Saturday, December 24, 2011

Can we capture methane from the Arctic seabed?

Can we capture methane from the Arctic seabed?

Stephen H. Salter, School of Engineering, University of Edinburgh, Scotland. 

Prepared for the John Nissen Methane Workshop, Chiswick 15,16 October 2011.

DRAFT 3 November with pressure ridge addition.

Methane is a greenhouse gas more than 100 times more effective than carbon dioxide in the short term.  It is stored in the form of clathrates which are unstable if pressure is lower or temperature is higher than a line on a pressure versus temperature graph. Figure 1 shows that the slope of the atmospheric concentration has sharply increased since 2007.  Previous high levels of methane were associated with the Permian mass extinction, 250 million years ago.

Figure 1. Anomalies of CH4 mean volume mixing ratios for Northern and Southern hemispheres courtesy Leonid Yurganov.  Updated mixing ratios (Dlugokencky et al., 2009) were subtracted from the seasonal cycles averaged over 2003-2007. The right scale shows the anomaly of total mass of CH4 in the tropospheric layer of each hemisphere. The growth has been continuing in 2010-2011, according to the updated satellite data by Frankenberg et al. 2011.

This note discusses the design problems of a system to deploy kilometre-sized areas of plastic film to collect methane from suitable areas of the sea bed.  The gas can be flared off at sea to convert it to less damaging carbon dioxide or perhaps, if there are very high flow rates, recovered by a gas carrier and used ashore.

There seem to be solutions to what appeared initially to be an insoluble problem.

The difficulties

When John Nissen first raised the problem of Arctic methane my initial reaction was that capture at the sea bed would be impossible.  But trying to design for the impossible can be interesting.  It seemed a useful exercise to identify the reasons for impossibility. We can list difficulties as follows:

  1. Methane release at very low flow rates over too wide an area.
  2. Release at very high rates over a small area such as a well blow-out.
  3. Rough seas during deployment.
  4. The presence of obstructions such as wreckage, rock outcrops, munitions or steep slopes.
  5. Fast, variable-direction or unpredictable currents.
  6. Equipment sinking into very soft ooze on the seabed.
  7. Hydrogen sulphide toxicity.
  8. Unacceptable biological consequences due to the presence of equipment.
  9. The need to recover everything at some date in the future.
  10. The pressure ridges shown by Peter Wadhams at the Chiswick workshop.

I now believe that despite these problems methane can be captured in quite large quantities from areas of several square kilometres of plastic film in a single installation. 

The design

The film sheet is packed into a pair of left and right-handed rubber trough cases [1] and [2] with a rectangular inner section as shown in figure 2. Each trough case carries two steel cables [3].  The trough cases would be produced by a continuous moulding/extrusion machine in lengths of several kilometres using plant similar to that used for electrical cables. The left and right handed pair are connected at the centre by two thin isthmus strips of material [4] [5] above and below a rectangular section passage.  The passage contains a rectangular section runner [6] with two blades [7] [8] which can be pulled through the full length of the extrusion by a steel cable. [9].   If the steel cable is pulled the two blades will cut the connection strips and the trough case halves will be separated. 

The underside of the   trough case extrusion has a moulded tread with a pattern of saw-tooth section ridges [10] lying at an angle of about 30 degrees to the length of the extrusion. This ridge angle is an important design parameter.  At the outer corners of the bottom of the insides of the trough cases are recesses [11] into which a bead on the edge of an extruded plastic sheet can be pushed.  The outer walls of the trough are much thicker than the inner walls and contain galleries [12] along which methane can be transported to riser pipes. They connect to the higher points of the saw-tooth moulding. A high-density filler is added to the rubber to make sure that it is heavier than cold sea water but not heavier than the ooze on the sea bed. The outer edges of the extrusion [13] are sloped like the front of a sledge.

