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Earth Science

XPRIZE Projects Aim To Convert CO2 Emissions, But Skepticism Remains (scientificamerican.com) 83

The XPRIZE foundation exists to encourage particular innovations that might be useful but from which conventional financial backers are likely to shy away. Previous X Prizes have been awarded for feats such as flying a reusable spacecraft to the edge of space, and designing cheap sensors to measure oceanic acidity. This week, the foundation announced a new prize. From a report: One pioneering team hopes to use carbon dioxide to make a stronger form of cement. Another wants to use carbon to make bioplastic. Still another is planning to transform CO2 into solid carbonates that can be used as building materials. The XPRIZE Foundation unveiled 10 teams yesterday as finalists in its $20 million contest to find a solution to carbon emissions.

Its carbon competition is meant to find an economic use for planet-warming emissions. The basic idea: If emissions can be turned into a product, power companies will have an incentive to capture and sell carbon instead of releasing it into the atmosphere. A group of 47 teams from across the world initially submitted proposals. The remaining 10 teams will compete in two groups. One will test their technologies at a coal-fired power plant in Gillette, Wyo. The other will compete at a natural gas plant in Calgary, Alberta. Winners will be announced in 2020. They will split the $20 million purse.

[...] Significant skepticism over carbon utilization's effectiveness persists, however. The chief concern is that global carbon emissions outweigh the market for carbon products. "There is no question you can do it. The question is whether it can be a meaningful contribution to climate mitigation," said Edward Rubin, a professor of environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.

XPRIZE Projects Aim To Convert CO2 Emissions, But Skepticism Remains

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  • This is a really neat idea, and even if the XPRIZE conversions only end up being some of the total carbon used, they could end up being a substantial chunk.

    But one shouldn't lose sight that there are effective ways of sinking carbon now. Short term, the best carbon sink is rainforests. In terms of carbon negated per a dollar spent, the best option is Cool Earth https://www.coolearth.org/ [coolearth.org]. For a typical American lifestyle, completely offsetting one's yearly CO2 production this way is in on the order of 1

    • by llamalad ( 12917 )

      I was just coming here to say "what about trees?".

      Happy to see that some motivated folks have alread had the idea. Going to look into Cool earth with an eye toward maybe adding them to the groups I regularly donate to (currently EFF, ACLU, and Foregen).

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Cool Earth is one thing. It isn't going to take one thing or one law passes (like how CFCs were stopped by a global ban so we have an ozone layer left.) It really takes a multi-pronged effort on a bunch of fronts.

      I tread in dangerous political waters here, but what would happen if both Mexico and the US built a joint solar farm instead of a wall? Similar to how Brazil and Paraguay went in on a dam, and now reap much from the hydroelectric power. It wouldn't be cheap, but with modern solar cell technolog

      • by JoshuaZ ( 1134087 ) on Thursday April 12, 2018 @02:33PM (#56426319) Homepage

        Complete agreement. We're highly unlikely to solve everything via carbon offsets. We need to transition in general carbon neutral power systems. Unfortunately, while some places are doing a pretty decent job on this, some places, especially the US and Australia, are very much not so. However, there are ways one can help out there as well.

        In terms of personal lifestyle differences, the biggest options are to eat less meat and to use a personal car less. If you live somewhere where public transit is an option, you can massively cut down on your carbon footprint by simply using public transit. Not everyone has that option, since you may live somewhere where public transit isn't available or may have a job or family that necessitates getting a car, in which case, if you get a new car, make sure to buy an electric or hybrid. Also in terms of personal activity, one can keep the air conditioning or heating in one's house at not as extreme temperatures or one can better insulate one's house. All these personal changes are also things which overall cause one to save money.

        In terms of direct changes to the system as a whole, two good options for solar are donating to Everybody Solar https://www.everybodysolar.org/ [everybodysolar.org] which gets solar panels for non-profits like museums and homeless shelters, and the Solar Electric Light Fund https://www.self.org/ [self.org] who helps get solar panels for locations in the developing world. SELF's work is especially important because it helps to cut off the potential of rising carbon dioxide in the developing world even as it helps increase their economies. For wind power, I recommend donating to The New England Wind Fund https://www.massenergy.org/the-wind-fund [massenergy.org].

