Fake Banner
    By Ed Chen | October 14th 2009 03:28 PM | Print | E-mail

    It is unfortunate that Climate Change is one of those controversial issues in the US, and the world in general, which frames the argument in moral terms.  The other issues that come to mind are Gay Marriage, Abortion, and Immigration Reform.  Moral issues unfortunately are difficult to decipher, and many political theorists would agree, belong outside of the realm of political discourse.   Thousands of years of history tells us that when issues are framed as moral imperatives, the issue never gets settled.  Just think back to the protestant reformation, for starters.  Or the moral issues raised by the idea the earth revolves around the sun, rather than the inverse arrangement.  Unfortunately, the earth, and her global inhabitants, do not have the luxury of eternity to settle a disagreement.  To add insult to injury, moral arguments tend to polarize people into camps so that even compromise cannot be reached.  More and more, this seems to be the state of both the domestic and global response to climate change; however, Air Capture of Carbon Dioxide, offers the possibility to reframe the question into a technical one, which can be settled on technical, rather than moral grounds.

    The idea of air capture of CO2 goes back as far as the Dutch scientist, Jan Ingen Housz, who formulated the principles of Photosynthesis, in which plants remove CO2 from the air (Air Capture) and turn it into Oxygen through photochemical reduction.  However, only in more contemporary times has the idea of Air Capture been perfected to technological applicability.  In 1999, Dr. Klaus Lackner, then Associate Director of Los Alamos National Laboratories, published an article with associates entitled "Carbon Dioxide Extraction from Air?"  He later published a further discussion on air capture in a review on CO2 sequestration techniques "Climate change: a guide to CO2 sequestration" in Science.  Since then, many techniques for air capture have been proposed, including the formation of Calcium Carbonates (CaCO3) from Calcites (CaO), capture of CO2 in Alkaline baths and organic solvents, yet not many of these techniques proved efficient enough to remove the small 280 ppm concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.

    In 2007, Dr. Lackner and associates at the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy at Columbia University were able to demonstrate the capture of Carbon Dioxide by Resin based polymer membranes which absorb and desorb CO2 at relatively high concentrations from the air.  These membranes had been previously developed for use in fuel cells, but may end up solving the climate change issue without producing a Coulomb of electricity.  Indeed, the beauty of this invention is that it does not even operate on electricity, but instead captures the power of evaporation.  The membrane system undergoes two phase states: one in which water is adsorbed onto the membrane, and another in which CO2 is adsorbed.  By creating a cycle between these two phases, the Air Capture machine undergoes its carbon capture cycle when water evaporates in moving air.  Then, the saturated membranes are dipped in water, which release the captured carbon dioxide as the membrane becomes resaturated  with water.  

    So why not implement this invention right away? 

    Economics, that dismal science.  As in that dismal physical science, Chemistry, all things economic have an activation energy, which in Professor Lackner's case, can be expressed in terms of hundreds of millions of dollars.  This is the order of magnitude of money which will be needed before these machines are mass produced, and can capture CO2 near the price point of $8.00-$20.00 per ton set by the market; at present the cost is still above $200.00 per ton.  Unfortunately, economics also has to be mixed up with moral imperitives, since it considers the utility of "things" (I use the word with the highest caution, but in this case, it is appropriate); and utility has no basis in objective, physical reality when it is taken to its more abstract levels.  

    So why does Air Capture beat other, more efficient technologies such as capture at large point sources like power plants and factories?  Air capture allows us to capture the vast amounts of CO2 being emitted by everyone, everywhere, anywhere, anytime.  Cows, Cars, and Rotting leaves, can all be recycled.  Furthermore, it has the ability to change the debate over climate change to a technical and economic debate rather than a moral and hypothetical one.  Some may already see Climate change as technical and economic debate as well, considering the depth of scientific research conducted in the field, and the massive economic repercussions of the change.  Air capture makes it feasible for every consumer of CO2 to capture their emissions, pound for pound, dollar for dollar.  

    However, there are others, who see the present as more pressing than the future.  And for someone living on a dollar a day, a dollar saved is another day to live.   People living in India and China refuse to pay for burning their coal. And in their eyes, why should they?  They have been "exploited" by the industrialized countries for hundreds of years, only to have their own spectacular growth flagged by rules, which in their eyes, have been instituted b the West.  Further, we must admit that the majority of the present concentrations of CO2 was produced by the western industrialized countries, and perhaps Japan.  The rest of the world isn't really responsible.  So a fair point of debate, which could settle the moral question, might be a technical one one which says, OK, from our calculation, the US has added 20 of the 70 ppms CO2 increased over the last 200 years, while Europe has emitted 50 of the last 70 (don't quote me on the numbers are estimates).  So translate that into gigatons of CO2 and that is what we will absorb out of the atmosphere over a given number of years.  Adjustments would be made to this number, for the benefits developing countries have gained from industrialized countries as well.  But at least the moral question can be quantified into a ball park figure. And negotiations over the specifics can begin in earnest.  

