The Viridian Design Movement

Viridian Note 00311: Carbon Extraction

Bruce Sterling []

Key concepts: bioremediation, microbes, Craig Venter, Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives, Los Alamos National Laboratory, schemes for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere on industrial scales

Attention Conservation Notice: It's far-fetched. On the other hand, there may already be enough carbon dioxide in the air to destroy our civilization. In which case, notions like these become intensely interesting. Over 2,000 words.


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(((Okay, Craig Venter, right? That gene-splicing guy. He's decided to suck all the excess CO2 out of the air by feeding it to genetically souped-up microbes from oceanic abysses. Hey, it could happen. Remember, nobody thought Venter could shotgun the human genome in jig time, either.)))

"A New Outlet for Venter's Energy "Genome Maverick To Take On Global Warming

By Justin Gillis Washington Post Staff Writer Tuesday, April 30, 2002; Page E01

"J. Craig Venter, the maverick scientist who altered history when he chose to compile a human genetic map with private money, has settled on his next project: tackling the problem of global warming.

"Tapping a $100 million research endowment he is creating from his stock holdings, (((good thing he's not in telecom))) Venter plans to scour the world's deep ocean trenches for bacteria that might be able to convert carbon dioxide, the gas released when cars and power plants burn fuel, back into solid form without needing a lot of sunlight or other energy.

"The idea is to devise a technology that would allow humankind to continue producing energy while lowering emissions of the gas, which threatens to destabilize the Earth's climate.

"'We've barely scratched the surface of the microbial world out there to try to help the environment,' Venter said in an interview. 'We're going to be searching for some dramatic new microbes.'

"Venter has a 20-year track record of upending scientific dogma and developing new approaches that other scientists eventually embrace. (...)

"Venter recently confirmed that the genome Celera sequenced was in large measure his own. He said he felt that if he was going to ask people to surrender their genetic privacy for the sake of science, he ought to go first. (((An attitude that speaks for itself.))) (...)

"I'm quite proud of my accomplishments there," Venter said. "But I did not want to run a pharmaceutical company."

"Because of his track record, Venter's plans to jump into environmental 'bioremediation' could draw money, competition and public attention to that obscure field.

"In an interview last week, which he granted subject to a news blackout that lifted this morning, Venter showed off his new headquarters, the entire top floor of a large Rockville office building. The offices were empty but for a few tables and chairs and three assistants whom Venter has hired away from Celera.

"Venter, 55, sat behind a whistle-clean makeshift desk, looking relaxed in dark-gray pants and a light-gray shirt. Workmen hurried to and fro removing signs of the previous occupant, a bank. (((Too bad the "previous occupant" of Venter's new digs wasn't Enron instead of a bank, but well, same difference.)))

"Venter emphasized that from now on, his ventures will be set up as not-for-profit corporations. 'I'm not in business anymore,' he said.

"The energy venture is merely the most ambitious of three new entities he plans to create. One, the J. Craig Venter Science Foundation, will hold much of the cash and stock Venter acquired in his jobs at Celera and an earlier association with Human Genome Sciences Inc., also of Rockville. Venter had previously said much of the money would go to scientific research, and the foundation is intended to formalize that arrangement.

"The money will support the work of his other two creations. One new entity will be a combination of think tank and specialized research shop that will focus on many of the social issues raised by the genetic science that Venter has helped to push forward. (...)

"The think tank will be closely linked to the Institute for Genomic Research, a nonprofit laboratory Venter founded years ago that is now run by his wife, Claire Fraser, an accomplished genetic scientist. That lab, widely known as TIGR and based in Rockville, attracts extensive government funding and is the world's premier center for researching the genetics of bacteria. The new think tank will be called the TIGR Center for the Advancement of Genomics. Genomics is the study, at a broad scale, of the complete genetic inheritance of organisms == their genomes.

"Venter is calling his third new entity the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives. Venter expects to go after grant money from the U.S. Department of Energy and to have scores of scientists on board within a year. His goal will be to explore whether modern science can use the power of biology to solve the world's most serious environmental crisis.

"As industrial societies burn fossil fuels for energy, they are releasing vast amounts of carbon, previously locked in solid form, into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Rising concentrations of the gas are trapping extra heat from the sun == the famous "greenhouse effect" == and warming the Earth. Estimates of the impact of this warming in the current century begin with severe economic disruption and the dislocation of millions of people and get worse from there. (((Note: we are setting heat records in Austin and it is barely May. Earlier this week, a historically unprecedented F5 tornado in Maryland smashed-up a suburb of Washington DC.)))

"As political efforts to cut the use of energy have stalled, many scientists, Venter among them, have grown fascinated by the possibility of a technological fix. (((Political and economic fixes being effectively stymied by Exxon-Mobil.))) The Energy Department has for several years been funding research in the field, which is known as 'carbon sequestration.'

"Scientists are exploring a wide range of ideas, some quite modest and some as wild as fertilizing parts of the ocean to spark growth of algae that would take up carbon dioxide. The Bush administration has supported a broad portfolio of such research and has been increasing funds for it even in tight budget times. (((Coal guys like sequestration research and hate everything else.)))

"Among the most pragmatic ideas are those that would install colonies of organisms in 'bioreactors' near power plants to suck up emissions of carbon dioxide and turn the gas into solids such as sugars, proteins and starches == which might themselves be useful byproducts. ((("Eat the Greenhouse!" Of course, that merely turns the atmosphere to sewage, but...))) Plant cells can already do this, of course, but they require vast amounts of energy in the form of sunlight, and many scientists believe they are likely to prove impractical on a large scale.