At the bottom of figure 2 the troughs are shown filled with a zig-zag stack of flexible plastic with a density just greater than cold sea water and a thickness of about 200 microns.  The zig-zag stacks on each side a joined at the top [14].  The lower edges with a bead are pushed into the recesses in each trough.  This plastic would be produced by a second extrusion machine consisting of interdigital plates to be described later.  If the width of each trough is one metre and the trough depth is 150 mm there will be space for 750 layers of zig-zag plastic, giving an extended width of 1.5 kilometres when the zig-zags on the two sides are unpacked.  The stacks of plastic film can be packed securely by lid flaps [15] retained by a vacuum maintained through pipes [16]. 

The length of plastic and rubber would be wound in a single scroll on the drum of a pipe-laying vessel such as the Stena Apache.  A drum diameter of 35 meters could take a width of 1.5 kilometres and length of 3 kilometres, giving a capture area of 4.5 square kilometres.

Figure 2. Empty and filled extruded rubber trough cases with 4 times enlarged views of end and centre. 


Survey vessels with side-scan sonar and methane detection sensors would look for suitable sites with no large obstructions, suitable current velocities and comfortable methane emission rates.

Small obstructions can be levelled with robotic sea bed vehicles such as the one described at the 2011 EWTEC conference.

The pipe-laying vessel would take station well downstream of the target area and pay out the scrolled material to the sea bed as if it were oil pipe.  The extreme flexibility of the trough case (relative to 12 inch steel pipe) would allow wave tolerant J-lay rather than an S-lay release.

Once the full length of the package is on the sea bed (figure 3) it would be towed along the seabed by ropes attached to the fore end of the rubber extrusions until it reached a point before the start of the target area equal to the string length divided by the cosine of the ridge angle.  If possible the tow direction should be perpendicular to current and swell.

The central cable with knife blades would be pulled through the rubber extrusion to separate the two troughs.

The vacuum retaining the lid flaps will be released.

Towing to increase the width of the film can now begin. Towing from the pipe-laying vessel would mean lifting the leading edge of the pack and there might be disturbance by waves.  It is preferable to use a horizontal force from a sea bed walking vehicle.  There might sometimes be an advantage in raising and lowering the leading edge in the way used for aligning carpets.  The tow force would depend on the weight of the package in water and the coefficient of friction to the sea bed. This is expected to be about 250 kN.  This will set the size of the steel cables embedded in the rubber extrusions which transmit the tow force along the length of the rubber and the bollard pull of the tow vehicles.

The tow vehicles will keep the tow lines pointing along the line of the package but the angled ridges would make the two troughs move apart from each other and so the tow vehicles will take diverging courses. The layers of plastic film will be pulled away from the zig-zag stack, as shown in figure 3, with the weight of the retaining lids providing a gentle resisting force.. GPS systems will be used to keep the advance rate of the tow vehicles matched.

The small density difference between plastic and sea water will mean that the drag friction between plastic and sea bed will be very low with a factor of safety of several hundred relative to the plastic strength.

The ridges in the rubber extrusion will leave furrows on the surface of the seabed.  When the furrows are covered by the plastic sheet they will form passages for the removal of gas through galleries in the outer walls of the trough.

The outward movement of the trough cases will build up material from the sea bed at the front of the outer sledge faces.  Water moving through eductor jets [17] can move some of the sea bed material over the film.

The gas pipe connection from below the film to the surface will bring its pressure closer to atmospheric.  Eventually several bars of water pressure will clamp the film and trough casings firmly to the sea bed.

Figure 3. Deployment of the film using the side force from the inclined ridges at the bottom
of the trough cases. Proportions are grossly distorted.


Thermo-plastic films can be made by heating pellets of the feed stock to their melting point, pumping the liquid material through fine gaps in an extrusion tool and progressively cooling the downstream section of the tool to a temperature at which the film can be handled. The energy requirement is the sum of melting heat and pumping pressure.  Much of the heat can be recycled back to the incoming feed stock. The product is easier to handle if the pumping is in a downward direction.

The tool will consist of one inner and two outer stacks of plates each of which consists of two half plates which have been machined with a zig-zag coolant channel and then riveted and spot-welded back together as shown in figure 4.   The key problem is maintaining an accurate gap, probably 200 microns, between inner and outer plates.  Gravitational sag will be avoided if plates are vertical.  At the top of the tool where the film material is still liquid the gap can be defined by streamlined shims but in the cooler regions it must be actively controlled with no physical blockage.

