Saturday, February 10, 2007

Wealth, Fame, Al Gore!

Wanna be rich, save the planet, and meet Al Gore at the same time?

Then start thinking hard and click here.

British tycoon Richard Branson has offered a $25 million reward to the first scientist who can figure out a way to extract greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

The Details:
According to this story at Yahoo, to win you "will have to come up with a way of removing one billion metric tons of carbon gases a year from the atmosphere for 10 years -- with $5 million of the prize being paid at the start and the remaining $20 million at the end." The prize money is not supposed to pay to impliment the solution, just to reward the originator of the winning concept. Al Gore will be on the jury evaluating proposals.

Howard's Simpleton Solution: The average American car pumps out a fuzz less than one pound of carbon dioxide each and every mile it's driven. (The math may sound funny, but trust me on this. Don't make me get all physics-y on ya.) A billion metric tons converted to pounds looks like this -- 2,200,000,000,000 pounds. The math was more than my calculator could handle, but if slightly more than half of the 300 million Americans in this country gave up driving their personal smog monsters for ever and ever in favor of public transport, large-scale carpooling, bicycles, and walking -- and we're using the 2006 average for miles driven by individual Americans of 13,657 -- then we would cease emitting 2.2 trillion pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. This wouldn't remove existing CO2 from the air, but it would prevent any new accumulations, right? Probably not, but let's not quibble, at least not today. Would this qualify for Branson's award? Probably not. And would those 170 million Americans do this for their cut of $5 million up front and $25 million in 10 years? [Smirk.] Probably not.

Another Basic Idea, That Turns Out To Not Be So Basic: The average human exhales a bit less than two pounds of CO2 each and every day. While Howard would never touch the idea of reducing human population, he will suggest that the idea of genetically engineering a super-CO2-sucking tree, bush, or algae bloom is kind of interesting. Why? Because we would need about 3 billion of those trees or bushes or algae blooms that could absorb two pounds of carbon dioxide a day. Is two pounds of CO2 a lot for a tree? Currently, the average tree absorbs 48 pounds of CO2 in a year. It takes 14 1/2 mature trees to absorb the same amount of CO2 a single human exhales. So if we're gonna reach that 2.2-trillion-pounds-of-CO2 prize level, we'd have to plant 46 billion new regular-type trees and then wait for them to grow. However, if our genetic engineers could increase the absorption rate of average trees by, say... 46,000-fold, we'd only need a million mature super-CO2-sucking trees. A million. Probably not gonna happen that way either.

In other words, keep thinking.

By the way: Here's a terrific tutorial on carbon sequestration. This sentence is particularly provocative: "
A test in 2002 in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica suggests that between 10,000 and 100,000 carbon atoms are sunk for each iron atom added to the water." Read more to figure out the context...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

here's how you do it: genetically engineer super plants that suck up a ridiculous amount of CO2. we've engineered corn to be ridiculously big, we've engineered headless, 8-winged chickens, surely we can breed an O2 generating plant.

any other method is going to be more energy intensive than it's worth. most gases are so downhill energetically that it takes a huge amount of energy input to convert them into anything else.

i think the genetic engineering of plants would work! go tell branson!

10:14 AM, February 10, 2007  
Blogger HRlaughed said...

Well tell EVERYONE, why doncha!! Don't you want the $25M for yourself... and your family?!

10:23 AM, February 10, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i don't have the scientific details to be able to make the cut. i don't know enough about gene expression and transcription, etc., to be a qualifier. i'm sure branson would want to hear the details of how i would carry out such a plan, and i just don't have them.

11:01 AM, February 12, 2007  
Blogger HRlaughed said...

Then come up with something else. For $25M, you ought to be able to come up with a couple dozen ideas before finding one that could really work... and on the cheap! I fully expect a good idea to be proposed where I slap my own forehead and say, "Why the hell didn't I think of THAT?!"

