Why “Clean Coal” Matters

Back before things went pear-shaped this weekend, Jonathan Zasloff had a good post about why “clean coal” is important:

I think it’s terrific that the Coen Brothers are making funny, effective ads against relying on “clean coal” as part of the US energy program. But I worry that the clean energy community is really missing the boat here.

Clean coal research and development is absolutely crucial in fighting climate change not for us, but for India and China. India has the fourth largest reserves of coal in the world — most of it very dirty, with high ash content. It currently imports 70% of its oil, which will rise to 90% by 2020 (this according to Edward Luce’s fabulous book In Spite of the Gods.). China, meanwhile, is both the world’s largest producer and the largest consumer of coal power.

I want them to switch to solar and wind as much as anyone else. But I have yet to see any credible estimates that India or China can grow in the way that they want to — and justifiably expect to — purely through renewables. It’s going to be hard enough for the United States to do so, and we still rely heavily on oil.

Jonathan nails the reason why those ads irritate me, and have since I read Physics for Future Presidents, which puts it pretty plainly in terms of the energy content of various fuel sources. As Muller notes in the book, the US and China have enough coal reserves to last for several centuries at current rates of use, and at least a hundred years even if China and India ramp up their consumption to Western levels.

If you think that coal will remain in the ground and un-burnt when oil starts to run out, you’re kidding yourself. And if you think that China and India are going to restrict their energy demands by enough to not need that power, you’re either an idiot or a monster.

It’s wonderful to think that in the future we’ll derive all our energy needs from solar, wind, nuclear fusion, or some other carbon-free source, but at this point, that’s still speculation. We should absolutely put as much money as possible into developing those technologies, but we should do so with the understanding that it’s a gamble. They might not pan out, at least not in the way that we need, and especially not in the way that China and India need.

The one sure bet in the energy game at the moment is coal. We know that the coal is there, and we know how to turn it into electricity. And if the bets we put down on solar and wind don’t pay off in time, we know that coal will be burned.

Given that, the only sensible thing to do when projecting energy generation into the future is to assume that, sooner or later, that coal is going to get used. Which means we need to put some money and effort into finding the least harmful way to use it.

Money for “clean coal” shouldn’t take the place of money for cleaner technologies, but there needs to be some money spent on it. Failing to do so is a foolish gamble.

Comments

  1. #1 ENERGYGURU
    March 3, 2009

    Clean coal is important but we need to look to new ideas and out of the box thinking to save our planet. Why doesn’t anyone talk about Cold Fusion anymore. Yes it has been thrown on junk pile of bad science but I have been following some new developments in this area. I heard of this process called SuperWaveFusion which seems to be making progress.Using an interaction between palladium and deuterium they have reported an excess heat reaction. Does anyone know if this possible their website is SuperWaveFusion.com
    Let me know your thoughts please

  2. #2 Evan Goer
    March 3, 2009

    This would be a reasonable argument — if it didn’t rest on the assumption that coal executives are fundamentally good actors.

  3. #3 Chad Orzel
    March 3, 2009

    This would be a reasonable argument — if it didn’t rest on the assumption that coal executives are fundamentally good actors.

    I don’t think it rests on that at all. I didn’t say we needed to give money to coal executives, or even to companies that produce coal.

    I just said that somebody needs to do research on this. If coal companies are too corrupt to be trusted with it, then have somebody else do it. But pretending that not spending money on “clean coal” will prevent dirty coal from being burned is insane.

  4. #4 Evan Goer
    March 3, 2009

    I’m not talking about research. I’m talking about implementation. How do you propose swapping out all our old dirty coal infrastructure for a fabulous new clean one without directly involving coal executives?

  5. #5 JK
    March 3, 2009

    “This would be a reasonable argument — if it didn’t rest on the assumption that coal executives are fundamentally good actors.”

    I think it rested on this:

    “And if you think that China and India are going to restrict their energy demands by enough to not need that power, you’re either an idiot or a monster.”

    If coal executives want to make a real contribution then I’m sure there will be money to be made. If they are only interested in smoke, mirrors and government handouts then we’ll have to go around (or over) them. They will make themselves irrelevant.

  6. #6 Damien
    March 3, 2009

    One of the most promising green energy initiatives that I’ve seen recently is algaeculture. I’d like to hear your thoughts on this, most specifically in the form of GreenFuel Technologies.

    I think the main thing that we need to get our heads around is that, unlike oil or coal, no one renewable energy source is going to act as a silver bullet. What seems most likely to me is that we will eventually wind up having to use every available energy source to act as a collective. Plastics will have to start being made from things other than petroleum, we will probably have to switch permanently and totally to electric vehicles, and we will have to wring every last bit of power from every possible source.

  7. #7 GloballyWarmDude
    March 3, 2009

    You certainly make some good points. I think you are right that coal will in all likelihood get burned anyway if we persue clean coal or spend any amount of time believing that it is even possible. I know that they can collect the stuff, that part I believe. it is the disposing of it that I am having trouble with.

