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Chemical industry solution

January 30, 2006 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 84, Issue 5

It is evident that excessive carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from fossil fuel combustion is leading to calamities on Earth, which can best be solved by worldwide action of chemists, biochemists, and petroleum chemists and engineers within their respective global industries. It will take a mammoth effort to reverse the trend, but simultaneously that effort can result in new industry, increased employment, and lower need for imported fuel. This is a subject that belongs in C&EN.

A brief summary of the problem starts with data from Hawaii that show concentration of CO2 in air increasing from about 270 ppm in the late 1940s to 380 ppm today. CO2 is a greenhouse gas that prevents heat from leaving the atmosphere. As a result, Earth's average temperature rose about 1 ºF.

Scientists last year reported that Arctic ice was melting twice as fast as elsewhere and may disappear in the summer of 2100, driving polar bears toward extinction. Sea level has risen about 1 foot in a few decades, with potential threat to coastal sites, including New York City and the nation's capital. Hurricanes spawned over warmer water in the tropics are more numerous and intense, also threatening New York and Washington, D.C.

Climates throughout the world are changing, including, perversely, areas where temperature may decrease. The human population of polar regions is rapidly losing its historic way of life. A hummingbird was spotted in Alaska for the first time in memory. Recent core samples dating back over 650,000 years show a high relationship between temperature and CO2 levels in air and reveal that today's CO2 level is rising faster than in any natural cycle and is 27% higher than its peak during these millennia.

There is agreement that excessive combustion of fossil fuels is responsible for the precipitous rise in CO2. We are told to "go green," to use less fossil fuels, and to abide by the Kyoto protocol, small steps in the right direction. Esoteric means are suggested to obtain energy, but none provides a complete answer. One highly pushed solution is using a solar input to obtain hydrogen from water, but the low energy output of hydrogen on a volume basis, even in novel condensed forms, limits its usefulness.

Because the world has adapted to convenient fossil fuels, the practical solution is replacement fuels with similar properties that do not add CO2 to the air. Means for doing so are suggested, based on natural photosynthesis, with important secondary advantages of new industries with gainful employment for many and lessened need for imported fuel.

Start by choosing, or developing, rapid-growth plants that do not require specialized nutrients and whose carbohydrate products are adaptable to biofuel synthesis and set up vast acres (plantations) of the plants in areas throughout the world amenable to such growth. Harvest and store adult products, before they rot or burn, under conditions that prevent decomposition or bacterial reaction.

Add to storage those collected plant products that are no longer of use, such as used lumber and farm and forest debris. Permanently store a portion to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Set up new chemical industries to synthesize biofuels from the remainder, preferably biodiesel types rather than alcohols. The amount of CO2 formed on their combustion is the same as that removed from the atmosphere by photosynthesis. Finally, we need to prevent major forest fires.

The cost for all this will likely be less than that of the hundreds of billions of dollars for recent hurricanes and far less than a future hurricane passing through New York with disaster greater than the sum of 9/11, Katrina, and the other recent hurricanes. The chemical industry will be involved, with profit from fuel sale.

But the problem is huge, and energy appetites are enormous and increasing. So it is fortunate that energy from the sun and other sources, plus "going green" and Kyoto, will come onstream. The combined effect of all these solutions should be a decrease in the CO2 record in Hawaii, as well as related climatic changes.

Leonard Greiner
Santa Ana, Calif.


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