This month, a landmark achievement was achieved by scientists at the Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory to convert CO2 into Ethanol both easily, cheaply, and effectively.
This is huge and could be a game changer, because while there are many "theoretical" and "laboratory" solutions for climate change and CO2 emission reduction, often these methods are either ridiculously expensive, time consuming, or inefficient.
Our emphasis has always been finding both cost efficient and pragmatic solutions that work in the real world outside the laboratory.
Table Of Contents:
1.0 Why does CO2 Matter?
2.0 Current and Cumulative CO2 emissions by country
3.0 Methods to Reduce CO2
4.0 Converting CO2 into Ethanol
5.0 What we can do with Ethanol
6.0 Conclusion: No Silver Bullet: Combining Multiple Solutions
1.0 Why Does CO2 Matter?
We thought that before we dive into this, it would be helpful to establish a framework for why CO2 matters, and how we believe this conversion technology can be added to a comprehensive basket of solutions to create a circular carbon economy and carbon neutral world.
Carbon Dioxide, also known as CO2, is present at higher levels in our atmosphere than at any time in the last 800,000 years.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Assocation (NOAA) at Climate.gov, In 2018, this was slightly over 400 parts per million.
How do we know this?
Well, it's always important to actually do your homework and review all sources and methodology. After all, an "appeal to authority" is a logical fallacy!
Bethan Davies, A Senior Lecturer in Quaternary Science at Royal Holloway University of London explains how we can use ice sheets, and particularly ice cores to look at historical CO2 emissions.
"Ice sheets have one particularly special property. They allow us to go back in time and to sample accumulation, air temperature and air chemistry from another time. Ice core records allow us to generate continuous reconstructions of past climate, going back at least 800,000 years. By looking at past concentrations of greenhouse gasses in layers in ice cores, scientists can calculate how modern amounts of carbon dioxide and methane compare to those of the past, and, essentially, compare past concentrations of greenhouse gasses to temperature."
2.0 Current and Cumulative Emissions by Country
According to the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC), there have approx. 1.5 trillion tons of CO2 emitted since 1751. Similar to plastic pollution, there is both a cumulative problem with CO2 as well as the problem of current emissions.
So who are the highest cumulative contributors to CO2 emissions from 1751 to Today? (*our figures are from the worldindata.com which has 2017 as most recent, but percentages and figures remain consistent)
1) USA - 25% of all emissions at 399 billion tons of CO2
2) EU- 22% of all emissions at 353 billion tons of CO2
3) China - 12.7% of all emissions at 200 billion tons of CO2
4) Russia - 6% of all emissions at 101 billion tons of CO2
This represents approx 2/3 of all cumulative global emissions since 1751.
Now lets look AT current CO2 emissions by country:
1) China - 9.8 million metric tons, or mtco2 27.2%
2) USA - 5.3 mtco2 14.6 %
3) India - 2.5 mtco2 6.8%
4) Russia - 1.7 mtco2 4.7%
An interesting takeaway here is that although Europe makes up a large percentage of cumulative emissions, it currently has minimal current CO2 emissions. The only EU country that makes the list for the top 10 is Germany at #6 with 799 mtco2.
A common philosophical viewpoint is that those with the most cumulative CO2 emissions have the greatest responsibility towards the climate crisis, and clearly, the United States has amongst the highest responsibility of all nations.
3.0 Methods to reduce CO2:
There are multiple methods to reduce CO2 both domestically and globally. In this post, we are focusing on governmental, business, and NGO opportunities that are generally large in scope and will make the largest impact globally. That being said, there are many things we can all do at home, such as carpooling, using solar panels/wind energy, buying electric cars, proper disposal, and reducing, reusing and recycling as many consumer goods as possible, especially our plastic consumption.
According to World Resources Initiative, "carbon-removal potential from forests and trees outside forests in the United States alone is more than half a gigaton per year". Photosynthesis reduces carbon dioxide naturally, and We MUST do more as well as continue to protect our forests, minimize deforestation, and abroad - protect the most powerful carbon-removal forests of all, our rainforests.
2) Carbon Sequestration in soil:
There are many methods to increase carbon capture in soil, and this can be done through better soil management. Practices including growing high yield, biomass crops, minimizing tillage, maintaining and conserving ground cover, minimizing impact on grazing, and maintaining soil fertility.
