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Climate Change carbon negative strategy to fight global warming

Published on February 19th, 2013 | by Tina Casey

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Carbon Negativity Emerging As Global Warming Solution

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February 19th, 2013 by  

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.

carbon negative strategy to fight global warming

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.

Image (cropped): Smokestacks by Salim Virji

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About the Author

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. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



  • http://twitter.com/JadeQueen Mary Saunders

    If one M.D. could heat water for his family of 5 for 15 years with compost (Ole Ersson, Portland, Oregon), just imagine if we all did that. Jean Pain, of France, also produced fuel from forest trimmings in large compost piles. Limbing up was also done by indigenous peoples to stem the risk of out-of-control fires in forested areas. Permies.com has a number of threads devoted to how we can be more productive and efficient with heating and power issues.

  • Almuth Ernsting

    GCEP’s report – as all calls for Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) ignore a vast volume of scientific studies which show that large-scale bioenergy is anything but carbon-neutral (which, by implication means, it’s anything but carbon-negative with BECCS). For a list of some of the studies that look at carbon impacts of biomass power stations, see http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/2013/resources-biomass/ . Not only this, but the authors ignore many of the uncertainties, technical hurdles and major risks involved in carbon capture and storage. The costs involved in BECCS are such that the only likely prospect of large-scale ‘BECCS’ involves capturing CO2 from ethanol fermentation (and nobody can call corn ethanol carbon neutral!) in order to pump more oil out of partially depleted wells, i.e. to increase fossil fuel emissions. Please see our recent report for details: http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/2012/beccs_report/ .

    LanzaTech currently produces small quantities of ethanol from CO from steel mills. CO is not a long-life greenhouse gas and in how far it affects the climate is highly uncertain (http://www.ipcc.ch/ipccreports/tar/wg1/229.htm). Unlike the massive CO2 emissions from steel production. Worldwide, around 12% of all hard coal burned is burned to produce pig iron, a precursor to steel production. That’s just for carbon enrichment of iron and does not even include the coal burned to provide the energy for steel making, a particularly energy intensive process. So, according to this article, if Lanzatech captures a gas component that’s not normally classed as a greenhouse gas from a highly polluting and carbon intensive steel mill to make ethanol – that’s what ‘carbon negative energy’ is supposed to look like?!

  • agelbert

    The fastest growing angiosperm on earth, and also the smallest flowering plant is called Lemna minor, otherwise known as Duckweed. Growing it in makeshift shallow pond/tanks over unusable or non arable land areas fertilized with animal feces (it actually cleans the water) would get the job done if a large enough effort was government backed.

    For more info on the Duckweed potential as a renewable biofuel as ethanol or simply dryed and burned in a furnace, edible animal or even human nutrient, go to the following link:

    All about Duckweed

    http://www.doomsteaddiner.org/forum/index.php?topic=478.msg5500#msg5500

  • http://www.facebook.com/josephrobertwilder Joseph Wilder

    A law could be written that requires all synthetic products normally made from oil be instead derived from bio-fuel. When those products are buried, the carbon will be sequestered. Actually plastic bottles should be buried instead of recycled as well.

    • Bob_Wallace

      If we bury the products made from oil rather than recycling them wouldn’t that mean that we’d end up extracting more oil to build the next generation?

      • Bob_Wallace

        Don’t know why this one popped up in my email today, four months later, but…

        I missed Joe’s point about using bio-inputs for manufacturing and then burying them (as well as burying oil-derived products).

        I agree. But in the short run we are probably better off recycling until we get bio-derived feedstock in place. And we also need to figure out energy inputs. As long as our grid has a significant amount of fossil fuel input then recycling may have a smaller carbon footprint.

        Perhaps we need to put a thumb on the scale that gives non-petroleum inputs a financial advantage. That would get industry busy looking for alternatives.

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