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Sun Mar 19, 2017, 05:26 PM

Can the US Navy lead the world in REVERSING climate change?

In recent years, as our efforts not just to control but to eliminate fossil fuels become more and more obvious failures, I've been forced to speculate whether there is any viable way to reverse climate change by restoring the atmosphere.

The reading I've been doing isn't very reassuring, although there are many groups considering how this might be done, the most famous, and perhaps most cited paper on the topic being this one by Nobel Laureate George Olah passed away several weeks ago at the age of 89 and, until he died, was still working on behalf of future generations: Chemical Recycling of Carbon Dioxide to Methanol and Dimethyl Ether: From Greenhouse Gas to Renewable, Environmentally Carbon Neutral Fuels and Synthetic Hydrocarbons (J. Org. Chem., 2009, 74 (2), pp 487498) The paper, according to Google Scholar as of this writing has been cited 653 times.

NY Times: George Olah Obituary (The obituary contains some nonsense in describing Dr. Olah's work, but it's OK, since NY Times reporters and editors are not very good at understanding science.)

I would be very surprised if there is anyone on this website who thinks that increasing the military budget at the expense of education, the environment, and health is a good idea, I would expect they won't last very long as members here.

But it would be a mistake to assume that all research done for military purposes is useless and worthless: Everything from Kevlar materials, to modern aircraft, to the GPS systems we commonly use in getting around, and our industrially important space technology to nuclear power had its origins in military research.

To the extent this is true, it's a silver lining on a lump of shit, the Trump budget.

Recently in this space, as I was writing a comment in some thread, I poked around to find a paper I recalled reading some time ago, that touches on this topic, specifically this one: Development of an Electrochemical Acidification Cell for the Recovery of CO2 and H2 from Seawater (Ind. Eng. Chem. Res., 2011, 50 (17), pp 98769882). The lead author is Heather Willauer. Dr. Willauer works for the office of naval research, and her work for the last decade has been involved in making jet fuel and diesel fuel for the Navy from seawater

In general, I have a jaundiced view of people getting all excited about "scientific breakthroughs" that exist on a bench top lab scale. Most of these people have never been involved in the scale up of a bench top process to an industrial process, and although I have been so involved, I fully realize that my experience is extremely rare.

The paper from Dr. Willauer to which I referred is not highly cited but it does seem that there are plans to industrialize it nonetheless, and it has been run, unlike many of the bench top "breakthroughs" you might read around here, on a small pilot scale.

The idea of the process is to utilize the Navy's nuclear reactors on its nuclear powered air craft carriers to make their own jet fuel.

As noted in some of Dr. Willauer's other papers, and references therein, as well as other sources, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the oceans - the main sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide - is more than 100 times more concentrated than it is in the atmosphere; she claims 140 ppm. Her cell splits the seawater into components, one which is acidic, essentially an HCl solution - which discharges the CO[sub]2[/sub] - and one which is basic, an NaOH solution. (I note that left standing, or better with bubbling, the NaOH solution will capture CO[sub]2[/sub] from the air.) Thus the ocean is an efficient carbon dioxide extraction device.

She recently evaluated the costs of using this technology on the naval base at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. (cf. Naval Research Laboratory Report NRL/MR/6300--15-9635). She estimates that the base, which is on a very small Island, could produce about 129,000 gallons per day (the demand of the entire island for its diesel generators and naval operations) of diesel fuel from 320 MW of electricity used to process 18 gallons per minute of seawater at a cost of between $3.76 and $5.12 per gallon using so called "renewable energy," wind and solar. This compares with a current cost of providing diesel fuel to this remote island of $6.60/gallon. (Her estimate is that by covering 1% of the land area of Diego Garcia with solar cells, one could produce about 1/10th of the required amount of electricity to generate this much diesel fuel.)

It is claimed that the Navy is seriously looking at this technology, and looking to deploy it in the next decade, although of course, there is no accounting for the rape of science and engineering that will take place for however long the ignorant and malovent Republicans rule the United States.

It is interesting to note that the island nation of Nauru, which has been stripped mined of all of its phosphate and is now, having lost all of its assets in financial schemes and totally dependent on Australian largesse and fees for storing captured Arabic refugees, has an average continuous power demand of roughly 350 MW of power, for all purposes including, but not limited to, electricity.

The island also needs to import fresh water in tankers.

A very small nuclear reactor, the size of a building, could easily provide this much power, particularly a "breed and burn" reactor designed to operate without refueling for half a century or more. Either Diego Garcia or Nauru could easily incorporate this kind of reactor in a very small area, and utilize the waste heat from it to desalinate their water. (I've often dreamt of a very beautiful arrangement for Nauru, an island which somehow pains me, because I also think a lot about phosphorous flows, on which the world's agricultural infrastructure depends.)