    I submit to you and your readers a small challenge. I ask that you independantly calculate the volume of CO2 that is being released through the burning of coal. I have done the math. I would tell you the answer that I came up with but I would prefer to have my calculations cross checked by anyone willing to do it. It took me about an hour using an Excel spreadsheet. It isn’t very hard. By the way my result is in cubic miles at STP.

    I calculated the volume of CO2 based on the coal production of the US only and in 2007 only. My number assumes that all of it was burned, whether it was exported or not.

    In any case the volume of CO2 that I calculate (even if it were compressed all the way down to dry ice) is simply too large to even consider burying. At lease that is the conclusion I came to.

    So I would submit that not one single cent be invested into clean coal until there is proof that there is any way what-so-ever that the CO2 can in fact be burried. I want to see hard numbers about volume over time before we should even utter the words “Clean Coal”

    I believe that the real danger in persuing clean coal is the time we will waste chasing something that simply can never be accomplished.

    So I respectfully request that others do the math as well. Let’s see if there is some consensus about the volume of CO2 in the first place.

    I believe that the ACCCE wants nothing more than time to carry on doing what they know how to do.

    Please, if you have a counter arguement I would like to hear it. But any arguement must be able to show that it is even possible to dispose of the CO2. Show me the place and show me the numbers, I have heard far too many promises in my time to believe them.

    I would be happy to be wrong but I will only accept that I am wrong when I see the numbers.

  8. #8 Evan Goer
    March 3, 2009

    JK – Sure, if we fail to develop alternatives that are cheaper or more efficient than dirty coal, China and India might go ahead and just burn all their dirty coal. (There’s some evidence that the governments of China and India are well aware that global warming could hit them hard, but let’s put that aside — let’s say that desperation for energy wins.) So in this grim, gritty, “burn it all up and the hell with everything” future you’re describing… how is clean coal relevant to India and China? Clean coal is like dirty coal, but more expensive.

  9. #9 Alex R
    March 3, 2009

    The most significant problem with the term “clean coal” is that it’s not at all clear what it means. Conceptually, we can divide the emissions from burning coal into two categories: The first category is what you might call conventional pollutants — sulfur oxides, particulates, heavy metals, and that sort of thing. The technology to reducing these sorts of emissions significantly has been developed for decades and gets better all the time. The second category consists of a single gas, carbon dioxide, which had not historically been considered a pollutant but we now understand to be the primary cause of global warming. If you are going to use coal to generate energy, there is simply no way around creating carbon dioxide; the only way to reduce carbon dioxide emission is somehow to store it so that it is not released in the atmosphere. This is very difficult, and any technology to do this is in its infancy.

    So, when someone says “clean coal”, are they talking about reducing conventional pollutants, or are they talking about storing CO2? Unfortunately, different people mean different things — which is why the expression itself is now nearly meaningless. (Some may also use it to refer to reducing the environmental damage caused by coal mining; others ignore this when talking about “clean coal”.)

    I certainly agree that we need to research all possible ways of generating energy without adding carbon to the atmosphere, and coal burning with carbon sequestration is one of them. But let’s please not call it “clean coal” — that term is only good for hiding what’s really going on.

  10. #10 Uncle Al
    March 3, 2009

    Wildfires burn 750,000 to 8.2 million km^2 of forest and grassland around the world annually. The mean generates 72.81 billion metric tonnes of CO2. A gallon of gasoline burns to 19.4 pounds or 8800 grams of CO2. Wildfires are very conservatively equivalent to burning 8.27 trillion gallons of gasoline annually. One year of global wildfires equals burning 100% of 2006 recovered petroleum for 337 years.

    So yer gonna reduce fossil fuel CO2 emission by 20%! So what? Reduce it to zero. So what? Hire firemen.

  11. #11 onymous
    March 3, 2009

    If you think that coal will remain in the ground and un-burnt when oil starts to run out, you’re kidding yourself. And if you think that China and India are going to restrict their energy demands by enough to not need that power, you’re either an idiot or a monster.

    And if you think the world can tolerate having all of that coal burned, you’re underestimating the impact of CO2.

    I sympathize with what you’re saying, but I think the bottom line is this: the only viable option we have is to move to carbon-free energy over the next several decades. Either we do it with wind and solar, which we know will be expensive to do on a large enough scale, and will require new infrastructure, but for which the technology already exists; or we do it by burning coal and sequestering the carbon, for which the technology does not exist. Of course we should be researching all of these options, and we should be open to the possibility that coal with carbon sequestration is a large part of the answer to our problems. But at this point it’s the least well-substantiated option. Also, the coal industry is funneling vast amounts of money into getting the phrase “clean coal” into advertising, not with the aim of trying to make carbon sequestration a reality, but with the aim of deluding the public into thinking that it is already possible to safely burn coal. It isn’t. So I don’t see the problem with ads that counter that.

