When audacious is just another word for stupid

coal plant smokestack

There's gold in them thar stacks, if you feed it to algae, says high-tech energy startup Global Thermostat. Photo: Señor Codo via Flickr.

“An audacious new theory to compete with ‘Peak Oil’: Hydrocarbons forever,” reads the headline on a Fortune piece about what must be one of the dumbest perpetual-motion schemes since the Hydrogen Economy.

It’s got two parts, each equally fantastic.

Thank you for smoking

First, start with a new take on the perennial industry joke “clean coal.” But this time, don’t even bother capturing the CO2 from the smokestacks; just suck it straight out of the air. It’s “air capture”!

And it’s a geoengineer’s dream that sure beats shooting sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere to filter out solar heat. If air capture worked and if we had a place to store the CO2, it would mean the Chinese and Indians could join the US in burning every last shovel of coal on Earth — a 500 year supply for the US at least, according to self-styled coal-supply expert Newt Gingrich. And all 100% guilt-free.

Bye, bye climate change. Hello Nobel Prize.

But wait, there’s more. Global Thermostat, the techy startup behind this plan, joins this bold new take on carbon capture to a scrappy up-and-comer in the world of high-tech energy schemes: algae.

Talk about growth potential.

Money from thin air

“New companies say pulling carbon dioxide straight from the air could solve global warming and provide an infinite source of gasoline. Really?” asks writer Scott Woolley.

What if scientists could transform coal-fired power plants from giant carbon dioxide emitters into giant carbon sinks? Some say that they can, and will. Graciela Chichilnisky, a founder of Global Thermostat, admits it’s hard to believe: “The more energy the less the emissions—it’s mind boggling.” Global Thermostat and at least two competitors say they can pull carbon dioxide straight from the air, potentially at costs low enough to solve global warming and provide an infinite source of gas by using the CO2 to feed algae. Chichilnisky summarizes her company’s business model this way: “Take CO2 from the air and turn it into cash.”

When I discovered that this wasn’t an April Fools joke, I only had one question: Where’s Enron when you need them?

After all, they were the experts in turning air into cash. Or was it the other way around?

Anyway, I’m sure the Smartest Guys in the Room over there could’ve set up a smoking hot online trading system for all that newly valuable C02 that would make companies like Global Thermostat rich and provide content for dozens of future Fortune pieces.

Always about the techno-fix

It’s sad for those who might get suckered into investing in yet another cash-and-air scheme, but junk energy investments are hardly news.

What’s more troubling here is to see the techno-fix mindset at work. A worship of technology can turn otherwise clearheaded adults into idiots with a childlike naïveté that would be charming if it weren’t so dangerous for our society.

“At the very last minute,” says Naomi Klein of the geoengineering mindset, “we are going to get saved just like in every Hollywood movie, just like in the Rapture. But of course our secular religion is technology.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for developing clean energy technology that we know already works — solar, wind, small-scale hydro and even smaller-scale biomass. And some speculative ideas, if they’re simple enough, show much promise, like ocean energy or storing solar power in molten salt.

We know how to build renewable power. We just need to bring the prices down.

To get the clean energy we need to deal with peak oil and fight climate change, the innovation we need is not higher technology. It’s better finance.

— Erik Curren

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  1. Matt says

    Erik, let me see if I get this right. You capture the CO2 from the smokestacks and use it to feed algae to produce fuels? So what, do you have little CO2 capture devices on all of the cars and trucks to produce more algae? Because if you don’t then you just take the CO2 that was emitted by the stacks and replace it by being burned in vehicles, just a shell game of move the CO2. Net result, nothing has changed.

    Oh yeah our technology will save us, but who will save us from our technology.

    • says

      Matt, if I understand it correctly, “air capture” is even more ambitious, like an atmospheric vacuum cleaner. Kinda reminds me of the variation on the Flobie (that goofy home hair cutter with the tube, as Seen on TV) from “Wayne’s World.” They called it the Suck and Cut: “It sucks and it cuts.” In this case, air capture would suck CO2 straight out of the air, anywhere on Earth. And then it would cut our carbon emissions right back down to a safe level. Heck, we could even have global cooling if we did it enough. But then we get to your point, about net carbon. If we’re feeding the CO2 to the algae to make all this unlimited free gasoline, but then we burn it, the whole shebang is carbon neutral at best. So definitely a shell game.

