When plants grow they convert CO2 and water into carbohydrates with the help of sunlight. This process is called photosynthesis. For many years scientists tried to mimic photosynthesis to produce methanol. It wasn’t easy. The main challenge was to design a catalyst that would allow the whole process to work. And it’s exactly a right catalyst that was recently discovered by professor Dobieslaw Nazimek from Poland. His team also found the way to provide the optimum conditions for production of methanol from CO2 and water. If their method was applied on a commercial scale, it could allow the production of methanol at 3 cents per liter (or US$0.11 per gallon) (1). Methanol can be used directly as a fuel for cars or it can be further processed to create regular gasoline or diesel (e.g. in the Mobil methanol-to-gasoline process). And it would be a clean fuel with no sulfur at all. Artificial photosynthesis can be also used to make fuel for electricity generation, heating or cooking. If designed with the cradle to cradle principles and introduced in a socially desirable way, it could provide a meaningful solution for the post oil future and help to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
Following the plant’s trail
How does the artificial photosynthesis work? CO2 emissions from coal-fired plants or fertilizer companies are captured and dissolved completely in water. Then the simple catalyst splits CO2 molecules and converts them into CH3OH, which is methanol. The energy for the process is provided by a special light. The end product of artificial photosynthesis is a kind of wine which contains 15% alcohol (2). All that is left to do is to separate methanol from water and… voilà! The fuel is ready.
It will take another year of research to design the large scale facility in Poland. If there is sufficient funding for the project, the first fuel for sale could be produced within 2 years. Professor Nazimek insists that the whole project should be funded from public money and for the benefit of people. This technology is already patented and some details are to be revealed in a publication later this year (3).
What is seminal about this method is that CO2 emissions can be reused. This creates a whole new situation. From unwanted waste from coal-fired plants, CO2 becomes a commodity. It gets a market value, because you can actually make something from it. One tonne of CO2 could provide around 918 liters of methanol. Nevertheless, the technology discovered in Poland is still dependent on fossil fuels to produce the CO2 needed. The efficiency of coal or natural gas is highly increased – they are used once for burning them directly and a second time for production of methanol from the CO2 emitted. Although the need for oil for transportation is eliminated (which is a huge reduction in greenhouse gas emissions!) carbon extracted from coal still comes out of the car pipe and contributes to climate change. Right, but what if we captured this CO2 and used it to make fuel again and again, like plants do… then what?
Capturing carbon dioxide is possible in two ways. One way is on board the vehicle – before burning methanol a fuel processor separates carbon dioxide and stores it in a liquid form on board a private car or a truck. Although methanol goes into the tank with this method, it is hydrogen that powers the car. Hydrogen can be used in an internal combustion engine or in fuel cells (4). The energy density of methanol is higher than a lithium ion battery, so a tank filled with methanol could allow the driver to go further than a car with a battery. The drawback, however, is a slightly increased weight of the vehicle (5). For widespread use several major improvements are necessary including development of a new material for a selectively permeable hydrogen membrane (currently the best one is made of the rare and expensive metal – palladium) (6).
The second option is capturing carbon from the air. Fuel is burned in a car engine and the CO2 emitted is captured from the air in any other location. So, we can take a ride on a bus, for example, in London and catch the equivalent CO2 emissions in Stockholm or Berlin (we can certainly do it in the same location as well). In this way CO2 emissions do not increase the overall CO2 level in the atmosphere. There are several technologies currently developed for capturing carbon dioxide from the air, like absorbing it into a potassium carbonate solution and then using low-energy electrolytic stripping process for CO2 recovery (7). If the captured CO2 is reused, than the carbon cycle is closed. However, doing it on a large scale could be a real challenge. For example, the tower scrubber designed at the University of Calgary is able to capture the equivalent of about 20 tonnes per year of CO2 on 1 square meter of scrubbing material (8). Capturing 2 billion tonnes of CO2 emitted by the transportation sector in the US would require 100 km2 of scrubbing material (9). Nevertheless, for fuel production a new method could be invented for capturing CO2 in water using passive air flow system.
