April 29 2009 / by Garry Golden
Category: Energy Year: General Rating: 3 Hot
60 Minutes recently aired a program on the future of coal power featuring Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers (an advocate of longer term 'Cathedral Thinking' carbon reduction) and leading climate scientist James Hansen (an advocate of a moratorium on building coal plants).
The CBS report was solidly mainstream in framing coal as central to the conversation on energy, environment and global economic development- but it failed to move the conversation beyond ideas that have existed for several decades.
Time for Big Ideas, not Big Battles
Coal is the world's fastest growing source of energy due largely to growth outside the United States. And despite all the rapid growth rates expected with wind and solar, coal is likely to gain global market share in the years ahead.
So this is not just a conversation about US policy and US-based utilities! And there is no way to just 'wish' coal away. We must develop low cost carbon solutions that can be applied around the world within existing power plants. And everyone agrees - these low cost solutions do not exist today!
CBS Producers missed an opportunity to introduce more advanced non-geoengineering strategies to carbon neutralization and left viewers stuck at ringside watching the same old 'pro' vs 'anti' battle.
Carbon's Molecular Dance between Oxygen and Hydrogen
Carbon is a 'sticky' molecule that interchangeably binds with oxygen and hydrogen based on its journey through biochemical pathways or via human induced energy conversion (e.g. power plants and combustion engine).
Human beings have a choice to approach carbon solutions through geo-engineering (shoving it underground), or as bio-engineers who can bind carbon with hydrogen for use as a hydrocarbon fuel (for transportation or onsite electricity generation) or a bio-feestock for industrial applications. CBS viewers would have been better off understanding the long-term view of carbon rather than watch a debate without a viable solution. (Continue Reading Below).
Seeing Carbon through a Lens of Biology
The current carbon solution set is based on 'geo-engineering' principles- essentially pumping CO2 into the Earth (with the hope that it does not leak back into the atmopshere). It is an expensive and largely untested engineering process - yet remains our 'best' option on the table!
The other option is investing in a new platform for carbon that could evolve into a scalable, cost effective solution that can be retrofitted into most existing coal power plants.
Bio-based Carbon Solutions
Rather than think of carbon as a geo-engineer, we can look at carbon through the eyes of a biologist- and use the molecular power of biochemical pathways and enzymes to neutralize cabon by binding it with hydrogen.
Is there precedent for bio-based carbon solutions?
Yes. Coal and Oil.
Coal is made up of carbon-hydrogen chains (mostly carbon!) formed by ancient plants, and oil is a more 'hydrogen rich' mixture of hydrocarbon chains formed by ancient diatoms (algae).
We capture energy by blowing up these carbon-hydrogen chains resulting in captured energy (used to produce electricity and power vehicles) and CO2.
Bio-energy says 'close the loop' using biochemical pathways capable of binding carbon to hydrogen.
This is the basis of entreprenuerial efforts around 'algae' and bacteria-based carbon neutralization efforts.
Create large scale closed and/or open pond bioreactors that capture carbon emission flows from power plants then bind carbon with hydrogen (via algae/bacteria) for use as an energy resources (e.g. combustible liquid fuel; bio fuel cell) or biomass feedstock for industrial applications.
Hype vs Feasability?
There is no doubt that algae is in a 'hype' stage of development and there is a long road ahead. It is not a 'holy grail' solution, but nonetheless holds tremendous potential even when looking at a time horizon of 2020-2025. (An ambitious but reasonable time horizon for stabalizing global CO2 emission growth using advanced technologies.)
There is a lot of work ahead in scaling up algae/bacteria systems as well as reducing costs and improving reliability. But there are no show-stoppers to the 21st century mind.
More than one option to Carbon
60 Minutes missed the boat by saying that 'the only know way of carbon sequestration' is shoving it underground.
When in fact, there is a more elegant solution in biology.