This suggests that remote islands, where fuel costs are already very high as a function of their isolation, could install similar nuclear powered systems and become energy independent not only for electricity, but for all of their energy needs. As a side product, they will work to reduce the rising pH of the oceans, which has recently helped to kill the Great Barrier Reef, as well as prevent rising sea levels.

It may or may not be viable, but of all the "atmospheric restoration schemes" I find it to be more feasible than many others of which I've read.

I'll be keeping my eye on this technology.

A little off topic: In my household there has been some discussion of whether it is ethical to participate in laboratories that do military research. As an advocate of nuclear energy, which I believe is the last, best hope of the human race to maintain a stable environment, I am forced to take a nuanced view of the topic. Of course, the world has never really recovered from the overall negative way it was introduced to the public, that is, of course, with the deaths of huge numbers of people in two cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This has resulted in a psychological barrier to utilizing nuclear technology, even though it is, again, our last best hope.

Dr. Willauer's work, should it actually prove industrially viable, might actually do something it is difficult to imagine being possible, which is to restore the Earth, particularly when partnered with nuclear energy.

Have a nice Sunday evening.

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Reply Can the US Navy lead the world in REVERSING climate change? (Original post)
NNadir Mar 2017 OP
hunter Mar 2017 #1
NNadir Mar 2017 #2

Response to NNadir (Original post)

Mon Mar 20, 2017, 07:08 PM

1. This is carbon neutral.

The real trick is stuffing all that carbon back into the ground.

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Response to hunter (Reply #1)

Mon Mar 20, 2017, 10:14 PM

2. Well, there are several approaches that do something like sequestration.

One is materials, such as graphene, carbon fiber, carbon nanotubes, and various kinds of carbides - including the miracle materials represented by the MAX phases, such as Ti[sub]3[/sub]SiC[sub]2[/sub], Silicon carbide SiC, etc., all of which are made from earth abundant elements, and all of which can be expected to be required in huge amounts in any kind of energy efficient system, which necessarily will involve high temperatures.

Then there's asphalt: Asphaltenes are often side products of reforming reactions, and though they are often not desirable, they are useful for roads, roofing and other things. To the extent that carbon capture involves the high temperature reforming of biomass, the formation of asphaltenes will probably always be involved, however much their formation is minimized.

A fellow I've met, with whom I've exchanged a few emails, Dr. Richard Lehman, has founded a company that claims it can make carbon negative concrete; current concrete manufacturing is responsible for the release of a few billion tons of carbon dioxide each year. The caveat is that to do this, one needs highly concentrated carbon dioxide; air alone won't do. However, to the extent this material were utilized, it would also sequester carbon.

Then of course there are polymers, hundreds of millions of tons of which are synthesized each year. Although polymers represent environmental problems in their own right, to the extent that the remain in use, they are not in the atmosphere. Many monomers are readily accessible from syngas, which is the ultimate product of Dr. Willauer's technology.

I personally believe that we can substitute chars from reformation reactions for coal/coke to make steel and other carbonaceous alloys.

The point is this: If we stop using all dangerous fossil fuels, and leave what remains in the ground as "presequestered" carbon, and we capture carbon dioxide from seawater, not all of it will necessarily end up as transportation fuels. Some will end on in materials. The latest figures suggest we're dumping about 36 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year; one can imagine the removal of 5 billion tons per year for materials, perhaps if none were dumped, and all the requirements for organic chemistry now addressed by dangerous fossil fuels were satisfied by the use of captured and reduced carbon dioxide.

Eventually this would mean that the concentration of dangerous fossil fuel waste in the atmosphere would go down, slowly perhaps, but steadily.

It is the only way I can imagine it happening. I'm, of course, not optimistic that it will happen, but based on what I know, it's probably the only shot we have.

There is an approach to geoengineering that is a little less extreme than say, seeding the clouds with sulfuric acid - one hears these schemes and one really can't believe it - and this is by increasing the surface area of water evaporation, i.e. large scale irrigation. Processing huge quantities of seawater to remove carbon, uranium, and perhaps some other elements of sufficient rarity or low requirements for use (or toxicity, such as mercury and lead) might be coupled to desalination. (A very important element that we will need from the sea ultimately is phosphorous - this is a major, but largely ignored crisis) This is not an environmental bye by any stretch, since the new thing requiring management would be salt, but a potential side effect would be to produce significantly more evaporation, hence more clouds. The clouds, being white at their tops, would increase the Earth's albedo.

But the real fact of the matter is that the carrying capacity of this planet is not 7 billion human beings, not even three million human beings, especially not at the American life style, to which all 7 billion seem to aspire. Nevertheless, our inaction of the 20th and now the 21st century may call for extreme efforts to save whatever can be saved, that which can be saved being less and less each year we delay.

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