Although artificial photosynthesis seems to be very promising as an alternative source of energy, there may not be enough time to develop the infrastructure to produce large quantities of methanol before the oil crunch. In the future, when coal and natural gas reserves are depleted, it would have to rely on recycling CO2, which is good, but the total capacity is as yet unknown. There are other bottlenecks and loopholes possible, nevertheless, it seems to me that the right question to ask is not whether we can replace oil. A more important question is do we really want it? Do we wish to sustain car-centered cities and consumer culture, even if we could?
Life without oil
Though peak oil is certainly a challenge, it is also as an opportunity. It is like someone hitting you on the head: “Hey, wake up! What are you doing?”. Without sufficient supplies of cheap oil the consumer society is brought to a halt and it is an opportunity for positive change. It is a chance for a good life. As oil becomes less available we could redesign our neighborhoods, so that they become walkable and more people-friendly. The pace of life could be slower, people could be able to meet more often, work less and perhaps even eat together like in the village of Gaviotas in Columbia. We could reweave social ties, produce food locally, provide meaningful jobs and become independent from a global economy where people must work 10 hours per day because for some unexplainable reason they have to compete with each other and be more and more efficient. We could finally get past the culture where the quality of life is measured by a number of goods and services consumed.
It is certainly useful to have trains and buses connecting cities and villages, or even airplanes if their CO2 emissions could be captured. But trying to sustain car-dependent societies and the idea of never-ending economic growth is not the best way to make us happy. There are already places in the industrialized part of the world that are car-free, not because we have run out of oil, but because the quality of life in the city or on an island is better when there are no cars. There are a car-free areas in Copenhagen (Denmark), Prague (Czech Republic), La Rochelle (France), Freiburg (Germany), Siena (Italy), Växjö (Sweden) and even the entire city of Zermatt in Switzerland. When tourists come to Zermatt they leave their cars 5 km outside the city and arrive to Zermatt by train. Inside the city there are electric vehicles allowed for local commerce, horse-drawn carriages, electric taxis and buses and of course bicycles. To learn more about car-free cities you can download the sourcebook “Car-Free Development”.
Artificial photosynthesis could bring some immediate environmental advantages. If cheap methanol was widely available then the price of crude oil would go down so much that it no longer would be profitable to exploit tar sands in Canada. Tar sands could simply stay in the ground, possibly forever. What’s more, an incentive could appear to further develop air carbon capture technologies that could in the future lower the CO2 level in the atmosphere. Methanol produced in this way could also slow down the rate of CO2 emissions from transportation because less oil or in some countries no oil would be necessary. The need for biofuels could be eliminated, thus freeing agricultural lands for crop production for the growing population. The demand for palm oil would go down as well, so possibly less rainforest would be burned in Borneo and some of the natural habitat for orangutans could be saved. “The exploration of oil fields in the Amazon could stop as well,” I said in a conversation with professor Nazimek. “Yes” he answered, “We are aware of what we have come up with.”
If the plan in Poland works then in 2011 around 25% of Polish CO2 emissions could be converted to fuel (10). There are no modifications in car engines needed. It’s a regular gasoline that could go straight into tanks, only the input material for chemical reactions would be different. No changes in infrastructure for fuel distribution would be necessary. Nevertheless, if we are to replace oil with another cheap fuel, let’s do it wisely.
It is important to remember that CO2 to methanol technology is not the ultimate solution for environmental problems around the world. It’s just a “patch” that we can apply to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help to deal with peak oil. The sustainable, long-term solution is changing our ethics. It is embracing the ethics of earth care and people care, it is the ethics of sharing with others and compassion. It is the cultural change that is needed most. The real solutions for forging a new sustainable world are promoted e.g. by the Transition movement, the ecovillages movement and permaculture.
