What to do with all that carbon?
Over the past one hundred years we have seen atmospheric levels of carbon gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO) and methane (CH4) increase dramatically. Carbon dioxide is not normally considered a pollutant because it is a normal constituent of air. However, excess of carbon dioxide is considered a pollutant because it leads to adverse effects on the environment. This effect is known as the ‘greenhouse effect’ and heats up the earth’s temperature. According to an estimate, the average temperature of the earth has increased by 10 C in the last 50 years. It is predicted that if the global temperature rises by 3.60 C, the polar ice caps and glaciers would melt. This would increase the water level of oceans by about 100 m and hence lead to the flooding of low-lying coastal areas of the earth. Source 1.
There is a lot of discussion about ways in which we can produce energy without producing all that harmful waste, such as wind energy, solar energy and geothermal energy. These alternative methods have their limitations: they tend not to yield as much energy as authentic methods, they can be more expensive, not all countries have the right climate or geography for it to work. But what if that ‘waste’ could become useful to us? We are pumping millions of pounds of carbon dioxide a second into our atmosphere Source 2}; is that humanities greatest mistake?
Carbon dioxide is nontoxic, non-flammable, and essentially free for the taking. Those attributes make it sound like CO2 could be a great feedstock for making commodity chemicals, fuels, and materials—and it already is playing that role for a few applications. But there are a few catches. One is that CO2 is very stable, which means it takes extra effort to activate the molecule, so it will react Source 3. Therefore, all the unwanted carbon in the atmosphere has created a race for chemists to find an efficient and useful way of dealing with it.
Source 4 A material scientist at Michigan Technological University has discovered a chemical reaction that not only soaks up CO2, but also produces useful chemicals along with significant amounts of energy. Professor Yun Hang Hu and his research team developed a heat-releasing reaction between lithium nitride and carbon dioxide, which resulted in amorphous carbon nitride (C3N4), a semiconductor, and lithium cyanamide (Li2CN2), a precursor to fertilizers. This seems an ingenious idea, however it is just a start and its practicality has not yet been assessed.
As I was procrastinating and scrolling through Facebook I came across an article Source 5 called ‘Cheap Carbon Capture Technology Might Make Our Climate Goals Possible’. Coincidence?… probably not. The article explained that the idea of taking all the carbon that’s baking our atmosphere and putting it somewhere else has not taken off as it has been way too expensive. Now though, that may no longer be the case. a way to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere for the bargain price of $94 to $232 per ton. That’s a major improvement over the researchers’ previous estimate of $1,000 dollars per ton. While the technology still requires a great deal of energy (the researchers suggest using natural gas or electricity to satisfy it), it’s very feasible. All the technology required to build the new carbon capture system already exists Source 6.
Science journalist Dan Robitzski assessed the idea by saying that ‘Granted, it’s possible that, in practice, the new technology will be more expensive than those estimates predict, especially if it were to be implemented at any major scale. But that would still be way better than what experts had assumed it would cost to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store it elsewhere. And anything that helps get greenhouse gases out of the way and helps mitigate climate change-related destruction is good news.’.
Another popular solution comes in a much simpler form. Trees. According to Source 7, cities are responsible for over 70% of the world’s carbon emissions. Trees reduce the carbon in their surroundings by photosynthesis. But how many trees would be needed to totally cancel-out the carbon emissions for a major city. Source 8 was intrigued by this idea too, and it came up with an article of 10 major US cities and how many trees would need to be planted to counteract its carbon emissions. Los Angeles, for example, a city with a population of 8.884 million emits 18.595 million tons of carbon per year. TruWood estimated that over 77 million trees would need to be planted to offset carbon emissions. So, clearly this project would be very expensive on its own, so would need help with other ideas because there simply is not space to plant that many more trees.
Source 1: According to an article I read on http://www.preservearticles.com/201101032332/harmful-effects-of-carbon-dioxide.html
Source 2: Statistic based off a 2012 report by CBS News
Source 3: An article by Stephen K. Ritter that I found on c;en
Source 4: An article on New Atlas by Darren Quick
Source 6: According to an article by James Temple on MIT Technology Review
Source 7: C40 Cities