  2. Ed Scerbo says

    Not happy about the pooping on the ‘hydrogen economy’ in the first line. I still think it holds great promise if the source of the hydrogen is intelligent. It’s the same issue as ethanol. Just because making ethanol from corn or other crops (unless it’s crop WASTE) is stupid, doesn’t make ethanol itself stupid. With hydrogen, just because hydrolyzing sea water uses more energy than you can get back from the hydrogen obtained doesn’t make hydrogen itself stupid. And then what if the source of the electricity used for the hydrolysis was non-fossil fuel, such as solar or wind, etc.? That would be an easy solution, yes?

    I agree that in general simpler solutions are better, but I don’t think it’s wise to reject high-tech solutions out-of-hand. There isn’t enough info in this article for me to judge the algae mechanism. It doesn’t sound terribly high-tech, I have to say, and on the face of it, it does sound worthy of further examination. Does it mean we should abandon the idea of trying to limit CO2 production? No, it does not. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: humanity’s energy future DEPENDS on an integrated approach using EVERY worthy method. NOTHING should be rejected out-of-hand to potentially be part of the solution.

    I did a little basic research on algae and found that the mechanism of CO2 capture is pretty basic — it’s photosynthesis, which algae, cyanobacteria (AKA blue-green ‘algae’) and plants use to create food to increase their biomass, that is, grow. Although it’s true that they respire some CO2, especially at night when, of course, photosynthesis does not take place because of the absence of sunlight, most of the CO2 is ultimately converted to biomass. So on the face of it, using them to capture CO2 is a good idea. Even if the algae are then burned as a biofuel, thus releasing the CO2 back to the atmosphere, it still is carbon neutral because it sidesteps the burning of fossil fuels. But the algae need not even be used as a biofuel. It can be animal feed, mulch or be composted for organic fertilizer. There may be additional uses that release no CO2 back to the atmosphere.

    The supposed ‘clean coal’ is actually not relevant to this technology.

    There’s no need to dub Newt Gingrich an authority on anything. That’s nearly as bad as dubbing Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh an authority on anything.

    • says

      Ed, my Newt Gingrich comment was ironic ;), but you probably got that already. The link made fun of his silly claim about 500 years of coal…

      As to hydrogen, it’s not an energy source but rather an energy carrier like electricity, so except for replacing liquid fuels, I don’t see the point in using H over electricity. As to liquid fuels, replacing the gasoline infrastructure with one for H would take decades and billions of dollars, all to keep our personal cars going. Much more efficient would be to build more trains.

      As to algae, maybe it could provide a small amount of energy some day. But Global Thermostat’s plan for “air capture” is exactly like clean coal, but much more ambitious. From their website: “Air capture is different from other forms of carbon capture in that it extracts CO2 directly from the atmosphere. Other carbon capture technologies typically extract CO2 from flue gases. The air capture process is known and requires separating carbon from ambient air, at low temperatures and at a concentration of about 400 parts per million, as opposed to high temperatures and 15,000 parts in the case of flue gas.”

      Saying that we want to try all energy ideas may comfort some people, but in business you can either do a lot of things poorly or do a few things well. It’s a free country, and if entrepreneurs want to develop crazy ideas, good for them. But we already know what we need to do for a national energy policy: make renewables cheap enough to scale. And in today’s economy and fiscal environment, I’d rather see business and taxpayers put limited dollars into building a million windmills off the East and West Coasts and installing a billion solar panels across the country.

      In an ideal universe, there’s world enough and time to do everything. In the real world, you have to make choices. And we can either choose sexy but highly speculative techno fixes or we can go full bore into solar and wind while we still have time. But we can’t do both.

      • Ed Scerbo says

        Often, I miss irony and I did in this case. Sorry. I should have realized that. Looking back at the article I see you used the term ‘self-styled’ which I missed on first reading and that was a clear tip off to the ironic intent.

        I can’t really equate hydrogen with an energy carrier like electricity. It’s a fuel. Fuels are energy sources. Fuels can be produced (and chosen) intelligently, or not. I don’t share the opinion that it would take a long time and a lot of money to implement hydrogen as a fuel. Prototype fuel cell cars are already operating across the country. I think the notion that it would take a long time and cost a lot of money comes from Big Energy which doesn’t want the use of gasoline to stop anytime soon. Hydrogen also need not only be used for personal vehicles. It could, for starters, fuel public transportation (including aircraft) and possibly be used in place of home heating oil, although in the last case perhaps solar heating would be a better choice. Certainly it should be a part of the picture.