Transition to CO2-based fuels
Artificial photosynthesis allows us to buy some more time, before fossil fuels run out. It also creates an unexpected situation where large amounts of oil that were about to be extracted may be left untapped. We still need to power down, consume less and make a transition to a sustainable way of living. We still have only one planet to live on and we need to share the available resources in a just way. CO2-based fuels are a surprising opportunity that potentially allows us to solve the climate change problem. As long as CO2 is emitted from power plants we can produce cheap fuel. Within this time we should construct a transportation system that will be able to run on a CO2 derived fuel in a closed cycle. We can do it before we will need to use crude oil again. It can be a system where the basic mode of transport is a bus or a train rather than a private car and where food is grown locally so that the need for long-distance transport is dramatically reduced. With the invention of affordable fuel made by artificial photosynthesis, we have dodged the bullet, so let’s leave the oil for good, before we’ll be shot at again.
The important issue is how to make this transition? Who will produce these fuels? State-owned companies or private corporations? In many countries, such as the US, citizens could reclaim some of their political power if the CO2-based fuels production facilities where owned by and run by the state. In other words, they would be owned by people. It is an unprecedented opportunity for president Obama to make his country truly independent of imported oil. And it can be done fast. Just within a few years. The amount of funding needed is fairly modest. The fuel distribution infrastructure is already in place. Car engines don’t need to be modified. There are more than 2 billion tons of CO2 emissions from the transport sector in the US every year. They could be eliminated to zero.
Climate negotiations in Copenhagen could provide a world platform for promoting this technology and helping developing countries to build necessary infrastructure. This time China will be very interested to participate. Since they have lots of coal, they can fuel their cars and trucks without importing oil. The risk of resource wars could be minimized. China would no longer have to compete with the USA for oil supplies. And the air in Shanghai could be cleaner. India could be willing to join the project as well.
The target discussed in Copenhagen for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions could really make a difference. Now we can think about at least 90-95% reductions by 2050. Some countries could even soon create zero carbon economies, following the example of Maldives. Within just 5 years CO2 emissions could peak and finally start to go down. We can develop a plan that could make it economically viable and socially acceptable. It could include not only emissions from transportation, but also other sources of greenhouses gases, like methane from paddy rice. For CO2 levels in the atmosphere, we know what’s the safe number – it’s 350ppm, max. We are now at around 388 ppm. It means we need to suck some of the CO2 out of the air, but what we could also do is to cool the planet. I’m not talking about corporate mega projects, but about working with poor farmers around the world to help them grow forest gardens. These gardens provide people with food, clothes, construction materials and medicines. A good example of such a project is community-based reforestation in Borneo. The food forests in Borneo actually cool local climate by 3-5°C, increase air humidity by 10% and increase the rainfall by 25%. When they started, there were only 5 species of birds living in the grassland, but now when the forest gardens are flourishing you can find 137 bird species. What’s more, they provide livelihood for around 3000 people (11). If we could reduce the air temperature in other tropical areas by 3-5°C in just 3 years and tackle hunger and poverty at the same time, wouldn’t it be something?
The new fuel could be accompanied with a set of policies that would promote sustainable transport rather than increasing congestion by selling cheap fuel. Cheap fuel is good, but for the public transport alone. In means cheaper bus tickets or cheaper train fares. But for private cars or delivery trucks there could be a fuel duty that would keep the price reasonably high at the gas station. Why? Because cheap fuel means more cars on the roads, more traffic jams and the spread of suburbia. More cars produced means more resources and more energy used. So, the policy priority could be to develop a sustainable public transport system thanks to low fuel prices. The fuel duty could have one more important role. It could provide funds for the transition to clean, carbon-neutral energy and climate change mitigation.
We need to act fast because we don’t have much time left to stop the melting of the Arctic Sea Ice. The Arctic Sea Ice is vital, because once it’s gone it jumpstarts several reactions that reinforce global warming (positive feedbacks), including the permafrost thaw in the far North and the release of enormous quantities of methane and carbon. There are already lakes forming all over the Arctic and methane is bubbling out of them. The carbon stored in the permafrost could potentially raise global temperatures by 10°C or even more (12). Let’s not mess with the permafrost. We have the opportunity for a global agreement to reduce the human impact on climate change. Indeed, we can solve it.
As Sir Nicholas Stern puts it: “The conference in Copenhagen is the most important international gathering since the Second World War.” Decisions made there will have a profound impact on the future of life on Earth. There are several important meetings on the road to Copenhagen, with the first ones starting in June. A concept of the new plan could be presented there.