"Venter plans to base his approach on one of the most striking developments in biology in recent years == the discovery, in deep ocean trenches and volcanic hot spots on the ocean floor, of a wide array of bacteria that can perform extensive chemical reactions without needing sunlight. These are thought to be descendants of the most primitive life forms that arose on the Earth, and scientists are just beginning to explore their potential.

"Venter said he hopes to find == or, if necessary, create through genetic engineering (((yeehaw!))) == an ideal organism or group of organisms that would be able to take in carbon dioxide, break it down, and produce both biological compounds and energy. (((Of course, if those bugs ever get loose in the wild, prepare for a permanent ice age.)))

"Ari Patrinos, associate director of science for biological and environmental research at the Energy Department, said he had been discussing futuristic solutions to the energy problem with Venter for a decade and is excited to hear Venter is planning a big move into the field. He cautioned, however, that a great deal of fundamental research remains to be done.

"'I think it is indicative of the seriousness of these problems that they are attracting prominent scientists,' Patrinos said. 'People recognize that some of these problems are stubborn nuts to crack. We need to address them as aggressively as we can with the very best minds.'"

(((Let's hope that Venter's abyssal genesplicing lab isn't hit by an F-5 tornado, its contents scattered hither and thither just like La Plata, Maryland. Meanwhile, in Los Alamos...)))

Sources: Los Alamos National Laboratory

"Date: Posted 4/15/2002

"Imagine No Restrictions On Fossil-Fuel Usage And No Global Warming ((("No Problem, The Bush Administration Can Imagine Anything")))

"ORLANDO, Fla., April 9, 2002 == Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory are studying a simple, cost-effective method for extracting carbon dioxide directly from the air == which could allow sustained use of fossil fuels while avoiding potential global climate change. (((Well, there's still sulfur, mercury and acid rain, plus strip-mining, asthma and blacklung, but why be all picky.)))

"(...) A Los Alamos-led research team today presented the topic at the 223rd annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in Orlando, Fla. (((Note: not a bunch of flakes or kooks.)))

"'Fossil fuel supplies are plentiful, and what will limit the usage of fossil fuels is the potential climatic and ecosystem changes you may see as a result of rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere,' said Los Alamos researcher Manvendra Dubey. 'If you can capture atmospheric carbon dioxide, then you limit the environmental impact of fossil fuels and you can continue to use them. ((Or, you can just use them in callous disregard of millions dying.)))

"'We have come up with a way to capture and sequester the carbon dioxide that we are putting in the atmosphere. Our approach is particularly well suited to capturing CO2 from numerous small sources such as automobiles that are largely being ignored.' (((They don't suck it out of tailpipes. They build a giant chemical plant in the desert and launder the whole atmosphere.)))

"While many scientists are working on capturing or sequestering carbon, Dubey and his colleagues' method differs because it works on a dilute stream of CO2 in the atmosphere as opposed to capturing more concentrated forms found in power plant exhausts. The method uses ordinary air with its average carbon dioxide concentration of about 370 parts per million. (((About 60 parts per million too much.)))

"(...) The air is passed over an extraction agent, for example a solution of quicklime, the active agent in some cement. As the air passes over the extraction structure, the carbon dioxide in the air reacts with the quicklime and becomes converted to calcium carbonate (limestone), a solid that forms and falls to the bottom of the extractor.

"The calcium carbonate is then heated to yield pure carbon dioxide and quicklime, which is recycled back into the extractor. The purified and liberated carbon dioxide can then be sequestered as a gas by direct injection into the ground or it could be reacted with minerals to form a solid. Carbon dioxide gas also can be sold commercially to the petrochemical industry, which uses large quantities of it to extract fossil fuels. (...)

"'The carbon dioxide comes to the facility on its own,' Dubey said. 'And because treated air is discharged, the overall concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere gradually decreases over time. Using this method on a large enough scale, it may be possible to return atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to pre- Industrial-Age concentrations. Given the possibility our climate system can change abruptly, this possibility is very exciting." (((Blocks of CO2 being hastily shoved into abandoned coal mines as centers of government wither and melt.)))

"Cost of the entire process is equivalent to about 20 cents per gallon of gasoline == a nominal cost when one considers the recent price fluctuations at gasoline pumps across the nation, Dubey said. A typical extraction facility that could extract all current carbon dioxide emissions would require only an area of one square yard per person in the developed world. ((("Only"? "Developed"?)))

A facility of sufficient size could be located in arid regions, since discharged air that is deficient in carbon dioxide could have consequences on nearby plant life. ((("Consequences"?)))

"Large expanses of desert would not be affected by the CO2 deficit however, and could provide the wide-open spaces necessary both for the facility and to allow the discharged air to become well mixed with the atmosphere again. ((("The CO2 Sacrifice Zone".)))

"The next step for Dubey and his colleagues is to use intense computer models to optimize the configuration of the extractor as well as design alternative chemicals for extraction. Dubey's research colleagues include Hans Ziock, Scott Elliott and William S. Smith of Los Alamos; Klaus Lackner, formerly of Los Alamos and now also at Columbia University; and Pat Grimes of Grimes Associates of Scotch Plains, N.J. Los Alamos National Laboratory is operated by the University of California for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) of the U.S. Department of Energy and works in partnership with NNSA's Sandia and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories to support NNSA in its mission.

"Los Alamos enhances global security by ensuring the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, developing technologies to reduce threats from weapons of mass destruction, and solving problems related to energy, environment, infrastructure, health and national security concerns."

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