11:14 AM, February 12, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i feel like there are very few simple solutions left in the world. but actually i thought this would be the "duh" idea that hits a homerun: bioengineering plants for purposes other than those already mastered by farmers. here's the problem: CO2 is very happy being CO2, and so to change it chemically requires a lot of work (energy or highly reactive high energy chemicals.) it IS possible, but it's almost the chemical equivalent of trying to lift yourself off the ground by your shoelaces. plant life has had millenia to solve the problem, and so it is to nature i think we must turn.

the only other sensible solution is sequestration. this may work for a scrubber coming off the top of a stack, or possibly for a scrubber on your car (a la catalytic converter), but as for CO2 in the atmosphere, i doubt there is any industrial process that will be worth the effort and it certainly won't be a "slap yourself on the forehead for not thinking about it first" discovery.

to reiterate, organisms that photosynthesize O2 from CO2 are factories that build themselves, propagate themselves, maintain themselves, and make use of the most benign source of energy available. though the factory turnover rate is low, it can be improved upon by the same simple means that farmers and ranchers have been using forever. maybe not 46000 times better, but maybe 100-fold. and let's think small plants with enormous leaves rather than the tree variety. i know the algae might be preferable as well, but that's a lot of slimy algae.

in conclusion, my idea is the best ever. phwat! (that's the raspberry sound)

3:23 PM, February 12, 2007  
Blogger HRlaughed said...

This is beyond both of our pay grades, but how about bunches of giant CO2 sucking machines out in the middle of the oceans, powered by nucular energy, that sequesture the CO2 down deeeep somewhere? Actually, I heard of this one once before -- I think from the Stanford-educated father of a Stanford-educated friend. Credentials make the idea, I've always said. %^]

3:44 PM, February 12, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

here's the problem: how do you selectively suck CO2 and not other gases? i've heard the CO2 trapped at the bottom of the ocean thing too. i guess you COULD "freeze" it as a hydrate at high pressures; that could be selective for CO2 (and H2O) over N2 and O2, both of which have much lower boiling points than CO2's sublimation point.

so you could pump mega millions of gallons of air down to the bottom of the ocean where some of the components would freeze and then ideally O2 and N2 would continue back up to the surface. i just have a feeling the logistics are incredibly difficult for this one. furthermore, massive amounts of CO2 in the ocean might throw off the whole pH balance of the aqueous world. ah, it's just not worth the risk. plants, however, can be trusted. they are our friends.

7:16 PM, February 12, 2007  
Blogger HRlaughed said...

Just to finish this comments section out, you are probably right that we'll probably do best to rely on nature, or an enhanced version of it, to help us out. That's why the next thread on phytoplankton is so interesting. If you Google "phytoplankton CO2" you'll come up with lots of interesting discussions, both pro and con. Also, check out the new Wikipedia carbon sequestration link at the end of this thread for additional possibilities.

The world of humanity might depend on what some Edison/Einstein could come up with in the next year or two...

6:28 PM, February 14, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

now that you mentioned the "dumping iron in the ocean" idea (which i was purposely avoiding) i'll give special comment:

adding iron to the ocean to make algal blooms grow rampant is like releasing a snake to kill a mouse. and we all know that's not a good idea, for soon a mongoose will have to be introduced to take care of the snake, followed by a tiger to eat the mongoose, and finally a ferocious grizzly bear that eats your children.

the unexpected consequences of ecosystem engineering are quite frightening. the introduction of chub used as bait in my own state's diamond lake has led to the complete destruction of that lake's ecosystem. any guesses as to the destructive form of life responsible for the lake's downfall? that's right, a form of poisonous algae that thrive because of the downstream effect of an excessive chub population. the solution in the case of diamond lake: poison the entire lake, kill everything in it, and start from scratch by restocking the lake with non-invasive species.

the "restocking" of the ocean may not be such an easy task methinks.

i have other points, but this one drives the dagger right through that idea, so i'm done.

second point not involving chub: the fact that you were able to search for ideas like this and that they're already on Wikipedia indicates that this problem is already being examined by multitudes and Branson will never have to shell out his millions. it is no longer the 17th century; this is a competitive information age in which everyone is thinking about every problem facing society from virtually every angle imaginable. there are no more edisons, there are only ron popille's with pocket fishermen. there are lots of einsteins, but they are so beyond the realm of reality that their physics more resembles metaphysics.

so much cynicism for a birthday boy! sometimes i amaze myself. if carl sagan were here he'd be weeping uncontrollably.

any more pictures of the finished house howie? is the family moved in yet?

8:48 AM, February 15, 2007  
Blogger HRlaughed said...

First of all, happy birthday birthday boy!

Second, hope you got the package today.

Third, you? cynical? don't make Howard chuckle knowingly.

Fourth, if we were talking about feeding iron to algae to make it bloomin' excessive, then yeah, might as well chuck the children directly to the grizzly bears. But we're talking about feeding iron to phytoplankton. Less nasty and toxic and plainly insidious in its side-effects. All this still needs more study, but the few studies done suggest good reasons for hope. See the links at the blog post above and read a bit more.

Then get back to your own work, birthday boy!

7:18 PM, February 15, 2007  

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