Material from a rolling mill usually has quite large flatness errors and a skin under compression.  The first step will be stress relief by raising the plate temperature to 650 C for an hour and cooling it slowly.

Toolroom surface grinders can work to a flatness better than 3 microns but if curved parts are held flat on a magnetic chuck the curvature will be restored when the magnetic flux is removed.  It will be necessary to hold the plates on a hot wax chuck as used in the optical industry.  It might be useful to consider a low-force cutting technique such as spark erosion.

Figure 4.    A grossly distorted plan view of the topology of the extrusion tool with exploded parts. A 1500 metre width would require 750 plates rather than eight.  Maintaining a gap for the film thickness is a challenging problem but may be done with differential temperature control. The tool for a 1500 metre width of film would weigh about 200 tonnes.  If the differential temperature idea is not feasible, smaller tools could be used but a way to store and join kilometre lengths edge to edge would be needed. Temporary coiling looks difficult.

Gap control

We can use an array of capacitance transducers to measure the gap between plates of an assembled stack.  We can cover the surfaces of plates with resistive heating elements either side of the cooling channels.  By differential control of the heating currents we can control the local curvature of a plate.  The coefficient of thermal expansion of stainless steel is 17 part per million per C degree.  A temperature difference of 1C across a 15 mm plate will induce a radius of curvature of 440 metres.  If the width of the heating element is 100 mm this means a deflection of 11 microns.

A neat way to provide plate deflection control is to divide the plate surfaces into 100 mm squares with a resistive layer filling most of the area.  The squares would be connected in series and driven with a constant current from a high impedance source rather than a constant voltage.  The current would be diverted around the heating element by a parallel, high-frequency switch operated for a variable fraction of the time.  A small fraction of the surface with a grounded guard backing would be given a high-frequency excitation to measure the capacitance to the adjacent plate.

Cold heat exchanger fluid will be pumped into the bottom of the vertical tooling plates and emerge from the top at nearly the melting temperature of the plastic film.  After some extra heating the fluid will then move downwards through a vertical-tube heat-exchanger to melt the incoming plastic.

Solidified film coming out of the bottom of the tool will be further cooled by an upward flow air which will then be directed down through a bed of rising feed pellets and shredded plastic being recycled.  Air can flow easily through gaps between pellets or shredded feed stock.  The surface area of pellets is large even if heat transfer per unit area is low. Heat can flow more easily between liquids.  However there will be an awkward gap between solid but nearly molten pellets in the air in the pellet heat exchanger and liquid in the one above it.  Although the temperature difference might be quite small the amount of latent heat of fusion might be substantial. 

Gas flow rates

A slide (number 34) from the Shakova - Semiletov paper given at the November 30 2010 DoD workshop in Washington, gives a figure for methane flux of 44 grams per square metre a day over half a 500 metre transect, shown below.   This is well above other observations.   The calorific value of methane is 55 MJ per kilogram so this would be a thermal power of 28 MW per square kilometre.  These conditions might well not apply to the full film area and, at this rate, it would probably not be worth collecting methane on a ship.  In future the rate, and gas prices, might increase. However the power level should be enough to drive a mechanism with chain saws and heat transfer pipes to keep a clear hole for a flaring stack in a moving winter ice field if methane release in winter was thought to be a problem.  

Size of release plumes

This paper has described what I believe to be the largest possible collector area using present technology.  We need to know more about the size and spacing of release plumes to decide if the area has to be as large as this.  One example of the kind of data needed is given in figure 5.  

Figure 5. An echo sounder image giving the size of methane plumes from Shakhova et al.. This shows a transect of about 500 metres in the Laptev sea showing bubble plume return features
and also zooplankton other non-bubble scatterers such as fish.

