Scientists at the Stanford University Global Climate and Energy Project have proposed taking the global warming fight to a whole new level. The problem is that we’re so far behind in greenhouse gas emissions management, that it’s time to get more aggressive. Rather than simply trying to reduce the carbon we put into the atmosphere, the Stanford team proposes a carbon negative strategy in which plants are deployed on a massive scale to grab carbon out of the atmosphere.
Great idea, but there’s a way to make it even better.
A Biomass, Carbon Negative Strategy
As described yesterday in our sister site PlanetSave, the Stanford team has identified the biomass as one of the most promising ways to achieve carbon negative systems, on a large scale.
These biomass-based systems are called bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).
The basic idea is to break the carbon cycle. As plants grow they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Rather than letting carbon cycle back into the atmosphere, there are various ways to capture and convert it into other useful products.
However, there’s a catch. Massive agricultural operations require massive amounts of equipment, which means that as BECCS scales up so does agricultural equipment manufacturing.
In other words, industrial carbon capture has to be part of the solution, too.
Industrial Carbon Capture, Microbe Style
Conventional industrial carbon capture is based simply on direct storage (aka carbon sequestration), but when you consider some of the next-generation carbon capture solutions, sequestration starts to look more like old fashioned waste dumping.
Rather than treating carbon as a form of waste, the carbon negative approach treats carbon as a valuable resource.
One example that we’ve been following for a while now is demonstrated by a New Zealand company (now headquartered in the U.S.) called LanzaTech. We first noticed LanzaTech back in 2009, when the company announced that it had developed a proprietary microbe that thrives in the carbon rich, hydrogen poor waste gases from steel mills.
The initial process yielded pure ethanol, and in 2010 LanzaTech stepped up its carbon recycling platform to produce 2,3-Butanediol. That’s a foundational chemical for making any number of products that are normally made with petroleum, including plastics and synthetic rubber as well as fuel.
Aside from steel mills the system also works on industrial flue gas from other types of facilities, and on synthetic gas derived from other systems including biogas (from landfills or manure biogas systems), biomass, municipal waste, agricultural or forestry waste, and even burning tires.
Last year, LanzaTech achieved demonstration-scale ethanol production at a steel mill in China, as a precursor to a commercial facility. It expects commercial sale of 2,3-Butanediol in 2014.
CO vs. CO2
Just a note to clarify, LanzaTech’s system is aimed at capturing carbon monoxide (CO). Though considered a “weak” global warming gas compared to carbon dioxide in terms of direct effects, CO plays a significant indirect role in global warming. About half of global CO emissions are man-made, mainly from burning biomass and fossil fuels.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.