A Couple of Things…
There are a couple of things I want to discuss. One of them is about someone very near and dear to me - my big brother, Rob. Ever since I can remember, he has been aware of the need to keep this planet safe and clean. I remember how he used to keep his gum wrapper in his pocket so he had a place to put the spent chew until he could find a garbage disposal. The floor behind the passenger seat in his car was where all garbage went until it could be deposited in a proper receptacle. I have used his methods, amongst others, ever since. In a bid to help the earth, he recently asked me to find out how to go about installing wind turbines on his property.
This is a somewhat of a cautionary tale. It's about anyone who is thinking about installing wind turbines on their property and taking the electricity for their own use and selling any excess back to the utility.
Rob has a farm situated about one and a half hours northeast of me. His property has the prevailing wind in his favour and a large piece of the farm sits high on a hill - perfect conditions he thought for an installation. I felt it had some merit but told him I would talk to a contact at a major utility to get his take on the whole idea.
My utility' friend acknowledged the idea as being a good one but warned it's not so simple as putting up a couple or three windmills and then sitting back in your La-Z-Boy in your counting house watching the riches roll in.
Here's how the job will go. The utility involved will take control so it can oversee the siting research including layout and design, permitting, road access, selection of contractor and sub-contractors, calibre of work, proximity to transmission equipment, cabling, metering and so on. With all of the work and expense, the utility can now claim the five or ten acres that the small wind farm will sit on.
Now my brother will have his electricity covered minus administration charges and, depending on what kind of price the joy is going for at any given moment will end up in his pocket. He will continue to pay the land taxes on the property but it will be essentially off limits to anyone but the power crews who will maintain the access, look after the veggie management, and ensure the wind mills operate properly.
And, says my friend, what happens if my brother ever wishes to sell the property - could be a tough one. Unless one wants to run a large wind facility, the big question to come out of it becomes, "Is a personal installation worth it?" Although his intentions were sound, Rob has decided to keep saving the planet in other ways.
The other subject. At laboratories around the world, researchers are working on ways to recycle carbon dioxide. There is a reward of $20 million available from the X Prize Foundation for teams that discover the technologies to turn the waste gas captured from smokestacks of coal- or gas-fired power plants into something useable. But perhaps the ultimate goal of researchers is to turn it into a new fuel. The same carbon dioxide molecules would be emitted, captured, made into new fuels and emitted again over and over.
"The grand prize is figuring out how to make carbon dioxide recyclable, a renewable resource," said Harry A. Atwater, a materials scientist who is the director of the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "That would be a millennial advance for society."1
Carbon dioxide is already used to make some products like urea fertilizer and specialty plastics. But the processes are not energy efficient and almost all use carbon dioxide from natural underground reservoirs. Even if companies started using the gas that was captured, the amount would be less than 0.5 percent of the 32 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted annually by human activity.
But developing devices that can efficiently and economically convert large amounts of the waste gas will require overcoming many hurdles.
"The big challenge is how do we go from milligrams to megatons?" remarked Dick T. Co, managing director of the Solar Fuels Institute, a group that encourages collaboration among researchers in the field. "How do we make a dent in our energy portfolio when people are working in test tubes today?"2
Dr. Atwater and his team are trying to mimic plant photosynthesis. They want to take Carbon Dioxide and water and, using only sunlight, turn them into fuel. The center, started in 2010 devoted its first five years to one aspect of photosynthesis: splitting water into its components, hydrogen and oxygen. It has so far produced a chip-size sandwich of semiconductor material, catalysts and membranes encased in a clear container with a water-based solution. When the chip is exposed to light, bubbles of gas form - hydrogen on one side, oxygen on the other.
The chip is about ten times more efficient than a typical plant, which uses about one percent of the sunlight that bathes it.
The centre is now working on the carbon dioxide part of the photosynthetic equation. The goal is to integrate the two processes in a device that might look a lot like a solar panel and produce fuel.
Carbon dioxide is much more difficult to split than water, however, involving six steps, each requiring energy and a catalyst. Sunfire, a company in Dresden, Germany, built a prototype to make synthetic crude oil from carbon dioxide and water. Part of the crude is diesel fuel, and in 2015, Audi used some of the Sunfire diesel to briefly power one of its cars. The Sunfie process uses electricity, not sunlight, so the electricity would have to come from renewable sources to result in meaningful carbon reductions.3
In Berkeley, three scientists have started a company, Opus 12, to develop their own carbon dioxide-conversion device, also powered by electricity. Their idea is to exploit the fact that carbon dioxide can be converted into different products, by coming up with catalysts tailored to produce specific ones.
"Our vision is to design this reactor more as a platform," said Nicholas Flanders, co-founder of Opus 12.4
Dr. Atwater is realistic about the challenges of directly converting sunlight and carbon dioxide into fuel. "The energy and catalysts problems of humanity will not have been resolved five years from now."
1 Henry Fountain. "Race is on to Recycle Carbon Dioxide" The New York Times International Weekly, (May 15, 2016):10