        When solar is discussed these days, it seems like it’s always only PV systems which are great, but you rarely see mention of solar water heating panels for space heating of homes and businesses. There are also architectural designs for homes and other buildings that take advantage of passive solar heating through south facing windows and optimized insulation. I’ve also seen mention of techniques and devices to put inside buildings to optimize the use of passive solar heating such as placement of water vessels in front of the windows to absorb solar radiation during the day and release it back slowly during the night as they cool. It’s so cheap and easy I don’t know why it isn’t talked about (and implemented) more often. It could EASILY make a huge dent in the burning of home heating oil, natural gas and use of electric furnaces such as mine which are ultimately fueled by coal unless, like me, you select the 100% renewable option with your electric company which offsets that use with credits to renewable energy producers elsewhere.

        I would love there to be more investment in public transportation, but it will never totally replace personal vehicles. All public transportation goes only where it goes, not everywhere. I’m sure electric cars charged by renewable energy sources will be a key part of our energy future, but I don’t know that hydrogen fueled and/or hydrogen fuel cell cars won’t be a key part as well.

        The idea that we need to limit the number of our energy solutions because a business can do a lot of things poorly or a few things well supposes a single business or single industry. There will be many new businesses within many new industries in the new green economy. There is nothing harmful about this. There’s room for all the players. As far as funding from tax dollars and business being in limited supply, well, yes, that will always be the case, but I think part of the solution is reappraising our national priorities. If and when the nation does that, there will be ample money.

        I’m not looking at this algae sequestration technique as an energy source so much as a fairly natural way to remove what is already too much CO2 in the atmosphere. That has to be done ANYWAY, regardless of our search for the optimal integrated energy solution cocktail. The overabundance of CO2 currently in the atmosphere will not go away by itself even if we started adding zero more right now. It just doesn’t work that way. And this is not a highly speculative way to do it. Photosynthesis is tried and true method nature has used for eons to remove and recycle atmospheric CO2. I think with all the land area currently covered by things other than vegetation, nature may need a hand to do this now. This technique seems like a great way to accomplish the necessary task of removing the excess CO2 from the atmosphere.

        In any case I read one article (http://www.sciencedaily.com/videos/2007/0407-possible_fix_for_global_warming.htm) that talks about putting the algae ‘bioreactors’ right in smokestacks. There is no separate step to separate carbon from ambient air. The algae absorb the CO2 directly and consume it via photosynthesis. These algae bioreactors also have the benefit of absorbing acid rain compounds such as nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides in flue gases. The ‘algae’ used in these particular bioreactors are actually blue-green algae, which are not actually algae at all, but cyanobacteria. The particular ones they use come from hot springs so they are adapted to the high heat conditions of smokestacks. Light is provided via fiber optic cables connected to solar light collectors. Prototypes are operating in test facilities right now.

        • says

          Many good points, Ed. Algae has clearly been an energy source for at least the species that eat it for millions of years, so I wouldn’t be surprised if humans can get some juice out of it too. And you’re very right about solar thermal. I like the idea of storing solar thermal power in molten salt to use overnight.

  3. Bloomer says

    You would have to built a Algae pond the size of Texas to fuel all the cars in Houston. We keep looking for a silver bullet to save us for whats coming ahead. Conservation is the key. Live simple.

    • says

      Bloomer, I agree about living simply. Maybe algae could join other biofuels that might work on a small scale to power farm equipment for example. But to run all our cars, trucks, buses and diesel trains? I don’t think so. But the lure of the techno-fix is so strong on our psychology. We need to de-program ourselves from the fantasy of the last-minute rescue and just get used to a lower-energy future.

    • Ed Scerbo says

      There are no silver bullets. That’s a central point underlying all my comments. Integration of many solutions is what will save the day.

      In reference to the removal of excess CO2 using photosynthetic microorganisms, it never involves ponds. The article I posted the link to explains that they are embedded in membranes and suspended vertically employing a very large total surface area in a concentrated space.

      Conservation and efficiency ARE key and this has barely begun to be tapped, but even these are not a silver bullets, just part of what’s necessary in the integrated approach required to solve our energy dilemma.

      Using the microorganisms for a biofuel is NOT the main point. It’s one way they can be used as they grow and multiply and need to be harvested. Since using them as a biofuel returns the removed CO2 to the atmosphere, it’s arguably smarter to use them in other ways such as mulch, compost and animal feed.

  4. James Van Camp says

    Here’s the Potential output for 10 acres devoted to a closed system algae manufacturing system. I presented this data as part of a presentation for the ACS in March. If ANYONE is interested in taking the CO2 from the stack and mixing it with waste water (i.e. “Blowdown”) from the cooling tower at the power plant to grow and harvest algae, please contact me. Using all the outputs and co-products from such a venture, CAPEX payback is 3 to 4 years.

    20,000 Barrels Biofuel
    3 MW Power Continuous from Biogas turbine
    15,000 Tons of Biomass
    Credit for 10,000 Tons CO2

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