  12. #12 Chad Orzel
    March 3, 2009

    GloballyWarmDude: I submit to you and your readers a small challenge. I ask that you independantly calculate the volume of CO2 that is being released through the burning of coal. I have done the math. I would tell you the answer that I came up with but I would prefer to have my calculations cross checked by anyone willing to do it. It took me about an hour using an Excel spreadsheet. It isn’t very hard. By the way my result is in cubic miles at STP.

    I submit to you that this is precisely as useful as the calculations done by various Republicans in Congress regarding the height of $1 trillion in stacked dollar bills, or the mass of $1 trillion in pennies, or whatever. As “Uncle Al’s” comment later shows.

    The calculation of really huge volumes, or masses, or whatever doesn’t really prove anything beyond the fact that we’re not well equipped to deal with Really Big Numbers.

    onymous: I sympathize with what you’re saying, but I think the bottom line is this: the only viable option we have is to move to carbon-free energy over the next several decades. Either we do it with wind and solar, which we know will be expensive to do on a large enough scale, and will require new infrastructure, but for which the technology already exists; or we do it by burning coal and sequestering the carbon, for which the technology does not exist. Of course we should be researching all of these options, and we should be open to the possibility that coal with carbon sequestration is a large part of the answer to our problems. But at this point it’s the least well-substantiated option.

    This is not one of my big interests, but my outside impression is that the technology needed to make solar and wind power viable on the necessary scale is just as speculative as the technology to do carbon sequestration. That is, we’re not really all that close to making solar panels with the efficiency and durability that would be needed in the quantity that would be needed to eliminate fossil fuels as an energy source in the near future.

    I don’t have a problem with pushing back against the idea that it’s safe to burn coal with current technology, but in too many cases this slides over into the claim that it’s categorically impossible to ever burn coal safely, and thus no money should be spent on anything having to do with coal. Which is not a whole lot less dangerous than advocating burning coal right now.

  13. #13 Eric Lund
    March 3, 2009

    You make the questionable assumption that the West will continue to consume at its current levels. We have just been through a period of people buying way more house than they need, in suburban areas umpty miles from their jobs, and supporting all of this consumption with credit. It was just as unsustainable financially as it was environmentally, and the current economic crisis is due to the popping of this credit bubble.

    I expect that in the long term the average Indian or Chinese will eventually have a standard of living comparable to what the average American or European will enjoy. But unless we become much more efficient at using energy (and financial resources), that level will not be close to the level Americans grew accustomed to in the last decade.

    What we should be doing is encouraging the Indians and Chinese to adopt the most efficient technologies available. They can do it because they do not have as much invested in legacy systems as we do. We have already seen something similar with telephone service: China never installed a massive land line telephone infrastructure, because by the time their economy developed to a point where they would have needed it, cellular telephones were widely available. In this country we already had a widespread land line telephone system, so we have to maintain that system for at least the next several decades.

  14. #14 Chad Orzel
    March 3, 2009

    You make the questionable assumption that the West will continue to consume at its current levels. We have just been through a period of people buying way more house than they need, in suburban areas umpty miles from their jobs, and supporting all of this consumption with credit. It was just as unsustainable financially as it was environmentally, and the current economic crisis is due to the popping of this credit bubble.

    I expect that in the long term the average Indian or Chinese will eventually have a standard of living comparable to what the average American or European will enjoy. But unless we become much more efficient at using energy (and financial resources), that level will not be close to the level Americans grew accustomed to in the last decade.

    Even if we were to cut our per capita energy use in half (roughly to the level of the famously efficient Japanese), and assume that China and India top out at that same per capita energy use, the total demand for energy will more than double. China and India have a lot of capitas.

    Assuming that Western countries maintain current levels is a really conservative assumption (though not the worst case– the worst case would be to assume that energy use continues to grow in Western countries), but it’s not going to change the answer by orders of magnitude.

  15. #15 Lt. Col. Valid Name Required, J.D., Ph.D
    March 3, 2009

    It’s wonderful to think that in the future we’ll derive all our energy needs from solar, wind, nuclear fusion, or some other carbon-free source…

    Either we do it with wind and solar, which we know will be expensive to do on a large enough scale, and will require new infrastructure, but for which the technology already exists; or we do it by burning coal and sequestering the carbon, for which the technology does not exist.

    I think you’re all overlooking something. You should take a look at the theoretical potential of nuclear fission. Not just current, antiquated technology: but the potential of fully-closed fuel cycles combining breeder reactors (more fissile material produced than consumed) with chemical reprocessing. This yields two orders of magnitude greater fuel efficiency – enough to stretch uranium or thorium reserves for centuries under any scenario (a CO2 stopgap). Also, in the fast neutron spectrum, most actinides undergo fission faster than they are produced, which arguably solves the waste problem too.

    It’s much closer than fusion.

  16. #16 Lt. Col. Valid Name Required, J.D., Ph.D
    March 3, 2009

    I submit to you and your readers a small challenge. I ask that you independantly calculate the volume of CO2 that is being released through the burning of coal. I have done the math. I would tell you the answer that I came up with but I would prefer to have my calculations cross checked by anyone willing to do it. It took me about an hour using an Excel spreadsheet. It isn’t very hard. By the way my result is in cubic miles at STP.