        Also, as uncomfortable as it is, responding with political action is important also. The next big upcoming special election in the US is for one of Arizona's House seats. The Democrat who has a decent environmental record is Hiral Tipirnenii http://hiralforcongress.com/ [hiralforcongress.com], while her opponent has a literal F rating from multiple different environmental groups. So if you want to effect political change, donating to her campaign is a definite option.

        • by raymorris ( 2726007 ) on Thursday April 12, 2018 @02:45PM (#56426393) Journal

          Speaking of doing lots of different things; wind power, geothermal, hydro, and passive solar are all more efficient than solar-electric, and in locations where they make sense, they are overall much better than solar-electric. Nuclear is an important carbon-free power source that can largely replace coal and other carbon-producing power.

          Solar-electric gets the most press because those companies have the best political lobbying machinery and marketing, not because it's the best solution. Don't make the mistake of thinking "carbon-free" means "solar-electric".

          • Agreed that there are a lot of options; I generally push for donating to solar and wind because those are frankly the easiest ones to actually donate to. There's no really easy way to simply donate money to build more nuclear, geothermal or hydro. Solar and wind also have relatively fast turn around times which means that there's a short span between when one donates money to when it is used. A nuclear plant can take a decade or more to build (not that this is a criticism of nuclear power as much as simply
          • by amorsen ( 7485 )

            Passive solar means having to deal with hot liquids. No thank you. Hydro is pretty much built out to its maximum capacity by now, so that is not relevant going forward. Geothermal is great if you to hit the hot spot you expected -- otherwise not so much. Nuclear takes 20 years to come online and its price is stagnant or rising, in a market where practically all other sources of energy are getting dramatically cheaper.

            Solar electric and wind are the only options that are easy to deploy and scale. Geothermal

            • My understanding of passive solar is building design to maximise solar gain within it when warmth is desired

              Solar thermal for domestic hot water should have been mentioned.

              • It's funny, during the summer here in Texas if you leave your garden hose in the sun, especially a black hose, the water inside will get hotter than than your water heater. Yet we're paying to run an electric water heater. Simply putting the tank by the back porch, in a black box, would allow it to stay hot for free.

                • by q_e_t ( 5104099 )
                  Even in the UK, with a bit more technology, solar water heating is very possible. My father nearly installed it on my house in 1980.
        • by llamalad ( 12917 )

          I've been a vegetarian for 11 years and ride an electric bicycle to work (and for any errand that's within it's range/capacity). :-)

          Being veg-based is inconvenient at times, but the electric bike is absolutely no hardship. Without exception everyone I've let ride one of my bikes has come back sporting a huge grin, and nearly everyone has said that they plan to get one.

          Electric bikes are the future.

        • by jwhyche ( 6192 )

          Complete agreement. We're highly unlikely to solve everything via carbon offsets. We need to transition in general carbon neutral power systems. Unfortunately, while some places are doing a pretty decent job on this, some places, especially India and China, are very much not so. However, there are ways one can help out there as well.

          There, fixed that for you. Your original premise is completely wrong. The US and Australia are actually leading the way in renewable energy production. Google and Apple just went 100% renewable with their energy use. Other US companies are looking do the same.

          Despite what Lord Trump has said about coal, its use in the US is on the way down. Fewer coal plants are being built in the US than ever before. California, one of the few things they do right, is a good example of environmental clean up in t

      • I believe that is one of several plans already being considered.

    • Mod parent up. Not just tropical rain forests either, but coastal and temperate rain forests as well should be encouraged.

    • by HornWumpus ( 783565 ) on Thursday April 12, 2018 @03:14PM (#56426599)

      Rainforests are carbon neutral.

      Yes they absorb a large % of the carbon absorbed by the biosphere, they also emit a large % of the carbon emitted by the biosphere, when the leaves/wood rots.

      Unless an area is 'putting down' carbon, it's carbon neutral. That's rare: Only example I know of is the Okefenokee swamp.

