Training Wheels

Tuesday, March 5, 2013, 14:01

Yesterday the University of South Florida announced that their faculty members and collaborators have designed a material that may  be able to capture carbon dioxide from a smokestack. They did this, in part, with the help of molecular modeling on PSC’s Blacklight.

Now there’s a pretty big leap between a Nature article — as significant an accomplishment as that is — and a working scrubber that you can install in a power plant, or a car exhaust. A lot of work remains to be done, and there’s a chance this material will need to be much improved, or even wind up being a dead end. But right now it’s a big breakthrough, because it works in the presence of water vapor. That’s just about a universal component of factory and car exhaust, and had been a real problem for previous candidate scrubber materials.

Carbon sequestration is often portrayed as the Great Hope for preventing global climate change. Or — due respect to our colleagues at USF and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology — the biggest boondoggle next to denialism, depending on whom you ask. Of course, it probably will prove to be yet another incomplete but necessary measure for us to get on top of what may be the biggest problem — and problem with denial — of our age.

Let’s face it; we’re overloaded on doom and gloom — even among those who accept the science, it often seems hopeless even to get started on a solution. No less prestigious a personage than James Lovelock has floated the ludicrous idea that we need to suspend democracy to prevent a climate change disaster. I can see where he’s coming from. It does seem like mitigating climate change will involve political will we can’t muster, money we don’t have, and, worst of all, changing our individual behavior. Preventing any action at all, on the other hand, only requires a script kiddie and a poorly protected email system.

I know what you’re thinking: Postponing the shift from fossil fuels to renewables is itself a delaying tactic, and poses its own drawbacks. Brother, you don’t need to lecture me:  I can see the fracking tower from my driveway, lit like — ah, fracking — Minas Morgul* and shrieking about as loudly. I know that if those guys don’t do their job right, it could be the end of our sweet little well — our only water source.

On the other hand, the water is still good after weeks of drilling. Maybe they will do it right. Maybe they’ll pull up cheap, scrubbable fuel that will be our training wheels until we can develop the technologies that make fossil fuels … fossil fuels. The stark fact is that, decades into realizing we’re in trouble, we’ve done next to nothing about it. And that’s not only because of denialism. It’s also because there are no attractive alternatives yet, and it looks a lot like actually bringing the CO2 level down is going to require changing how we live and all sorts of other unpalatable stuff.

In that context, don’t under-estimate the value of training wheels.


* I’m a little color blind — it may not be glowing green. But it is glowing.

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