    You really should take a look at Google Calculator… it only took me ~45 seconds.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coal#Major_coal_producers

    http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=6195+million+tons+*++(Avogadro%27s+number+%2F+12+grams)+*+300+kelvin+*+Boltzmann%27s+constant+%2F+1+atmosphere+in+cubic+miles&btnG=Search&cts=1236111908841

  17. #17 Lt. Col. Valid Name Required, J.D., Ph.D
    March 3, 2009

    You can also readily estimate the rate at which it raises atmospheric CO2 concentrations, under the simplification that you ignore carbon sinks:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earth%27s_atmosphere#Density_and_mass

    http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=6195+million+tons+*++(44%2F12)+*+(14%2F44)+%2F+(5.14+*+10^18+kg)&btnG=Search&cts=1236112309652

    About 1.3 ppm/year.

    44/12 is the conversion ratio for CO2(g)/C(s) mass (coal is mostly carbon), and 14/44 is the ratio of N2(g)/CO2(g), to get volumetric concentration instead of mass.

    And see:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_dioxide_in_the_Earth%27s_atmosphere

    Back-of-the-envelope math works!

  18. #18 GloballyWarmDude
    March 3, 2009

    Chad: I really wonder how you can say that big numbers are meaningless. You did not address the point, and it is a simple one. Where will we put all that CO2? Until someone can tell me where we will put it all, why would we invest in the idea?

    Lt. Col. Valid Name Required, J.D., Ph.D: thanks for the answer you came up with of 2,765.9 cubic miles. I see you are better at Googling than I am.

    The number I came up with was 361 Cubic Miles. But again this was US only and 2007 only. If this volume was frozen down to dry ice it would still be roughly 1/2 a cubic mile. This by the way is pretty close to the volume of the coal that was dug up and burned in the first place. Yes I know it is rediculous idea to freeze it all into dry ice. This is just a comparison to make a point. The point is that there is nowhere on earth to put ot all.

    So Chad: Where do you propose we put 2,765 cubic miles of CO2. I hope you don’t have too much trouble with 4 digit numbers. Why would you be willing to accept shady science without legitimate questions?

    Simple question Chad; where will they put it?????

  19. #19 GloballyWarmDude
    March 3, 2009

    Hey Lt. Col. Valid Name Required, J.D., Ph.D

    Is there any chance you could take a moment to briefly explain the calculation you provided?

    I know it is a lot to ask but my research project could sure use the input.

    Thanks in advance.

  20. #20 Chad Orzel
    March 3, 2009

    GloballyWarmDude: So Chad: Where do you propose we put 2,765 cubic miles of CO2.

    I suppose we’ll just have to work to squeeze it into the roughly 1,400,000,000 cubic miles of the rest of the atmosphere. I know it’ll be tough, but I’m sure we can find room.

    I hope you don’t have too much trouble with 4 digit numbers. Why would you be willing to accept shady science without legitimate questions?

    This would be a really bad week to test my patience. So either drop the combative attitude, or go find some other blogger to annoy. I’m not in the mood.

  21. #21 GloballyWarmDude
    March 3, 2009

    Chad:
    Sorry for the combative response. I do not believe that really big numbers are a waste of time.

    There is no question that the CO2 will fit into the atmosphere. I never said otherwise. I said that those that are suggesting that Clean Coal is the solution to the CO2 problem need to quantify where they intend to put the CO2. Showing some cool technology that captures the stuff does not impress me.

    Your statement that the athosphere can accomodate it all only agrees with my point. There is no reason to pursue Clean Coal if the only place we can come up with to put the CO2 is the atmosphere.

    What I don’t understand Chad, and I am not trying to be combative here, really, is why do we even discuss clean coal if no one can answer my earlier question. After all your answer was to put into the atmosphere. I am certain you were being sarcastic. That’s cool, maybe I derserved it.

    But I remain convinced that this simple question must be answered, period.

    You say “Money for “clean coal” shouldn’t take the place of money for cleaner technologies, but there needs to be some money spent on it. Failing to do so is a foolish gamble.”

    I am trying to counter your assertion. I will be all for clean coal as soon as I know where the CO2 is going to be put. I think any investment in the idea should be spent on quantifying the storage before it is spent on developing the technology to capture the CO2.

    Please address this point. I am certain you don’t truely believe that it belongs in the atmosphere. There is no way you would go to the effort of maintaining a blog of this nature if you believed that.

    My intention here is to prevent wasting time on shiny new rockets that cannot fly. I will take the DC3 that does fly first. I believe that the ACCCE is in the business of BS, I am in the business of truth.

    Do you not want to know the answer as well?

