Trees are nature’s way of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Growing plants take up CO2 and store it in the form of their roots, stems and leaves. And in fact, a significant factor in the growing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been the extensive deforestation that has gone on over the past couple of centuries.
We have heard the term “clean coal” for years, mostly from politicians and in coal company advertising. The concept sounds good: burn coal but don’t produce carbon dioxide emissions. While there have been various small-scale tests of technologies to accomplish this, it has not actually been a viable option for the power industry.
Scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee were trying to find a series of chemical reactions that could turn carbon dioxide into a useful fuel. But the unexpected occurred: they found that the first step in their process actually got the job done all by itself. The reaction turns CO2 into ethanol, which is already used to power generators and vehicles.
One of the strategies to tackle the problem of increasing greenhouse gas emissions that are resulting in climate change is Carbon Capture and Storage or CCS, which seeks to prevent CO2 from entering the atmosphere and to instead tuck it away somewhere. A longstanding approach to doing it is to store it underground in voids such as abandoned oil and gas reservoirs. There are various complications associated with this idea, not the least of which being potential leakage of the stored CO2.
The X Prize Foundation provides financial incentives for innovative solutions to various technical challenges. Topics have ranged from developing spacecraft to trying to create a real-world version of the Star Trek tricorder. Last year, the foundation launched a $20 million challenge to come up with technologies by the year 2020 that turn carbon dioxide captured from the smokestacks of power plants into useful products.
Renewable energy sources like wind and solar power are getting cheaper all the time and are, in many places, competing head to head on price with traditional fossil fuel generation. The ultimate goal is to replace polluting energy sources entirely, but even under the most optimistic scenarios, fossil fuel plants aren’t just going to disappear very quickly.
The global community is increasingly making commitments to reduce the amount of carbon emissions in the atmosphere. More and more carbon-free renewable energy sources are being used all the time. But despite the tremendous growth in solar and wind power, fossil fuels still provide about 80% of the world’s energy. Coal still provides about 40% of worldwide electricity. Realistically, these numbers can only go down at a relatively gradual pace.