In a democratic country it is not the government that is in charge. It is always the people. We literally hire the government to run the country on our behalf. The country belongs to the people and people can make decisions regarding the country directly or through their elected representatives. We choose members of the parliament, we choose the presidents. They work for us. President Obama is the employee of American people. Prime minister Gordon Brown is the employee of British people. The climate crisis is not just about technologies. As Al Gore points out, we have to become active as citizens. Politicians will act, if we ask them to act. That’s why the “Not Stupid” campaign in the UK includes a pledge that can be signed by citizens that they will not vote for the Labour Party ever again if the Labour government does not ratify a meaningful proposal in Copenhagen. That’s a strong message!
On the other hand politicians do need our support. They want to know that we are interested in stopping climate change, that we support bold and ambitious actions. It is inspiring for the ministers to know that people support their work. Members of the government are citizens, just like us. They are mothers and fathers. They have kids for whom they would like to provide a good future. It’s just that they are trapped in the political and economic system. It seems to me that in the end of the day, when many of them come back home, they do understand what climate change is about and what is at stake. And they want to do the right thing.
The reason why we can be optimistic about reaching a breakthrough agreement in Copenhagen is that now we have the technology that could eventually replace coal. The CO2 to methanol process provides fuel that can be used to generate electricity and heating in a cogeneration plant. And this process is renewable. The CO2 emissions from burning methanol are captured, dissolved in water and thanks to the catalyst converted to methanol again. Then the process is repeated on and on. There are no emissions from this cycle. The extra source of energy that is needed for the catalyst can come from solar panels, a wind turbine or other renewable source.
We can use this technology to create a distributed energy system that would include small and medium-size generators owned by local trusts or community co-ops like the famous wind co-ops in Denmark. Government support could go to fund local initiatives and this approach could be backed by national policy. We have the opportunity to repower world economies using clean and renewable sources of energy. We have finally the technical solution needed to create zero carbon economies in the short time that we’ve got left. Let’s just do it.
Marcin Gerwin is a co-founder of Earth Conservation, a non-profit group working for sustainable development. He graduated with a Ph.D. in political studies, from the University of Gdansk, Poland, with his thesis: “The idea and practice of sustainable development in the context of global challenges”. He is also involved in a local initiative promoting participatory democracy in his home city Sopot, Poland.
- Personal communication with Dobieslaw Nazimek, 14.04.2009.
- Agnieszka Maderska, Czy CO2 zrobi z Polski drugi Kuwejt?, wnp.pl, https://nafta.wnp.pl/czy-co2-zrobi-z-polski-drugi-kuwejt,5404_2_0_0.html, 30.03.2009.
- Personal communication with Dobieslaw Nazimek, 14.04.2009.
- Carbon Capture Strategy Could Lead to Emission-Free Cars, Georgia Institute of Technology, https://www.gatech.edu/newsroom/release.html?id=1707, 11.02.2008.
- Personal communication with Andrei Fedorov from the MITf-Lab at Georgia Institute of Technology, 12.04.2009.
- David L. Damm, Andrei G. Fedorov, Conceptual study of distributed CO2 capture and the sustainable carbon economy, Energy Conversion and Management no. 49, 2008, p. 1682.
- F. Jeffrey Martin, William L. Kubic, Green Freedom: a Concept for Producing Carbon-Neutral Synthetic Fuels and Chemicals, p. 3.
- U of C scientist captures global-warming gas directly from the air, University of Calgary, https://www.ucalgary.ca/news/utoday/sept29-08/carboncapture, 29.09.2008.
- US estimate transportation emissions from: Emissions of Greenhouse Gases Report, Energy Information Administration, https://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/1605/ggrpt/carbon.html.
- Personal communication with Dobieslaw Nazimek, 14.04.2009.
- Willie Smits, TED conference 2009, https://www.permaculturenews.org/2009/03/30/community-based-rainforest-restoration-work-is-huge-success-in-borneo, slide at: 13:50 min.
- Fred Pearce, Arctic meltdown is a threat to humanity, New Scientist, https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20127011.500-arctic-meltdown-is-a-threat-to-humanity.html