  22. #22 Lt. Col. Valid Name Required, J.D., Ph.D
    March 3, 2009

    GloballyWarmDude:

    It should the same as yours. The first one is an application of the ideal gas law, PV=NkT, rearranged as V = NkT/P. In this case, N is the number of independent particles, and k is the Boltzmann constant. The Google Calculator is aware of dimensions of units, as well as conversions between different unit systems. For instance, it recognizes “1 atmosphere” as a unit of pressure [N/m^2], without prompting. And when asked to yield into a specific unit [miles^3], it does so (under the constraint that the dimensions are valid!) Even further, it recognizes references to basic physical constants: I wrote “Boltzmann’s constant” and “Avogadro’s number”, instead of the corresponding quantities and dimensions.

    The one conversion I did there was to go from mass of coal (carbon) to molecules of CO2. In this case, in C -> CO2 there is a one-to-one correspondence of atoms of carbon to molecules of CO2. And we can count them by knowing the total mass of the coal, and dividing by the mass of each C atom. This is the combination of the molar mass (1 mole / 12 grams) and Avogadro’s number (6.022 * 10^23 / mole). (A mole is just a specific large number, no different than “thousand” or “billion”. It’s used by convention for counting atoms.)

    In the other equation, we’re comparing the CO2 emissions to the total mass of the atmosphere. Each C atom (mass 12) teams up with two O atoms (mass 16), so the mass of CO2 is 44/12 times that of the carbon that went into it. So we find, coal CO2 emissions are equal to about 4 ppm of the total atmosphere every year, by mass. But conventionally we want the volumetric ratio instead, so we throw in the factor of (14/44). Remember that idea gas law? In it, you see there is no dependence on the mass of the particles – just the count. So the heavier the atoms, the denser the bulk gas, in linear proportion. You can approximate the atmosphere here as N2 gas (mass 2*14=28 – eh, I screwed that up, it’s 28/44). So we convert from mass conc. to volume conc.

    Note the limitations of this estimate: we’re assuming CO2 in the atmosphere simply accumulates there. In fact it is a dynamic system, constantly absorbing CO2 (plants, oceans (as dissolved carbonates)) and emitting it (respiration).

    If you want to store emitted CO2, you do have a pretty big problem. However, counting it as CO2 gas is not quite right – there are chemical conversions possible. For instance, carbonates, which are solid salts. Or as biomass, through photosynthesis. (But in that case, the biomass will decay and emit CO2 right back…)

    Hope that’s clear.

  23. #23 Lt. Col. Valid Name Required, J.D., Ph.D
    March 3, 2009

    Of course, the real question is what is economically feasible, not merely physically possible. :|

  24. #24 GloballyWarmDude
    March 3, 2009

    Thanks leutenent “Valid Name Required”. I appreciate your taking the time to help me out.

    I will re-read your post a few hundered times and hopefully one or two atoms of knowledge we make it through to the grey matter.

    I see that you see my point about the storage problem. I certainly understand about converting to carbonates and such. But I believe we need to see the math and the bunker before we subscribe to any propaganda put out by the Clean Coal people. All I am saying is show me the bunker before you get the cash. Or at least a reasonable and verifiable approximation of storage large enough that is even vaguely believeable by those in-the-know.

    The kindergarden calculations I did tell me that there is no possibility of storing the CO2 emissions under any circumstances, and because of this I will make what efforts I can to make the public aware of this.

    I believe it is unacceptable for corporations to intentionally mis-inform the public and that is exactly what the ACCCE does for a living.

    You will notice that the ACCCE only point to the capture side of the equation and not the storage side. I believe this is completely and knowingly intentional.

  25. #25 GloballyWarmDude
    March 3, 2009

    Yes of course economics are important, no arguement on that one. But in a small way I believe that the price does not mattter. Better to be broke and alive than rich and dead, right?

    But to be more serious about this, of course the cost is part of it but I think we need to answer the physical feasibility question first. If it turns out that it can be done under some circumstance then we can focus on cost.

    Of course it is also true that it does not matter how much it costs if it is impossible. No amount of money will make it possible if it is not possible.

  26. #26 onymous
    March 3, 2009

    GloballyWarmDude, instead of demanding that Chad answer your questions about something he isn’t an expert on, why don’t you go look it up yourself? A few minutes of poking around on Google turns up a lot of information about options (pumping CO2 into coal seams where it gets adsorbed, using saline aquifers, forming carbonates). There are a lot of numbers out there, if you look for them.

  27. #27 GloballyWarmDude
    March 3, 2009

    Point taken. I don’t mean to pressure Chad on this. I mean to pressure the ACCCE. They are looking for support for a 1/2 baked plan. I believe that they need to show the storage and not just the capture.

    I think that as a society many of us have subscribed to the idea of clean coal even though there is no real answer there. I think we are buying into the junk the ACCCE publishes.

    What I was meaning to do was to suggest that Chad and all of the rest of us pressure the proponents of clean coal to answer this question.

    Thanks for your response. Blogs like this one are amazing but it can be quite a challenge to get our points out in just the right way.

    Chad, I do not mean to pressure you to know the answer to my question, I am respectfully suggesting that you ask it and be satisfied with the answer for your self.

    And I have read lots of material on the various places where we can shove the stuff. Again, my question is about the volume. I know that there are lots of places to put it but do they add up to enough room to hold enough CO2 to be worth the effort?

