Is Carbon 'the Al Qaeda' of Elements?

September 23 2008 / by Garry Golden
Category: Environment   Year: General   Rating: 4

Carbon is a getting a lot of attention!

You’ve seen the references – carbon emissions, carbon footprint, carbon credits, carbon offsets, carbon calculators, carbon caps, carbon tax, low-carbon economy, post-carbon economy…

This should be a good thing for Eric Roston author of The Carbon Age.

Why is this an important book?

Let’s start with Steven Colbert who asked Eric Roston- Is carbon the ‘Al Qaeda’ of elements?

What is The Carbon Age?
An accessible story of carbon across the ages – from its universal origins to the first biochemical bonds formed with hydrogen, to its combustion in our gasoline gas tank, and a bright future with new nanoscale applications. Roston tells the story of carbon through the lenses of physical cosmology, geochemistry, biology, engineering, energy science, and above all else- how this element has shaped human societies.

Why read it?
I always speak highly of this book! But be prepared. The subtitle ‘How Life’s Core Element Has Becomes Civilization’s Greatest Threat’ is misleading. This is not a book about a crisis. Is not anti-carbon. Roston is not trying to shock you. He is trying to reach your head, not your heart. Roston does not avoid the seriousness of climate change, but does not fall back on simple strategies that avoid the complexities of carbon science.

Roston’s voice and perspective on carbon is fresh. He is incredibly balanced in his delivery, and the undertones of how the carbon age story ends are optimistic. But the first step in addressing the challenges of this Industrial Age’s massive release of carbon into the atmosphere is to understand how it got there- and why chemical bonds of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen are so important to society. All this is delivered in under 250 pages!

[Continue – on my reaction to ‘The Carbon Age’ and the importance of chemical energy, time and biology.]

I am fascinated with the geochemistry of ancient biomass and the science of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. But I am not an expert in carbon science. I have wasted time on eBay looking for nice pieces of carbon. Just yesterday two pieces arrived in my mailbox—a beautiful shiny piece of Pennsylvania Anthracite coal, and chunk of Wyoming oil shale.

But I don’t let my fascination with carbon chemistry cloud my views of what is happening. Carbon is a powerful element and our economic growth is based on unlocking eons of chemical energy. Releasing this energy in a relatively brief period of two hundred years is certainly capable of changing larger planetary cycles.

Eric Roston argues that a closer look at carbon science will uncover new solutions. He wants you to understand a few things:

Chemical bonds drive our economy
Energy does not come from wood, coal, or oil. It comes from chemical bonds. Nature uses light and water to pull carbon and hydrogen together as the basic fuels of all life from plants to humans. These hydrogen-carbon bonds are our source of energy – in the form of carbohydrates (e.g. glucose) and hydrocarbons (coal and oil). Complex reactions use oxygen to capture the released energy of breaking bonds.

The history of human energy systems has been from carbon heavy fuels (wood/coal) to hydrogen rich fuels (gasoline and natural gas). We’ve become very good at capturing this reserve of carbon-hydrogen chemical energy inside the internal combustion engine.

There are implications to messing with carbon’s long cycles

Carbon ‘is the velcro’ of all life on the planet. And it arrived there via a very complex bio-geo-chemical cycle that has taken eons (geological time) to unfold. In most cases carbon stays at rest (soil, deep ocean methane pockets) and does not have a chance to bond with oxygen and float back into the atmosphere. But when we burn coal or oil we are messing with this long-cycle of carbon.

Science reveals solution
Our solutions to balancing the release this ancient chemical energy are rooted in the basics of carbon science- most notably the difference between carbon bonding with oxygen versus bonds with hydrogen.

While Roston does not overwhelm you with science, he doesn’t dance around the complexities of biology and chemistry. And it seems clear that the world might seem less frightening a place if we tempered our fears of carbon with strategies rooted in the fundamentals of science.

Carbon’s Future
Roston is not writing a book about the future of carbon, but does hint at how carbon-based materials are likely to evolve as we uncover new applications in fields like health, medicine, semiconductors, engineering and of course – energy.

What Roston does make clear is that we must change our lens of how we look at carbon. The hope of consumption strategies like personal carbon credits, can only take us so far.

We must start seeing carbon from the lens of biology, chemistry and engineering.

Instead of letting carbon dioxide escape into the atmosphere, we might take a page from Mother Nature and look at CO2 as a resource for biochemical systems that can transform CO2 into more useful forms of energy like fatty acids (e.g. algae based biofuels) or hydrogen (e.g. hydrogen breathing bacteria).

Roston’s book is important. If we expect the next generation of students and entrepreneurs to restore balance to the carbon cycle – we’ll need an upgrade to our knowledge base of carbon science and talking points to combat people like Stephen Colbert – who continue to see carbon as the ‘Al Qaeda’ of the universe.

Comment Thread (3 Responses)

  1. And here I thought that oxygen was my worst enemy (aging, rust, etc).

    Posted by: John Heylin   September 23, 2008
    Vote for this comment - Recommend

  2. Thanks Garry. I learned a great deal reading through that post. Brain vs. Heart indeed. Viewing energy as generated by the breaking of bonds is a big step for me. I hope that this information will diffuse through the likes of the blog and, more broadly, through better simulations and education. We need such understanding to be incorporated into our national energy policies. I can only imagine what our politicians are cognizant of at this point. Surely they are bombarded by disinformation and likely cannot make very intelligent related decisions.

    Posted by: Alvis Brigis   September 23, 2008
    Vote for this comment - Recommend

  3. It’s all about carbon balance, but I hope we can do better than these ugly carbon capture devices” for our future.

    Posted by: Mielle Sullivan   September 23, 2008
    Vote for this comment - Recommend