Geoengineering Goes Mainstream

The MIT Technology Review — one of my favorite magazines —
writes about geoengineering in the January/February 2010 issue. Much of what is said in the article will be familiar to people who have read SuperFreakonomics, but it also talks about carbon capture, which we didn’t discuss much.

The more I have thought about these issues, the more I have become convinced that carbon capture is going to end up being the centerpiece of long-term geoengineering solutions. There are good reasons to be optimistic that in 50 to 100 years we will be able to remove carbon dioxide from the air for one-thousandth or one-millionth the current costs. While that may seem fanciful at first blush, think about the rate of increase in computing speeds over the last 30 years, for instance. If carbon capture will get cheap and scalable, then the current focus on reducing carbon dioxide emissions (as opposed to keeping the temperature of the earth stable via geoengineering in the short run until carbon capture becomes routine) looks misguided. I suspect that with the failure more or less of Copenhagen (surprise, surprise), we will be hearing more and more about geoengineering.

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  1. JCoppens says:

    Quite true. Yet another example of “I told you so” for a project relying on geopolitics.

    Thanks for nothing politicians, now get out of the way and let us engineers get to work.

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  2. MikeM says:

    Isn’t this just another argument for a carbon-credits type of market, though? Let the burden for investing in capture technologies rest on those who want the ability to emit, and measure their emission in net carbon, not gross emissions, if they pay for carbon capture.

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  3. Dan M says:

    I agree that carbon capture is worthwhile pursuing, but what characteristics of this technology lead you to believe a Moore’s Law-like cost/performance curve is likely? All technologies tend to improve when they move out of the lab, but “one-thousandth or one-millionth [of] the current costs” seems rather dramatic.

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  4. Joel Upchurch says:

    I think that carbon capture from air is the ultimate solution, but doing it by mechanical means is highly unlikely method. The problem is that CO2 is very diffuse. Any system to capture CO2 would have to cover hundreds of thousands of square kilometers to make a significant dent in CO2. No improvements in technology will get around this. Even corn exhausts the local CO2 quickly and has to be replenished by air circulation. Schemes to produce Biofuels from algae, need supplemental sources of CO2, like a power plant, to produce at full efficiency.

    On the other hand, using techniques to introduce algae blooms in the ocean to sequester CO2 could cover millions of square kilometers of ocean with CO2 eating plants for little cost. The ocean already has natural dead zones where the blooms would have little effect on animal life. There have also been experiments with genetically engineered bacteria, that might be cheaper and more efficient than algae.

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  5. Kevin H says:

    Everyone always brings up computing power as the example of growth in efficiency, but the unfortunate fact is that computing power and computer memory are vast outliers. It would be much more sensible to base future growth rates of a non-computing technology on other factors such as the price of energy production, the price of building structures, or the price of producing chemicals. While I’m sure all of these have gone down in the last 50 years, I’m almost certain the rate is less than the growth in computing power.

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  6. Peter says:

    Some carbon capture may be done to reduce levels to some pre-defined optimum. But once that is achieved, I would have thought it would be easier all round if the capture occurs as close as possible to the places where the carbon is vented. i.e. the factories. It is easier (and therefore cheaper) to prevent it being thrown out than to collect after the fact.
    Of course this depends on the distribution and size of the production sites. Access to the atmosphere is available anywhere but access to carbon emitters may not be as straightforward.

    I have always thought that the best way to dramatically reduce carbon levels would be to find some highly profitable use for the CO2. If it is a valuable resource then no-one is going to want to throw it away. The basis of any emissions trading scheme is to artificially create a market. How much better it would be if a true market existed.

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  7. aaron says:

    I know a way we can profit from CO2. Release it in into the air to warm the planet and fuel photosynthesis.

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  8. Elemental LED staff says:

    How could reducing carbon dioxide emissions possibly be “misguided”? Regardless of the success of carbon capturing, reducing carbon emissions and developing cleaner fuel and power sources is still a necessity, both for the environment, and to address future shortages of coal and petroleum. If you mean it’s misguided to focus on just one strategy for reducing carbon, that’s probably true.

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