1660240508587 Paulstudebaker

Looking for practical alternatives to fossil fuels

March 21, 2019
We baby boomers can and will clean up after ourselves.

Gasoline has been on my mind a lot lately, and it’s not just the vapors from diagnosing and repairing the reason why my car started running out of it while the gauge still read a quarter tank. Well, maybe driving around with a full can of premium sloshing in the trunk contributed to a certain ambience in the cabin, which may have had some influence.

It’s hard to imagine the U.S. economy making a wholesale transition from liquid fuels and natural gas to renewables and other zero-carbon sources. If the objective is to reduce the consequences of global warming, Western Civilization can’t do it alone. Few political scientists are more progressive than my son Benjamin, and even he says, in a recent blog post, “Climate change is an irreducibly global problem. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s report, limiting temperature rise by 1.5 °C requires a 45% cut in global emissions by 2030. If we tolerate a 2 °C, we could instead cut emissions by just 25%.

“The United States, however, commands just 15% of total emissions. The EU commands a further 10%, while other rich states (such as Japan, Australia and so on) add another 8%. This means that the rich states only control about a third of total emissions. China controls nearly another third (about 30%), and the rest comes from the remaining developing countries, with India and Russia making the largest contributions (7% and 5%, respectively) of that bunch. These developing countries are not merely failing to cut emissions–they are continuing to increase their output. This means that reductions from rich states are cancelled out by the growing emissions of developing countries.”

2030 is less than 11 years away. While I’m almost getting in the mood to maybe buy an electric car, I frankly expect my entire gasoline-powered fleet, as well as my natural gas furnace, water heater, stove and dryer, to still be going strong past 2030, if not for me then for someone else.

So, unless we want to embrace the rising sea levels, mass extinctions, starvations, migrations, upheavals and privations of global warming (and the enduring hatred of what’s left of future generations), it behooves us to find practical solutions. One is to be relentless about efficiency and conservation. The rule of thumb for their potential is 30%, which won’t save the day, but every bit helps and will give a little more time.

Another is to simply use more of what we know will work today, such as solar cells, wind turbines, and Béla Lipták’s solar-hydrogen reversible fuel cell (www.controlglobal.com/articles/2016/automating-the-reversible-fuel-cell), a practical way to move to 100% solar electric power.

But even that won’t begin to undo the high levels of CO2 already in the atmosphere, which will be necessary to mitigate the worst of global warming. Nor will it accommodate our truly enormous installed base of gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, and natural-gas-powered mobile and stationary equipment, and their comprehensive storage and distribution systems. For that, we need new technology, and fortunately, it appears to be coming.

Direct air capture technologies are using catalysts and adsorbents to turn effluent and atmospheric CO2 into carbon and/or synthetic liquid and gaseous fuels that can be fed into pipelines and refineries, much like today’s natural gas and lightest, sweetest crude. Some have only been demonstrated at the lab beaker level; others, such as Carbon Engineering’s and Climeworks’, are in pilot and scaling up to small industrial plants (www.nytimes.com/2019/02/12/magazine/climeworks-business-climate-change.html). They generally depend on low-cost energy and will need further refinements to compete economically with existing fossil fuels, but they’re not far off—Carbon Engineering thinks it can get the price of a gallon of gasoline made from its product below $3.75.

I’ll pay that with a smile. If it’s premium.

About the author: Paul Studebaker
Paul Studebaker, Editor Emeritus, Control. Reitred from full-time employment in January 2020, Studebaker earned a master's degree in metallurgical engineering and gathered 12 years experience in manufacturing before becoming an award-winning writer and editor for publications including Control and Plant Services

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