Material quantities

The Shakhova presentation also mentioned total areas of methane hot spots of 210,000 square kilometres, the area of a square of side 460 kilometres.  The proposed design needs about 200 tonnes of plastic film per square kilometre. Total world consumption of plastics in 2010 was about 300 million tonnes and forecast to rise to 538 million in 2020.  Protecting the Shakova area with coverings which lasted 10 years would take about 1.5% of total present world plastic production.


Maintenance would be very difficult and is not planned. But anyone putting anything into the sea has an ethical duty to plan for its recovery.  The proposal is to make structures of two cutting discs about 2 metres in diameter separated at 12 metres which can roll along the length of the film to cut it into 12 metre wide strips.  The ends of the cut can be gripped with a vacuum plate, lifted to the surface and wound round a drum.  The area of the long side of a 3 km length sheet of clean film is only 0.6 square metres.  Over a period of years it will probably have acquired biological growths, some of which can be removed by pulling it between contra-rotating brushes.  It is desirable that growth thickness can be reduced to the level at which film can be packed into 2.2 metre diameter for movement in a sea container.  For a film length of 3 kilometres this means a thickness of film plus growth of 1.25 mm.   The extruded rubber trough cases would be wound on the drum of a pipe-laying vessel.

Comments on the feasibility of this proposal, however critical, would be welcome.


There is a wide range of estimates for the rates of methane release from Arctic seabeds but the higher ones are alarming enough for all defensive measures to be carefully examined.

Initial design work for the manufacture and deployment of kilometre-sized areas of plastic film to capture methane suggests that that this may be possible for a range of emission rates provided that the areas of the sea bed are clear of obstructions. This conclusion should be checked with people from the plastic and rubber industries.

Deployment and recovery will require pipe-laying vessels from the oil industry , such as the Stena Apache, and specialised seabed crawlers which have been designed for wave and tidal-stream installation.

Unless methane emission rates are even higher than suggested it will not be economical to recover methane for use on land and so flaring off at sea is more likely.  However there may be enough energy to drive ice-cutting equipment to keep the water round a flare stack clear of drifting ice in winter.

The extrusion tool for a 1500 metre width will require about 200 tonnes of very flat stainless steel sheet. The critical problem is maintaining an accurate gap in the extrusion tool.  This can be done with differential temperature control of opposite surfaces of a stack of interdigital plates with central cooling channels. 

The separation of halves of a film package can be done by the force generated from angled saw-tooth ridges on the underside when the package is dragged over the sea bed.  This allows very wide film coverage from an easily transported package and leaves tracks for methane flow.

If the underside of the film has a pipe connection to the atmosphere the pressure from water above it will clamp it firmly to the sea bed.

Work on long-term biological testing of candidate film materials should begin as soon as possible.

It is necessary to have credible techniques to recover all materials from the sea bed.  The proposed method must be critically checked by experienced offshore engineers.

A 4.5 square kilometre area of 200 micron sheet will need about 930 tonnes or 25 railway trucks of plastic but this is small compared with world production.  Energy consumption in the present plastics industry is about 10 MJ a kilogram compared with 2.25 MJ for the latent heat of steam.  If the film extrusion velocity is 10 mm a second we will need 3.5 days for one pack and a power of 35 MW.  Heat pump technology could give a very large reduction in energy consumption and must be carefully investigated.

We may have to avoid deployment in water depths less than the deepest pressure ridges. The leading ice authority, Peter Wadhams, says that these can reach down to 34 metres below the surface.


Resolve the three-order of magnitude dispute about methane release rates and investigate sea bed methane release rates and their variability in space and time.

Check design assumptions with the plastic film and rubber extrusion industry. 

Choose the best candidate film materials with density just greater than cold sea water (1028.4 kg/m3) and establish stress capability in working conditions.  A large strain length is more important than tensile strength.

Place specimens of the various film types in suitable test site in northern Norway and observe biological results especially recolonization rates.  The earlier this begins the better.  Albert Kallio has warned about anoxic conditions below the film.  The area of test film must be large enough to replicate this.

Measure tow forces on 5-metre sized blocks and establish the best ridge angle for a range of sea bed conditions from gravel to sand to ooze.