    I want an assessment of the combined volume of storage that is reasonably available. I want the assessment to be funded by the ACCCE. They want funding money and I think they need to build a believeable “business plan” first.

    If they can loosly substantiate their plan then give em the cash.

  28. #28 Chad Orzel
    March 3, 2009

    And I have read lots of material on the various places where we can shove the stuff. Again, my question is about the volume. I know that there are lots of places to put it but do they add up to enough room to hold enough CO2 to be worth the effort?

    This was the point of my flippant comment about the atmosphere, and the basis of my objection to this entire line of argument.

    You seem to be hugely impressed by a volume on the order of a thousand cubic miles, but that’s a completely trivial volume compared to the scale of the Earth. Most carbon sequestration schemes I’m aware of talk about burying the carbon deep underground, or on the ocean floor. If you consider a one-mile depth over the entire surface of the Earth, that amounts to almost two hundred million cubic miles.

    Volume is just not that big an issue. A thousand cubic miles sounds huge, but it’s trivial compared to the volume of the Earth, which is the relevant scale.

  29. #29 Geoff
    March 3, 2009

    As much as the phrase “Clean Coal” makes me want to cringe, I have to tip my hat to you on this one Chad. Yes, there is indeed a “Big Pharma” aspect to all of this. Their motivations might be self motivating, but that doesn’t mean “Clean Coal” has to be the next “Star Wars” — and I don’t mean the movie. ;)

    I think it might be a bit simplistic to relegate the solution to only two technologies and term them “gambles” (certainly not that big, nor equal) but food for thought anyway. This skeptic thanks you.

  30. #30 Geoff
    March 3, 2009

    correction: you did cover your bases on other technologies. My mistake.

  31. #31 GloballyWarmDude
    March 3, 2009

    I am reluctant to re-post on this Chad. I really don’t mean to be a huge pain but I just don’t understand your point at all. Please don’t curse my name.

    I don’t understand how you can say that 1,000 cubic miles of CO2 released into the atmosphere is trivial(or any other big number). Yes I fully acknowledge that 1,000 cubic miles is trivial compared to the volume of the atmosphere. Without a doubt you are of course correct on that point.

    I don’t accept that disposing of 1,000 cubic miles of anything is trivial. I am not particularly impressed with the numbers, I just want to know how we get two full grown elephants into a one room apartment.

    But global warming is a function of concentation of CO2 in the atmosphere and an extra 1,000 cubic miles of CO2, or the removal thereof from our emissions is the very point of all of this. If we are to sequester 1,000 cubic miles of CO2 so that it does not go into the atmosphere in the first place then it must go somewhere else, right. If the places we intend to put it are not big enough to hold it then it must be released into the atmosphere.

    Please explain how this massive amount of CO2 is trivial. Do you not believe that we are increasing the concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere? Do you beleive that we have to stop doing so?

    We do not have to saturate the lower atmosphere to 100% CO2 before there is a problem. I just heard the other day that 4% CO2 was lethal. So to really pick nits it would be more fair to compare the 1,000 cubic miles to 4% of the lower atmosphere.

    Now of course 4% concentration is also a rediculous number. Some say that we have to get to below 350 PPM.

    Now I hope I get this right but 350 PPM is .035% right? so how does the volume of our CO2 emissions compare to .035% of the lower atmosphere. I don’t think it is trivial.

    I am at a bit of a loss as to why you and I are at odds on this issue. I must be missing something you have said.

  32. #32 Chad Orzel
    March 3, 2009

    Now I hope I get this right but 350 PPM is .035% right? so how does the volume of our CO2 emissions compare to .035% of the lower atmosphere. I don’t think it is trivial.

    You don’t even have to Google to find that– the answer is in comment #17, which says that in the terrible approximation in which every molecule of CO2 released stays in the atmosphere, our yearly emissions would amount to about 1.3 ppm, or a bit less than 0.5% of the total CO2 in the lower atmosphere.

    I think I’m going to stop responding to you now. I have work to do for my day job, and this is going nowhere.

  33. #33 GloballyWarmDude
    March 3, 2009

    Yes, I agree.

    It appears that I have materialized on the evil Enterprise and my first officer is trying to kill me.

    I will have to hook up with evil Scotty to have him help me rematerialize on nice Enterprise.

    I feel that you have not answered a single point I have made. I had really hoped that you would have.

    As far as I can tell you believe that human activity in not responsible for global warming or you believe that global warming is a myth.

  34. #34 IBY
    March 3, 2009

    I think you make good points, though I think coal extraction is also a problem. Do anyone know the CO2 output of mining coal?

  35. #35 onymous
    March 3, 2009

    which says that in the terrible approximation in which every molecule of CO2 released stays in the atmosphere, our yearly emissions would amount to about 1.3 ppm, or a bit less than 0.5% of the total CO2 in the lower atmosphere.

