tangible benefit, assuming this is not a village of robots who have been programmed just to do that?

We are once more confronted with the ideological conflict between wizards like Elon Musk and Bill Gates and prophets like Wendell Berry and Vandana Shiva. It would be sad to see the United States throw trillions at technological chimeras like DACCS when the same money could and should be regenerating the hardwood, evergreen, and chaparral forests we desperately need to stave off the coming climate chaos.

It would be worth recalling by the Biden transition team that on a day when the Capitol was shrouded in a black blizzard from the Dustbowl, the 74th Congress appropriated the money for Franklin Roosevelt’s plan to build a great wall of trees from Texas to the Dakotas. Between 1935 and 1939, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and the Forest Service (USFS) planted 217 million trees on 232,212 acres. The New Deal turned back the desert and saved the American breadbasket. Now, since 2000, owing to agricultural subsidies, fencerow-to-fencerow planting, suburban sprawl, and a waning conservation ethic among Plains farmers and their lenders, most of those trees have been cut, burned, and buried where they stood. In Nebraska alone, 57 percent of the original plantings are gone, even as climate change threatens a repeat of the 1930s, on steroids. Whether Roosevelt’s great green wall will be replaced with real trees or artificial ones remains to be seen.


Fasihi, Mahdi, Olga Efimova, and Christian Breyer. “Techno-economic assessment of CO2 direct air capture plants.” Journal of cleaner production 224 (2019): 957–980.

Gambhir, Ajay, and Massimo Tavoni. “Direct Air Carbon Capture and Sequestration: How It Works and How It Could Contribute to Climate-Change Mitigation.” One Earth 1, no. 4 (2019): 405–409.

Goodell, Jeff. How to cool the planet: Geoengineering and the audacious quest to fix earth’s climate. HMH, 2010.

Hailing, Tu, Sun Zongtan, Yao Yuan, and Xu Yuan. “Analysis and Insights from the MIT Technology Review “Top 10 Breakthrough Technologies” in the Past Six Years.” Strategic Study of Chinese Academy of Engineering 19, no. 5 (2017): 85–91.

Lackner, Klaus, Hans-Joachim Ziock, and Patrick Grimes. Carbon dioxide extraction from air: Is it an option?. No. LA-UR-99–583. Los Alamos National Lab., NM (US), 1999.

Temple, J. One man’s two-decade quest to suck greenhouse gas out of the sky, Technology Review (March 2019). 

Yao, Benzhen, Tiancun Xiao, Ofentse A. Makgae, Xiangyu Jie, Sergio Gonzalez-Cortes, Shaoliang Guan, Angus I. Kirkland et al. “Transforming carbon dioxide into jet fuel using an organic combustion-synthesized Fe-Mn-K catalyst.” Nature Communications 11, no. 1 (2020): 1–12.


Sunday, November 8, 2020

The Great Pause Week 34: Dragon Dimming

"Pandemic lockdowns curtailed jet travel, closed shops and schools, and reduced global dimming by more than 20%. So what happened then?"

 There was a famous experiment on May 21, 1946 that cost the Manhattan Project physicist Louis Slotin his life. In 2016, Alex Wellerstein revisited it for The New Yorker

Slotin’s procedure was simple. He would lower a half-shell of beryllium, called the tamper, over the core, stopping just before it was snugly seated. The tamper would reflect back the neutrons that were shooting off the plutonium, jump-starting a weak and short-lived nuclear chain reaction, on which the physicists could then gather data. Slotin held the tamper in his left hand. In his right hand, he held a long screwdriver, which he planned to wedge between the two components, keeping them apart. As he began the slow and painstaking process of lowering the tamper, one of his colleagues, Raemer Schreiber, turned away to focus on other work, expecting that the experiment would be uninteresting until several more moments had passed. But suddenly he heard a sound behind him: Slotin’s screwdriver had slipped, and the tamper had dropped fully over the core. When Schreiber turned around, he saw a flash of blue light and felt a wave of heat on his face.

Subsequent calculations put the total number of fission reactions at about three quadrillion. This radioactivity excited the electrons in the air, which, as they slipped back into an unexcited state, emitted high-energy photons — a blue flash. Slotin swept the tamper aside to end the reaction, but it was already too late. He had been machine-gunned by a billion atomic bullets and a wave ray outside the visible spectrum. His bone marrow was already reacting like microwave popcorn. The man who assembled the heart of the Trinity device died nine days later, at the age of thirty-five.

In 2020, humans tickled the dragon’s tail in a different way. A paper published in Nature Communications in 2019 calculated that as little as a 20% reduction in industrial activity will drive a 1°C spike in temperature within days or weeks by removing the cooling effect of aerosol pollution (global dimming). The estimate, taken from improved satellite instruments, doubled the risk cited in the most recent IPCC report (AR5) so was greeted with skepticism. Then came Covid.

Pandemic lockdowns in the Spring of 2020 curtailed jet travel, closed schools, stores and restaurants, brought birdsong back to cities, and converted previously busy superhighways to cannonball race tracks. It also reduced global dimming by more than 20%.

According to pre-pandemic knowledge as epitomized by the 2019 Nature Communications paper, losing global dimming should have brought an average global surface temperature rise of 0.5 to 1.1°C, and precipitation increases of 2.0 to 4.6 percent, along with an uptick in extreme weather. This would all happen within weeks to months, not years to decades. 

Alarmingly relevant, a research note from Hansen and Sato on October 14 reported a steeper than expected rise in global surface temperature for the past 5 years. After eliminating the usual suspects — greenhouse gases, solar gain, ocean warming, ice melt — they concluded “that the warming acceleration must be due to the one other large climate forcing, atmospheric aerosols” (specifically, their diminishment). In other words, dimming had already been underway due to pollution controls or economic downturn prior to Covid and warming was picking up as a result.

But then the October issue of Nature contained an article by 14 climate scientists who studied global dimming between early February and the end of June. Google mobility trends which track phone movements indicated that more than 80% of the population in the 114 countries in the dataset (4 billion people) reduced their travel by more than 50%. Home energy use increased 4% while air pollution from industry declined. The Nature paper reported that while reduced sulfur emissions weakened the cooling effect by 20%, which should have been a cause for concern, the drop in nitrogen emissions (NOx) reduced greenhouse warming as much as 30%, cancelling the SO2 effect and possibly making the Earth a little cooler than it otherwise might have been. Because of built-in lag times, they expect further reductions of upper atmospheric CO2 around 2 ppm in two years’ time. If we see that in the Mauna Loa data it should validate this finding. The paper went on to discuss the difference to climate change depending on whether the economic recovery to Covid-19 is driven by a green stimulus package or an increase in fossil fuel use.

The pandemic lockdown tickled the dragon’s tail only to discover fears of the McPherson Paradox (kicking the fossil habit speeds warming) are perhaps overblown.

We came away considerably better for this experiment than Louis Slotin did in 1946. Once the US election is decided, we can go full steam ahead with the Green New Deal.

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