Sunday, February 25, 2007

Richard Branson's curious contest

It is a sign of just how desperate things have become that several of those who know the most about global warming should be parties to a contest offering $25 million to someone who can invent a way to remove existing carbon dioxide from the air. Famed British entrepreneur Richard Branson announced the contest earlier this month with Al Gore at his side. Other luminaries who will act as judges for the contest include the ultra-pessimistic James Lovelock, a world famous scientist and author of The Revenge of Gaia; NASA scientist James Hanson who is perhaps the most knowledgeable and respected climate researcher in the world; scientist Tim Flannery, author of the best-selling account of global warming, The Weather Makers; and Sir Crispin Tickell, one of the first scientists to write a major account of the consequences of climate change back in 1977.

No longer are drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions enough, this contest seems to say. We must also endeavor to undo the damage already done to the climate. To Branson's credit, he says that a practical method for removing CO2 from the air may never be found and that even if it is, we will still need to push ahead with emission reductions.

Now, for the really hard part. It's difficult to imagine how such a technology would not be extremely energy intensive. The current method for extracting useful gases such as oxygen, nitrogen and argon from the air involve what is called cryogenic fractional distillation. As one might glean from the name, the process starts with liquifying atmospheric gases at extremely low temperatures and then--since each gas has a different boiling point--boiling them off in succession.

Obviously, this method is not cost-effective for the large-scale extraction of CO2; otherwise, it would already have been proposed. But that just highlights my point. No one has been able to think of a non-energy intensive way to pull gases out of the air. Perhaps some better, more efficient technology will be found. But given the quantities which we seek to extract from the atmosphere--we added more than 24 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 2002 alone--that technology would probably have to be many orders of magnitude more efficient than current methods.

The second problem will be powering the newfound technology. More than 85 percent of the world's energy comes from burning fossil fuels. Of course, we could try to run such carbon dioxide extracting plants on wind and solar power. But, shouldn't we really be trying to run everything on non-carbon sources of energy? If we keep powering most of the economy using fossil fuels, then building such extraction plants would probably do little good.

Beyond this, the eventual (if not imminent) peaking of world oil production to be followed by the peaking of world natural gas production means that society will be relying more and more on alternative energy sources. Those sources may not be able to supply anything approaching our projected needs, let alone support an energy-intensive project to remove carbon dioxide from the air.

Of course, global warming solutions might come in another form. The seeding of the ocean with iron has already been tried. The idea is that some areas of the ocean are so poor in iron that they don't support algae very well. Add iron and the algae thrive. After they die, they fall to the bottom of the ocean. If enough of them are buried before they decay, then the carbon in them gets sequestered. But there are serious questions about how much iron would be required, whether trying to engineer a system as large as the ocean would work or even be safe, and whether the algae would, in fact, fall to the bottom.

One possible problem with offering a highly visible prize to encourage such research is that it will provide false hope that technology alone can solve the global warming problem. Certainly, that is not Branson's aim, but it might be the result.

Perhaps those who are giving their good names to Branson's contest believe that we need a miracle technology to save us from the worst of global warming. But the kind of miracle we need most is one that will change the attitude of people worldwide about what each of them needs to do to prevent global warming from destroying the very civilization that has given us so much faith in technology.


Nassim said...

I went to the same public school - - as Branson. As we were born a few days apart in July 1950, we were contemporaries. He went to a different house from me - we did not sleep in the same dormitories.

I am sure that he is a brilliant businessman and a charming salesperson. However, he left school at 16 and went to the school of life instead. I studied engineering at Imprerial College and later on did a masters in business. However, I have poor business judgement.

Naturally, I was always the Branson that one sees regularily in MSM in the UK with the one I remember as a 14-16 year old. As a school kid, he was often to be seen following some teacher or another around with a great big grin on his face. His charm was always on and several of them liked having acolytes like Branson around.

In my humble opinion, Branson is still obsessed with trying to get the approval of others. He will never do something that would in any shape or form risk unpopularity from those whose patronage he seeks. Very similar to Al Gore in a way.

I guess we, peak oilers, need to get guys like Branson on board. However, let us not delude ourselves that they offer any solutions.

Anonymous said...

Nobody will ever collect this prize. It makes absolutely no sense. Removing carbon dioxide from the air would be extremely difficult. According to the IPCC the atmosphere has just 380 parts per million of CO2.

It is much easier to remove the CO2 from combustion processes where the CO2 concentration is very high.

Other than liquefaction there are a number of processes which might work, including chemical reactions and selective adsorption. But none of these process work particularly well on low concentrations.

This merely Sir Richard's self promotion - no different than slapping the Virgin logo on a balloon. Just a cheap publicity stunt so that Branson and the other judges can claim they are trying to do something without actually having to put out any effort.

Anonymous said...

I like the contest, but partly for the reasons you don't like it.

I think if it give us "no effective answer" that will be a powerful message for the public.

And certainly, optimists have a right to look, to do due diligence, before we all declare "no effective answer."

... and who knows, the horse may sing