    Eyeballing the Keeling curve, the measured CO2 concentration is increasing by about 1 ppm per year, so I don’t why it’s such a terrible approximation. The lifetime of CO2 in the atmosphere is effectively on the order of thousands of years, at least in the sense that that’s how long it takes the Earth to re-equilibrate after we pump CO2 into the atmosphere (even though individual molecules are passing in and out of sources of sinks much more often than that, I think). There is some discrepancy between the amount of CO2 we produce and the amount that goes into the atmosphere, since some of it goes into the ocean (so there’s more warming already in the pipeline from that), but this approximation is definitely getting the order of magnitude right and in fact seems to be doing even better than that.

  36. #36 Dennis
    March 4, 2009

    “I don’t accept that disposing of 1,000 cubic miles of anything is trivial. I am not particularly impressed with the numbers, I just want to know how we get two full grown elephants into a one room apartment.”

    Volume is a horrible way of expressing amounts of a gas as it is highly dependent upon conditions. How many moles of CO2 is that?

  37. #37 GloballyWarmDude
    March 4, 2009

    Hey Lt. Col. Valid Name Required, J.D., Ph.D

    One last minor point if you don’t mind. Your calculation certainly has more credibility than mine so I bow to your great braininess, but our results are quite different so could you please clarify one point for me.

    I was wondering if you entered the coal as 100% carbon? My understanding is that it varies quite a bit and I have seen a range from 60% to over 90% for anthracite.

    My calculation was based on the Energy Information Administrations value of 5720 pounds of CO2 per ton of 78% carbon (14,000 BTU) coal.

    If your calculation does assume that coal is 100% carbon then that would explain the substantial discrepancy between our results.

    Thanks again, hugely. :-)

  38. #38 milkshake
    March 4, 2009

    Chad, unfortunately it is basic thermodynamic that work against carbon storage proposals (3 tons of carbon produce 11 tons of CO2, underground burial site would have to withstand the CO2 pressure above CO2 critical point which is 31C / 73 atmosphere, CO2 has a huge compression heat – it was used as refrigerant before Freons) whereas with wind and solar and nuclear one can hope for improved technology.

  39. #39 Bob
    March 4, 2009

    Why are we wasting brainpower on this?

    “Clean Coal” is a myth, not because it’s not feasible, but because emissions sequestering is a long way off and it doesn’t address the ecological damage from mining, especially the pernicious practice of mountaintop removal mining. And does anyone have any idea of the environmental impact of sequestering that much carbon? The probability and consequences of a large release from a CO2 storage facility? If this technology is going to be built on a large scale, these questions need to be answered before first spadeful of dirt is lifted for construction.

    Solar, wind, biomass, etc. are more environmentally friendly an and may be cost-effective in some areas but none are viable for baseload generation, even with optimistic forseeable increases in efficiency or economies of scale.

    Oil is a nonstarter both for ecological, scarcity, and political reasons.

    Improving efficiency and encouraging conservation are both laudable but both simply delay the inevitable; neither are means of power generation.

    The only currently viable, carbon-neutral, cost-effective means of baseload generation is nuclear fission. It may not be politically expedient but if you want it now, it’s the only clean, cheap means of generating large amounts of power on a consistent basis. Many European countries and American states are considering lifting their bans on new construction. China has ordered four reactors from Westinghouse and even NPT-non-signatory India has finally bullshitted the international community into allowing nuclear technology and development to be exported there. So even the Chinese and Indians have an alternative to coal that they are actively pursuing.

    As the good Lt. Col. has already stated, we have a few centuries of uranium and thorium available using current technology. The ‘waste issue’ and ‘risk issue’ are technically moot; they’re both purely political issues that serve only as canards for procrastination and lack of political will.

    Fission should be a stopgap technology until something cleaner, cheaper, and more reliable is available (nuclear fusion, for example.) But given the constraints of available technology, economics, and ecology, nuclear fission is the best technical and economic choice for new generation. The other renewable technologies simply won’t have the reliability or the economy we need for supporting current and future energy needs alone.

  40. #40 cookingwithsolvents
    March 4, 2009

    As a chemist I’d like to point out our yearly plastic production is at about 2.5 billion tons a year (dated link but good enough) (http://books.google.com/books?id=QF7GvJwDLNAC&pg=PA3&lpg=PA3&dq=world+yearly+plastic+production+tons&source=bl&ots=6NOijCSxhZ&sig=2YtUfpK6VvjC3AHNQL3NSX9wuso&hl=en&ei=lNuuSayvLo_ftgfE_ZWJBg&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=1&ct=result) sorry for long link

    and we need to figure out more useful ways of making and using polycarbonates and other plastics which can use CO2 as a monomer because that would use a good amount of CO2. Of course, that’s only a stopgap. I don’t think the coal industry even comprehends this as a potential revenue stream, to be honest (yes, I’ve asked individuals). As with all of our worldly energy and emissions problems, the answer is piecemeal. This has the potential to be a big piece.

    Better catalysts are where it’s at. . .every catalyzed reaction saves energy!