    Unfortunately when telling the truth, telling the BIG truth doesn't usually pay off (contrast this to telling the big lies).  Big truths are difficult to grasp and accept, full of details.  Big Lies are simple and easy, sometimes even sexy.  Big lies like it when the subtleties are obscured.  To understand and make proper judgements, one needs to have complete information.  However, there is so much information about the earth system out there, and so much fundamental knowledge about the subject, that many get overwhelmed and fall back to trusted and authoritative sources for the truth.  However, the authoritarian model of understanding has been empirically demonstrated to fail in very significant ways, such as the quibble between Copernicus, Galileo and the Church.  In fact, that is the premise of the scientific method: to overturn authority in search of the truth.  The Economic problems that come with Climate Change are too big, too cataclysmic to cope with.  So easy epitaphs such as, "So what, the Climate Changes!" are used as defenses and then even accepted as truths in themselves.  It is true that Climate Changes, but that has nothing to do with why it is changing this time, and what will happen when it does change (it is already changing).  

    But enough with these arguments.  That is the past.  Climate Change or no Climate Change, Global Warming or Global Cooling.  Whatever the results of our unsanitary behaviors, whatever the moral imperative to respect the views of what is arguably, the majority of the world's population in the developing world to pollute as we have, and we did, and we do (they are just getting started).  Whatever the objections of scientists about the predictability of the evolution of climate.  At the least, we can agree that there is a problem with people getting rich off polluting public property.  

    Because of the development of Air Capture technologies, the problem can be framed as a problem of garbage cleanup and disposal, or more simply, good manners.  People understand that being clean is generally a good thing, and that when you produce trash, you need to clean it up.  Even dogs know that when they produce trash, they'd better put it in an approved area (they don't understand the problem with passing gas though).  In the not so distant past, intestinal diseases were a major problem, and no one knew why.  People continued to throw their trash and droppings out their windows and into the street until one day, someone figured it was sewage causing all these problems.  Since that time, people generally agree that trash should be cleaned up.  Littering and even spitting began to be frowned upon.  Today, the most callous person will not try to defend dropping litter in the streets, when caught.  But dumping CO2 into the air. No problem.  Everyone does it. 

    While emitting our gasses into the air worked for a while, now we know it is causing problems.  For a long time, we couldn't figure out how to collect all that trash, so we tried to convince everyone to stop making trash.  But I for one am firmly in favor of constant and every expanding consumption.  I heart Capitalism.  We cannot stop the spread of technology.  The only solution is to plunge deeper, ever braver into the dark heart of technology, in this case, Air Capture Technology.  Forget about the environment.  

    How about just being responsible for our trash gas?  For every ton we emit, we capture a ton, and make sure that ton goes somewhere, away from the atmosphere.  Pretty simple.  Maybe even pump that trash gas underground somewhere to help push up more oil and fossil fuels, or maybe put it in a private aquifer and make some Perrier.  There are hundreds of possibilities, such as turning CO2 back into gasoline or another usable fuel.  Make it into building material, medicine, plant feed, food.  Make it into money.  Who cares.  I'll stop dreaming for a while.  But we need to get started now.  Today.  Because otherwise, it is coming.  

    Even those who do not believe the notion of climate change, would find themselves ashamed to pass their gas into the public, if so many people were not presently doing it.  If Air Capture were widely implemented, the costs of capturing all the CO2 we emit will be very small, approximately $40 for every person in the world.  Of course we wouldn't make the people living on a dollar a day bear the cost of it.  We would have to let the market take care of itself.  The price of carbon is whatever it costs you to remove the carbon from the air.  Whether its through growing trees or paying a tax, or buying a home air capture machine.  Th imperative to operate a machine would be the same as the imperative to buy a working toilet with plumbing, or set up a waste disposal system.  Certainly some people wouldn't do it, but most would do it, and the companies who do not do it (most of the big ones likely will be companies) will be fined the cost of CO2 removal.  

    To the gripe that foreign imports would have an unfair advantage, those countries with responsible emissions standards, could force the importing company to pay for the emissions offset required to legalize the import of the product.  The costs will be distributed, as the market reacts to products.  Before long, companies would find cheaper and more efficient carbon neutral processes to replace high emissions goods.  Further, this speaks to the reticence of countries such as China and India to request their unique development needs, as they will be allowed to pollute the air as much as they see fit.  However, since the industrialized countries have already taken care of their dues, they should also be free to accept or reject low quality products as they see fit.   Import partners in the West would bear the costs, if they so desired, though most likely, higher quality replacements would be made available very quickly, and also likely at the behest of the authoritarian governments of the East, once they figure out this low quality stuff doesn't make money anymore. Free markets are free, when all externalities are eliminated.  If its really free, let her rip. 

    Those who are not removing their waste gasses can be identified and whoever responsible for their production can be charged for the removal of their trash.  Those organizations and countries who resist keeping their products emission free could not hide in the thicket of respectable companies also emitting their trash gasses.  And then I'm sure, even those who take the stance that "climate changes, so what," would agree that passing their gas onto public space is probably distasteful, and at the least, there might be some laws passed against; even if they personally would still probably break them.  So who will pick up the estimated $40 tab for those who can't afford it?  Will you to adopt a carbon emitter for only $40 a year?  

    We can always just print more money. 

    Hey, at least we're getting somewhere! 

    (IF YOU LIKED THIS ARTICLE, please do not forgot to go to the top of the page to vote!   Just click on the Box with the Number in It.  You can go to it by clicking here.)