June 15, 2017 by John Crapper
Silver bullet solutions to climate change give me hope for a quick easy fix. They give me reason to believe that we can avoid the worst. They play to my ego and that man’s ingenuity and technology will be able to save the day.
Silver bullet solutions also fool me into thinking I don’t have to change my way of living. They give me hope for a painless fix. They give me license to ignore and continue on as if all will be fine. They give me a subliminal way of denying environmental reality.
I must admit that technology has served us well. It has brought the Industrial Revolution, Green Revolution and Information Revolution. I live life better because of science and technology. I couldn’t do what I’m doing right now on this computer if it wasn’t for technology.
Because of these past marvelous accomplishments I’ve been conditioned to have tremendous confidence in science and technology.
But silver bullet proponents give fuel to the mime that deniers argue – that science can’t be trusted. After all, if a promising new technology doesn’t manifest itself as expected then why should scientists be believed with regard to the existence of climate change?
But I still like to keep track of what might be possible in our future. With the reality of our current carbon path looking so bleak it’s nice once in a while to dream the silver bullet dream.
Here are a few silver bullets I’m watching.
Fusion Nuclear Power
A few years back it was the silver bullet that was going to solve our energy needs and climate change at the same time. Well I’m still waiting.
The problem with fusion has always been that to get the fusion reaction it takes more energy to produce it than it puts out, which is the exact opposite of what you want from a power plant.
Well scientists are telling us it’s within reach now. I checked up on the latest.
The first and largest machine of its kind is currently under construction at the French scientific research centre Cadarache, which specialises in nuclear power research.
It’s called ITER, Latin for “The Way”, and is expected to usher in a new era of nuclear fusion-powered electricity – something scientists and engineers have been working toward for over 40 years.
By fusing two forms of hydrogen – called deuterium and tritium – together, the machine would generate 500 megawatts of power. That’s 10 times more energy than it would require to operate.
Once completed, ITER would measure 100 feet (30 metres) in diameter and height, representing a new breed of nuclear fusion device. If it reaches its energy output goals, it will be the first machine of its kind to bridge the gap from fusion research in the lab to readily available fusion power for cities.
As of June 2015, construction costs for the machine exceeded US$14 billion.
I hope it turns out to be true.
Carbon sequestration/carbon capture and storage (CCS)
What is carbon sequestration?
Carbon sequestration is capturing the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels and storing it safely away from the atmosphere.
Lab studies on basalt have shown that the rock, which formed from lava millions of years ago and is found throughout the world, can rapidly convert CO2 into stable carbonate minerals. This evidence suggests that if CO2 could be locked into this solid form, it would be stowed away for good, unable to escape into the atmosphere. But what happens in the lab doesn’t always reflect what happens in the field. One field project in Iceland injected CO2 pre-dissolved in water into a basalt formation, where it was successfully stored. And starting in 2009, researchers with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the Montana-based Big Sky Carbon Sequestration Partnership undertook a pilot project in eastern Washington to inject 1,000 tons of pressurized liquid CO2 into a basalt formation.
After drilling a well in the Columbia River Basalt formation and testing its properties, the team injected CO2 into it in 2013. Core samples were extracted from the well two years later, and Pete McGrail and colleagues confirmed that the CO2 had indeed converted into the carbonate mineral ankerite, as the lab experiments had predicted. And because basalts are widely found in North America and throughout the world, the researchers suggest that the formations could help permanently sequester carbon on a large scale.
Cost. The technology works. The economics don’t. Power plants with C.C.S. cost about 75 percent more than regular coal plants, and the infrastructure required to transport and store CO2 is enormous. It’s also essentially still free for plants to emit carbon dioxide into the air. Until there is a real cost to companies for emitting carbon unchecked, the financial case for C.C.S. will come up short.
The promise of Biochar
This 2,000 year-old practice converts agricultural waste into a soil enhancer that can hold carbon, boost food security, and increase soil biodiversity, and discourage deforestation. The process creates a fine-grained, highly porous charcoal that helps soils retain nutrients and water.
Biochar is found in soils around the world as a result of vegetation fires and historic soil management practices. Intensive study of biochar-rich dark earths in the Amazon (terra preta), has led to a wider appreciation of biochar’s unique properties as a soil enhancer.
Biochar can be an important tool to increase food security and cropland diversity in areas with severely depleted soils, scarce organic resources, and inadequate water and chemical fertilizer supplies.
Biochar also improves water quality and quantity by increasing soil retention of nutrients and agrochemicals for plant and crop utilization. More nutrients stay in the soil instead of leaching into groundwater and causing pollution.
How Can Biochar Be Carbon Negative?
Fossil fuels are carbon positive; they add more carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gasses to the air and thus exacerbate global warming. Ordinary biomass fuels are carbon neutral; the carbon captured in the biomass by photosynthesis would have eventually returned to the atmosphere through natural processes like decomposition. Sustainable biochar systems can be carbon negative by transforming the carbon in biomass into stable carbon structures in biochar which can remain sequestered in soils for hundreds and even thousands of years. The result is a net reduction of CO2 in the atmosphere, as illustrated in the diagram.
Large amounts of forestry and agricultural residues and other biomass are currently burned or left to decompose thereby releasing carbon dioxide (CO2) and/or methane (CH4)—two main greenhouse gases (GHGs)—into the atmosphere. Under biochar conversion scenarios, easily mineralized carbon compounds in biomass are converted into fused carbon ring structures in biochar and placed in soils where they persist for hundreds or thousands of years. When deployed on a global scale through the conversion of gigatonnes of biomass into biochar, studies have shown that biochar has the potential to mitigate global climate change by drawing down atmospheric GHG concentrations (Woolf et al, 2010).
There are many other ideas out there such as brightening the clouds; stirring the seas to change their temperature and cool the Earth; turning the ocean into a gigantic bubble bath to reflect the sun; covering the deserts in mirrors and sending parasols into space; mimicking the cooling effects of volcanic eruptions like Mount Pinatubo.
I can really fool myself into believing that our science and technology has a handle on the climate change issue. That a silver bullet solution is just around the corner.
But, in reality, if I count on any of these silver bullets I sort of look like this.