No Fixed Abode: Whatcha Gonna Do When They Come For CO2?
Arthur C. Clarke is perhaps best-known as the fellow who wrote “2001: A Space Odyssey”, but he is notorious among science-and-engineering types for having once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This statement is, of course, entirely relative. The vast majority of human beings in this or any other era can be easily confused by everything from a torque wrench to the weight difference between a pound of bricks and a pound of feathers.
The news that came out of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory last week, however, is going to blur the science/magic boundary for most of us. A group of scientists there discovered a way to turn water that has been saturated with CO2 into ethanol using nano-spike catalysts. At room temperature. It’s (not quite) as simple as this: You apply a lot of electricity to the water in the presence of this material, and it turns into ethanol.
This is going to cause a lot of problems.
We can start with all the usual caveats: this is a laboratory process, on a very small scale, and so on. I’m not a scientist — at least not that kind of scientist — so I can’t say how high the barriers are to doing this process on a large scale. Let’s say for the moment that the barriers are not insurmountable. If that’s the case, I can tell you what this means for the future.
Carbon dioxide naturally dissolves in water. That’s one of the problems facing the Earth as a whole; as the level of CO2 in the air increases, the oceans absorb some of it, become more acidic, and turn into jellyfish-infested hellholes where neither fish nor whale can survive. It’s no great trick to come up with a lot of water that has been saturated with CO2. The cost of turning sea water into fresh water is somewhere in the range of four dollars per 1,000 gallons; this isn’t cost-effective for things like irrigation but it’s very reasonable when you consider that the value of ethanol on the open market is perhaps two hundred times that amount.
It’s also no great trick to come up with a lot of electricity. China is going nuclear; the United States could do the same. Or we could just put up a lot of windmills; the intermittent and fussy nature of wind-generated power doesn’t suit the needs of municipal grids very well but it would be just the thing for an industrial process that could be easily adjusted to suit the amount of electricity available at any given time.
The materials needed for the catalytic reaction are also relatively easy to get: carbon particles and copper. There’s no reasonable resource constraint here. It’s very easy to imagine a production facility somewhere on the Atlantic coast that takes in seawater, removes the salt, blows enough air through it to reach CO2 saturation, then uses the energy from a nuclear reaction nearby to produce ethanol in vast quantities. The resulting fuel is effectively carbon-neutral; it removes as much CO2 from the environment as it puts back in when it’s burned.
The nice people at Oak Ridge envision this process as an efficient way to level out the ebb-and-fall differences between electricity production and consumption, but since this is (at least nominally) an automotive-centric website, you can guess where I’m going to take the conversation. This promises to remove the CO2/global-warming stigma from automobiles and to secure the future of the internal combustion engine in private hands against a well-funded and immensely powerful global cabal that has bleated loudly for the end of the automobile as we know it. But there are more than just tree-huggin’ reasons why a national fleet of ethanol-powered cars would be vastly preferable to battery-powered future for private transportation.
To begin with, ethanol is a more efficient means of transporting energy than any commercially viable battery to date. You need a thousand pounds’ worth of batteries to do what a tank full of ethanol can do; that’s why a Tesla Roadster weighs more than the Lotus Elise on which it was based. We also have a national infrastructure in place for the transport and storage of liquid energy. That infrastructure would require upgrades to handle an ethanol future, but it’s a much more reasonable thing to contemplate than any of the Better-Place-style battery-swap infrastructure ideas.
An ethanol future would also enable us to avoid the environmental catastrophe that would attend any major-scale production of automotive batteries. We’d also avoid the nightmare of used-battery disposal on a 20-million-vehicle-per-year basis. This doesn’t mean that we will be able to keep the cars we have now, but what would you rather have in your driveway: an ethanol-powered car that makes absurd amounts of power thanks to low-cost, environmentally friendly high-octane fuel, or a battery-powered vehicle that can “brick” at any time and which will steadily degrade in power capacity every day you own it, the way your iPhone does?
So there you have it: the sufficiently advanced technology that will magically save the internal-combustion automobile. But will it be that simple? It will not have escaped the attention of the intelligent TTAC reader that “global warming” has been used on a continual and relentless basis as a stick with which to beat the middle class into “lower-consumption” habits. In fact, if you look at the methods proposed for “fixing” global warming, you might be forgiven for thinking that it isn’t really much of a crisis at all. Keep in mind that this process for getting CO2 out of the air and back into fuel was discovered almost by accident. If we really thought that CO2-related warming was the demon that was going to end life on this planet as we knew it, wouldn’t we be working on things like radiating excess heat into space or putting a shade over the sun? Or maybe we’d be doing things like making coal plants illegal on a global basis. Instead, we’ve been “fighting” global warming by cutting engine sizes in company cars and asking people to turn the light off when they leave the room.
You will excuse me, therefore, if I suspect that even a completely carbon-neutral method for fueling automobiles won’t remove the objections that our Gulfstream-riding elite uber-class has to the private automobile. We’ll just be told that there is another problem which still justifies all of the regular people exchanging their Challengers for bus passes or autonomous-vehicle ride credits. Much like the moronic, indefensible “Vision Zero” plan in New York that will simply move the pedestrian-fatality target down until it cannot be met by any method other than the abolition of private transport, the “global warming” shtick primarily serves as a lever to reduce middle-class consumption down to a point where our overlords are comfortable with it.
I want to believe that the ethanol process will work and that it will allow my son, and his son, to know the joy of a proper automobile or motorcycle. But in the end, the only proper thing to do with ethanol might be to fill a bottle with it, stuff a rag in that bottle, light it, and chuck it in the direction of your nearest American oligarch. It’s possible that we will find a better solution to the increasing class divide in this country and elsewhere — but that would demand more than a belief in magic. It would require faith in fantasy.
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