A More Fruitful Way to Deal with Carbon Dioxide

I am now in Thailand. The conference has moved to a new hotel, and it is gorgeous. I hope to post some pictures at some point. Right now, however, I want to write about another article that caught my eye while I was catching up on my reading during my 23 hours in the air.

This article was in Science1 The authors report on a new technique they have developed for carbon sequestration. Now anyone who reads this blog knows that I don’t buy into the global warming hysteria. Instead, I am guided by the data, and the data do not indicate that anything unusual is happening in terms of global climate.

Nevertheless, the amount of carbon dioxide in the air is rising, and it is most certainly our fault. If human emissions of carbon dioxide (not from breathing – from everything else) were one-third of their present value, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would actually start decreasing. Thus, there is no question that we are causing the buildup.

While the data indicate that so far, this buildup of carbon dioxide is not significantly affecting global climate, it possibly could at some point in the future. In addition, rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can make the ocean more acidic, since carbon dioxide reacts with water to produce carbonic acid (the same acid found in soda pop). So far, the increased ocean acidity due to increased carbon dioxide is rather insignificant, but once again, the effect could grow in the future. In addition, who knows what other things might be affected by carbon dioxide levels?

So while I don’t think that the rising carbon dioxide levels we are seeing now are any reason to take draconian steps to mitigate the issue, it is always worthwhile to find reasonable ways to lessen humanity’s impact on the planet. That’s why this article is so intriguing.

You see, if we start to limit our carbon dioxide emissions with current technology, people will die. There is just no question about that. Any policy that targets carbon dioxide emissions will make energy more expensive, and when energy is more expensive, people stop cooling their homes in the summer and warming them in the winter. As a result, even in the United States, people die of exposure because they cannot afford to heat or cool their homes. This issue disproportionately affects the elderly.2 I just don’t see a reason to start killing old people to fight a problem that we don’t even know is real.

However, instead of attacking the problem from the emissions side, what if we found a way to “clean up after ourselves.” What if we could remove carbon dioxide from the air? Actually, we already can, but none of the processes currently available seem to be promising in terms of their energy requirements and costs.

Enter Raja Angamuthu and colleagues. They have devised a copper catalyst that actually “plucks” carbon dioxide out of the air and turns it into oxalate, a chemical that can be used in the production of many other useful chemicals. This is an amazing feat, because the kind of chemical reaction used in this process (a reduction/oxidation reaction) also affects oxygen. Since oxygen is present in the atmosphere at much higher concentrations than is carbon dioxide, most attempts to pull carbon dioxide out of the air using this kind of chemistry also pull a lot of oxygen out of the air. The catalyst devised in this study, however, prefers to “play” with carbon dioxide, and the oxygen in the air is mostly left alone.

Not only does the technique developed by Angamuthu and colleagues pull carbon dioxide out of the air and make something useful, it also takes very little energy. The catalyst is reformed in the technique, so huge amounts of chemicals are not consumed. In addition, the voltages at which the process runs are very low.

Now don’t jump for joy quite yet. This is just a “proof of concept” paper. The authors have demonstrated that this works on a small scale in the lab. In order to form the basis of a serious carbon sequestration system, it must be scaled up significantly, which always leads to a host of technical problems. So who knows whether or not this process will ever really be used to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? Nevertheless, it is a very promising step.

The main point to all this, however, is not the process itself. It is the fact that technology is too often overlooked as a possible solution to environmental problems. There are many who think global warming is real and that human-produced carbon dioxide is the cause. These people tend to propose solutions (like strict emission limits) that will end up killing other people. Instead, they should spend more of their efforts and resources promoting technology that will allow us to solve the problem without killing people. It doesn’t seem to be too much to ask.


1. Raja Angamuthu, Philip Byers, Martin Lutz, Anthony L. Spek, Elisabeth Bouwman, “Electrocatalytic CO2 Conversion to Oxalate by a Copper Complex,” Science, 327: 313-15, 2010
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2. Goklany, I.M. and Straja, S.R., “U.S. trends in crude death rates due to extreme heat and cold ascribed to weather, 1979-97,” Technology, 7S: 165-73, 2000
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  1. Josiah February 3, 2010 3:53 am

    I can’t say anything about global warming (I’m equally disinclined toward blindly believing you and the rest of humanity, and have neither the data nor the ability to form any opinion for myself.)

    However either way might there not still be room for rationing in handling our impact on the environment. Technological improvements are always good, be they energy efficient bulbs, machines that turn themselves off, or even unleaded petrol, but for as long as the majority of the damage is done by the rich, young(ish), carefree sort there must me a place for sanctions that don’t affect the pensioner, the impoverished, and so forth. It seems likely that as fast (faster?) as technology improves (climate wise) it will also grow in scale, and if for example there were four times as many SUVs it surely wouldn’t help (considering present circumstances) matter if each sucked up half of its own CO2.

    • jlwile February 3, 2010 7:10 pm

      Your general attitude is a great one, Josiah! You shouldn’t blindly believe anyone, be it me, another scientist, or even a group of scientists.

      I think rationing is a reasonable thing to do as long as the benefits outweigh the consequences. As you say, if it doesn’t adversely affect the “pensioner, the impoverished, and so forth,” it only makes sense. This is why I recycle, use the “curly” light bulbs, turn down the heat at night, walk when I am going only a short way, etc., etc. The only problem I have with rationing is when the effects far outweigh the possible benefits.


  2. Mrs. D February 9, 2010 10:18 am

    Yeah! finally someone I can agree with on most stuff. I stumbled across this blog when a friend of mine sent me the article on laminin. I took some chemistry in college biochem and organic chem and though I certain haven’t used it much since then, I enjoyed seeing how the body joins together. It is obvious in many ways that God is the one by which “all things consist”. I guess you could be wowed by the structure as it is on paper, but realize that that’s just on paper. Molecules are 3 dimensional and often don’t look the same in real-life. I loved this article too. My daughter, who is around lots of her peers who are really into the “global warming” hysteria just asked me about this the other day. We discussed it (in layman’s talk) and I tried as best I could to explain to her that the data can be used in lots of different ways. It can be used to prove any point. When we go the Bible we try not to read into it, but let it speak. The same with Science. If it is manipulated it can be used falsely. I am going to recommend this site to her. I know she will really enjoy reading your articles and I’m glad someone out there is writing responsibly about these topics.

    Thank you!


    • jlwile February 9, 2010 2:14 pm

      Thanks for your comment! I am glad to hear the laminin article is getting around.

      I strongly agree with your statement about science. Science is easily manipulated, even by those who claim to be champions of science. Indeed, some of the most vocal “champions” of science, like Dawkins and Myers, are actually some of the worst at manipulating it to promote their own ideas. It is a sad state of affairs, but science is self-correcting, which is why creationism and intelligent design are growing in influence.