      Some areas that are currently reforesting (e.g. the eastern half of the USA) are short term carbon sinks. Will only last until the tree cover reaches the new equilibrium. Landfills and suburbs are also short term carbon sinks. Until that wood and paper burns/rots it's locked up.

      The earth has been sinking carbon since the uplifting of the Tibetan plateau. Exposed limestone is a carbon sink. But slow.

      • Your parents obviously are talking about planting new rain forests The newly planted trees will absorb carbon. When the forest is established it will be CO2 neutral in the end. But establishing it, is not.

        • It's unlikely that enough forests could be planted, year-on-year, to make enough difference, or without running out of space in a couple of decades. So massive move towards renewables would have to be concurrent
          • Of course it would make nearly no difference. It was not my proposal/idea.

            • Wind blowing off the North American content has lower CO2 than air blowing onto it. Because we deforested the eastern half in the 1800s and it is now 'reforesting', or at least growing large trees in the 'burbs.

        • That's not obvious at all.

          The commonly taught greeny disinformation is that 'rainforests are the planets lungs', but it's completely wrong, propaganda.

      • Will only last until the tree cover reaches the new equilibrium.

        What about making biochar, or using the wood for other purposes where carbon stays fixated (construction, for example)?

    • by lazarus ( 2879 )

      This is excellent. I offset my current and future carbon emissions about 15 years ago buy buying a small forest property. There are also organizations like the Nature Conservancy [nature.org] that do something similar.

    • by amorsen ( 7485 )

      Cool Earth merely stops some rainforest destruction. This is great, but it is not carbon sequestering.

      Mature forest is pretty much in CO2 balance, it does not sequester significant amounts of CO2. Obviously we should not burn it, but equally obviously we should not dig concentrated carbon out of the ground and burn that.

      • Mature forest is pretty much in CO2 balance, it does not sequester significant amounts of CO2.

        This is wrong. I have previously posted citations on this subject here. Mature forests sequester more CO2 than young ones, because of the mass of the trees. This is true for virtually all species.

        However, rainforest does not sequester much CO2, because of the rate of dieoff. Aerobic decomposition releases less CO2 into the atmosphere. Rainforests and other places with high rates of growth and dieoff tend to have anerobic decomposition which releases most of the carbon back into the atmosphere. What rainfore

  • Use CO2 with sunlight and water to grow useful plants.

    Crazy idea right?

    • Use CO2 with sunlight and water to grow useful plants.

      Crazy idea right?

      Stupid idea. Think about it. Where are you going to grow the plants that doesn't already have plants growing there. Next what do you do with the plants when you are done? If you let them rot you release the carbon as, C02, CH4 and other gases which are worse. You could convert the plants to fuel but, as we see in ethanol production that takes so much other energy that it might actually be worse. Forests aren't even a good carbon sink (despite what the government of Canada claims). Basically a mature

      • by pz ( 113803 )

        Cut the tress down, outgas them under controlled conditions and reclaim lots of good chemical feedstock, crush the remaining carbon into lumps, and use them to fill up the massive holes from coal mining. Plant a new set of trees, and repeat. It's more-or-less the reverse of what we've been doing.

        For extra credit, power the mechanical parts of the process from solar.

        • Ha! I always suspected that!
          Our grand grand ... ... ... grand fathers did exactly that!
          They cut down the trees and buried them under ground, so we can dig out coal.
          Just because they had that pelt fetish and did not like wearing the pelts in hot climate conditions.
          Now I got it, thank you Sir!

    • You need another step to make sure the plants don't get eaten or rot and re-release the CO2, making charcoal is one option.

  • by Rick Schumann ( 4662797 ) on Thursday April 12, 2018 @02:26PM (#56426293) Journal
    Instead of finding ways to use the waste products of power plants that create harmful waste products, we should be finding ways to get rid of power plants of this type and replace them with power generation that doesn't create harmful waste products. Creating incentives and investing money in making these kinds of power generation facilities more relevant instead of less relevant is going in the wrong direction.
  • by jfdavis668 ( 1414919 ) on Thursday April 12, 2018 @02:36PM (#56426333)
    To put all the carbon back into mines.
  • NO! Ecological improvement must hurt, infidel!!
  • by Gregory Eschbacher ( 2878609 ) on Thursday April 12, 2018 @02:56PM (#56426453)

    The quote expressing skepticism is commiting a slight logical fallacy: Just because this might not be THE single answer doesn't mean it can't be PART of the solution. Anyone who thinks there is a single best solution to CO2 emissions is likely to be extremely disappointed.