    Of course, my day job these days is in PV’s. I love it and have a tremendous amount of hope since almost all of humanity’s efforts have been focused on very few materials. The flip side is look at how far we’ve gotten with all that effort! I’m still not sure we’ll ever solve the problem economically. Again, the solution is definitely going to be piecemeal so maybe we’ll have Si on your roof, GaAs ternary’s w/ collectors in the north and DSS’s in the south. (yeah i’m leaving CIGS out in the cold…sorry, there just isn’t enough In!!) Or maybe we haven’t even tried (or made) the material yet. . . (organics? something yet to be checked as a PV???)

  41. #41 cookingwithsolvents
    March 4, 2009

    “The only currently viable, carbon-neutral, cost-effective means of baseload generation is nuclear fission. It may not be politically expedient but if you want it now, it’s the only clean, cheap means of generating large amounts of power on a consistent basis. Many European countries and American states are considering lifting their bans on new construction. China has ordered four reactors from Westinghouse and even NPT-non-signatory India has finally bullshitted the international community into allowing nuclear technology and development to be exported there. So even the Chinese and Indians have an alternative to coal that they are actively pursuing.”

    nope, not going to happen IN TIME (nevermind the political reasons): http://nsl.caltech.edu/energy.html

    Nobody is building 10,000 new 1GW reactors = 1 every other day for 50 years (for “only” 10 TW)
    http://online.kitp.ucsb.edu/online/colloq/lewis1/oh/17.html

    I’m not saying don’t build reactors. I’m saying WHY AREN’T MORE PEOPLE WORKING ON SOLAR???!!!

  42. #42 Lt. Col. Valid Name Required, J.D., Ph.D
    March 4, 2009

    One last minor point if you don’t mind. Your calculation certainly has more credibility than mine so I bow to your great braininess, but our results are quite different so could you please clarify one point for me.

    I was wondering if you entered the coal as 100% carbon? My understanding is that it varies quite a bit and I have seen a range from 60% to over 90% for anthracite.

    Your figures are better than mine – I assumed 100% C, which is enough for a rough estimate. I think most of the 1st world uses anthracite (>90% C), because it is ‘cleaner’ than the brown coals (in the sense of, heavy metals, sulfur, and the like).

    The other factor is that we’re both neglecting other CO2 sources, like oil and natural gas.

    Nobody is building 10,000 new 1GW reactors = 1 every other day for 50 years (for “only” 10 TW)

    Why not? You seem to be thinking in extensive quantities, when to first order these are intensive quantities: units of [economic resource] / [demand], where both scale linearly with population. By your reasoning, a small city building one reactor is easy, but ten thousand cities separately building ten thousand reactors is impossible.

    Look at France: they went from 0 to 80% nuclear electricity in about 30 years.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_power_in_France#History

  43. #43 GloballyWarmDude
    March 4, 2009

    Thanks Lt. Col. Valid Name Required, J.D., Ph.D

    I understand your point that we are both ignoring all other sources. I know that, my particular project states this clearly. My study is about coal only and specifically the idea of sequestering the CO2 from burning it. I know there are lots of other huge sources of CO2.

    I appreciate your clarification on the volume calculation, now it all makes sense.

    May I offer this correction. Anthricite is the most expensive type and is used almost exclusively to make coke. It is not used in power plants. In fact the 14,000 BTU per pound at 78% carbon example I use is still a little on the “strong” side, above typical you could safely say.

    Generally speaking Anthracite is not what is mined in the US. Here in BC we have a fair bit of it though and export it. Most of the coal in the US is under 13,000 BTU per pound. The Powder River Basin for example is rated at 8,8000.

    According to the EIA, Anthracite accounts for only 73 of the 1,146,635 million tons of US production from 2008.

    From what I can tell most of the coal that actually ends up in a coal plant is under 13,000 BTU per pound. I would guess that this would be in the 60% carbon range. If you are able to provide a formula for BTU per pound into percentage of carbon content you would really be my hero.

    I will take your original formula and alter it down by the percentage of carbon present. This makes our two calculations much closer to eachothers and therefor somewhat verified.

    Thanks again dude.

    I would like to state that I, for the most part, support nukes. The difficulty I have is with the price of installation. SciAm did an article recently stating that building one today would be enormously expensive. Far beyond what was possible in the past, the cost alone almost renders them moot. But given the choice I say that wind turbines should be popping up like daisies.

    Same for large scale solar thermal plants out in the desert. Lets build lots of those, quickly, along with energy storage to make them really viable.

  44. #44 marciepooh
    March 5, 2009

    http://www.natcarb.org/ has numbers for CO2 sinks in the US and some of Canada. NETL is also a good resource(http://www.netl.doe.gov/technologies/carbon_seq/index.html).

  45. #45 Matt Dernoga
    March 14, 2009

    clean coal isn’t coming for a few decades

    http://madrad2002.wordpress.com/2009/03/13/clean-coal-was-never-being-developed-by-bush-admin/

    Also, the technology that China and India would be trying to add to their power plants to make it “clean” would raise the cost of that plants electricity so much they’d just end up with a different no CCS source anyways.

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