According to Renee Cho, a staff blogger for the Earth Institute at Columbia University, "Sequestering carbon in soil, however, is a relatively natural way of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere with fewer impacts on land and water, less need for energy, and lower costs. Better land management and agricultural practices could enhance the ability of soils to store carbon and help combat global warming."
3) Direct Air Capture:
Through Scrubbing carbon dioxide from the air directly, we can reduce CO2 in the atmosphere. This is a relatively new technology, and unfortunately it is currently very expensive. However, it is a very promising technology that hopefully can be further developed in the future. According to World Resources Institute, "It is relatively straightforward to measure and account for the climate benefits of direct air capture, and its potential scale of deployment is enormous. But the technology remains costly and energy-intensive. It is often difficult to pin down costs for new direct air capture technologies, but a 2018 study estimates that it would cost about $94-$232 per metric ton."
These are just a few of the ways to reduce CO2, and there are many more such as Bio-energy with Carbon Capture and Storage, Carbon Mineralization, and ocean based concepts.
4.0 Converting CO2 into Ethanol:
The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory in collaboration with Northern Illinois University, has created a new electro-catalyst that converts carbon dioxide and water into ethanol.
Britannica describes a catalyst as, " Catalyst, in chemistry, any substance that increases the rate of a reaction without itself being consumed."
Here's a fun video that explains a catalyst in simple terms:
Catalysts have a wide variety of industrial applications, especially in industrial manufacturing.
For example, Iron is used a catalyst for producing ammonia and aluminosilicates are used for manufacturing petrochemicals.
According to Argonne National Laboratory, "Today, catalysts are involved in over 80 percent of all manufactured products."
This particular catalyst is made of atomically dispersed copper which is on a support made of carbon-powder.
This CO2 to ethanol conversion is a big deal!
CO2 is a very STABLE molecule, so although there has been CO2 conversion in the past to different molecules, it has not been nearly as efficient.
The faradaic efficiency, which describes the efficiency with which charge (electrons) are transferred in a system facilitating an electrochemical reaction, is 90%!
5.0 What we can do with Ethanol
Due to high efficiency and relatively low cost, the implications are extremely positive for sustainability and the reducing climate change!
Di-Jia Liu, senior chemist in Argonne’s Chemical Sciences and Engineering division, explains,
"We could couple the electrochemical process of CO2-to-ethanol conversion using our catalyst to the electric grid and take advantage of the low-cost electricity available from renewable sources like solar and wind during off-peak hours.” Because the process runs at low temperature and pressure, it can start and stop rapidly in response to the intermittent supply of the renewable electricity."
Want even better news?
The cataylst conversion party is just getting started!
“We have prepared several new catalysts using this approach and found that they are all highly efficient in converting CO2 to other hydrocarbons,” said Liu. “We plan to continue this research in collaboration with industry to advance this promising technology.”
We look forward to discussing additional applications of this exciting discovery!
6.0 Conclusion: No Silver Bullet: Combining Multiple Solutions
Despite the exciting new discovery of this electrocatalyst which has finally made the conversion of CO2 to Ethanol efficient and practical in terms of its applications, it is important to remember that this is no silver bullet.
We need to look at climate change reduction as a basket or portfolio of solutions that must be combined simultaneously in order to truly change and reverse the course of our planet's trajectory.
For example, Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA), offers governmental solutions such as protecting and restoring key ecosystems, supporting small agricultural producers, promoting green energy, combating short lived climate pollutants, and adapting vs. just mitigating climate change.
In fact, I'm going to go even further and say that even climate change itself is only one piece (albeit an EXTREMELY important one) of a very complicated puzzle, that to me, represents a dying planet.
I look at the Earth holistically, and almost similar, in some ways, to a human body.
You can look at climate change as the Earth's cancer ridden pulminary system, just as you can look at her plastic filled, hypoxic dead zoned, and chemically polluted oceans, rivers, and lakes as her infected circulatory system.
Heavy metals and nitrogen in the soil - well maybe that's skin cancer.
And we can return the CO2 back to normal and that still won't solve our plastic pollution problem or lack of biodiversity problem, and those are just two examples out of many.
We must plan IN ADVANCE, on a global scale, all of our product life cycles and create a combination of incentives and penalties for governments and corporations.
The Earth might be dying, but right now, she's still in stable condition, and surviving.
If we take proposed global reforms now, with the same true sense of crisis and urgency that we take this global pandemic, she could be THRIVING within one generation.