    The most likely solution is going to be a collection of initiatives such as cutting emissions, switching from coal to natural gas, using nuclear energy + wind + solar, geoengineering, creating carbon sinks, painting roofs/roads/whatever white, reducing deforestation, etc. It's very possible the winners of this contest could provide 5% of the solution, and that 5% (which I just made up) could be a very useful addition to the complete solution.

    It's great that XPRIZE is putting up $20 million for contests like this.

  • ...to supply the extra energy used for capture and conversion of CO2 from current coal plants. The problem has a solution if we can just narrow down the scope of it enough.
  • After spending some time trying to find ways to get carbon out of air and more oxygen, I really don't see a more efficient process than reforesting, which will sequester CO2 along with H from water, releasing some O.

    All in all, it's very inefficient but everything else takes much more energy, and doesn't scale.

    Could be more efficient by making use of waste heat from Nuclear power plants on the coast to desalination.

  • The X-prize project is hoping to find a way to make money (they call it incenttivize) by making a product using the concentrated CO2 and waste heat from a conventional power plant. That product is supposed to sequester the CO2 from the environment.

    An alternative direct attack for reducing human generated CO2 is to pay people to substitute low CO2 activities for high CO2 activities. An example is, pay people to accept riders and engage in ride sharing. A gasoline burning commuter is paid to be a rider. The rider doesn't buy $30 a week of gasoline, so the rider's net wealth goes up $30, plus the rider is paid some number of dollars, like 5 dollars in Ethereum for 15Kg of CO2 not emitted (by the rider not driving). The driver still buys $30 in gasoline and he gets 5 dollars in Ethereum that can be spent to purchase an electric vehicle and a share of a destination charging station. As soon as the driver shows statistical likelihood of dependably carrying riders, the driver qualifies for a huge Ethereum loan switch to electric power and have $30 per week retained wealth also.

    See my blog:
    http://www.lowco2america.com/2... [lowco2america.com]

    In effect, we pay people to not burn gasoline, which results in retained cash in the individuals personal finance plus an accumulating amount of Ethereum that can be invested in activities that are alternative to the combustion of fuel. For the individual or family, the goal is to make not emitting CO2 more economically and socially advantageous than the conventional gasoline burning consumer life. Generous payment is needed because the program needs everybody to join in and conserve, no matter where they reside on the climate change denial scale. From the government point of view, we are buying down the globe's CO2 burden. The further development of this is to set off a conservation cascade. Think up ways to directly not emit CO2 and fund them. Suppose we establish the right to a low co2 emission public education for the child and her parents. Think three day work weeks, Local baseball and football teams. Four week long local music and dance festivals per year. Manufacture of 100 year roofs from locally collected plastic.

  • As a way to transport energy, hydrocarbons are much safer than batteries.

    This is because hydrocarbons are dangerous only when they are mixed with oxygen, and it is possible to put a thick wall between them without impairing the efficiency of energy extraction. On the other hand, batteries are based upon separating, by a very thin membrane, two materials that would shortcircuit and burst into flames if they were to touch each other.

    Another considration is the effective energy density of hydrocarbons relative

  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Friday April 13, 2018 @03:55AM (#56429581)

    No, not the feelgood treehugger variant where you try to use less fuel. The physical one.

    CO2 has a few very, very crappy properties. One of them being that it takes a LOT of energy to break up. Because forming it released a LOT of energy. Well, duh, why do you think we use ICEs burning hydrocarbons that produce CO2 and H2O (another one of those hard to split molecules).

    You can now of course use a lot or energy to transform CO2 back to something useful. We could instead take that energy and use it as a replacement for energy that is now generated by burning something that creates CO2. Yes, we could of course also do both, but until we actually produce ALL energy by means that do not produce CO2, the energy is better used by fueling whatever it is that is now fueled in a CO2 producing way.

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