Place blocks of various shapes and densities fitted with accelerometers on the sea bed and measure how many roll or slide.

Carry out a sonar side-scan survey to identify obstructions in suitable areas.  Some, such as bullion cargoes, may be removable.

Collect information on depth and occurrence of pressure ridges in methane release areas.

Pray that the continual underestimation of the potential climate risks by people who are responsible for defending us against them does not continue.


World plastic production

Shakhova PowerPoint presentation link.

Shakhova Semiletov paper

Pipe-laying vessels

Other collected papers


Dlugokencky, E. J., L. M. P. Bruhwiler, J. W. C. White, L. K. Emmons, P. C. Novelli, S. A. Montzka, K. A. Masarie, P. M. Lang, A. M. Crotwell, J. B. Miller and L. V. Gatti (2009), Observational constraints on recent increases in the atmospheric CH4 burden, Geophysical Research Letters, 36, L18803, 10.1029/2009GL039780.
Frankenberg, C., I. Aben, P. Bergamaschi, E. J. Dlugokencky, R. van Hees, S. Houweling, P. van der Meer, R. Snel P. Dol (2011), Global column-averaged methane mixing ratios from 2003 to 2009 as derived from SCIAMACHY: Trends and variability, Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres, 116(D04302), 1-12, 10.1029/2010JD014849.
Montzka, S. A., E. J. Dlugokencky and J. H. Butler (2011), Non-CO2 greenhouse gases and climate change, NATURE, 476, 43-50, 10.1038/nature10322.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Arctic Methane Alert

Professor Peter Wadhams (Professor of Ocean Physics, Cambridge University) and Arctic Methane Emergency Group Chairman, John Nissen, will discuss the need for geoengineering in the Arctic to prevent runaway climate change.

Where: Moscone Center South, Halls A-C, San Francisco

When: Thursday December 8, 2011.

Session: Global Environment Change Poster: GC 41B

Arctic Methane Workshop: An assessment of threats to Arctic and global warming; and an evaluation of techniques to counter these threats

See poster at:

See brochure at:

For more, also see website at
and associated discussions at:

Sam Carana

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Creating extra ice in winter for extra cooling in summer

Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia, is considering creating extra ice in winter.

A Mongolian engineering firm ECOS & EMI aims to drill bore holes into ice formed on the Tuul river in winter. The water will be discharged across the surface, where it will freeze. This process - effectively adding layers of ice rinks - will be repeated at regular intervals throughout the winter.

The idea is that this can help cool and water the city as the ice melts during the summer.

Source: Mongolia bids to keep city cool with 'ice shield' experiment - The Guardian, November 15, 2011.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Combining Policy and Technology

Technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere

The Virgin Earth Challenge is a prize of $25m for whoever can demonstrate to the judges' satisfaction a commercially viable design which results in the removal of anthropogenic, atmospheric greenhouse gases so as to contribute materially to the stability of Earth’s climate.

Among the 11 shortlisted organizations are:
Above three technologies (biochar, carbon air capture and enhanced weathering) have great potential to help out with carbon dioxide removal (CDR) from the atmosphere. To combat global warming, further technologies should be considered, such as in Solar Radiation Management (SRM) and Arctic Methane Management (AMM).

How effective each technology is in one area is an important consideration; importantly, each such technologies can also have effects in further areas.

Further areas

Global warming is only one out of multiple areas where action is required; an example of another area is the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica; effective action has already been taken in this area, but the growing hole in the ozone layer over the Arctic shows that further action is necessary.

A safe operating space for humanity is a landmark 2009 study that identifies nine essential areas where sustainability is stressed to the limits, in three cases beyond its limits.
The inner green shading represents the proposed safe operating space for nine planetary systems. The red wedges represent an estimate of the current position for each variable. The boundaries in three systems (rate of biodiversity loss, climate change and human interference with the nitrogen cycle), have already been exceeded. From: A safe operating space for humanity, Rockström et al, 2009.

Areas and applicable technologies

The table below shows these nine areas on the left, while technologies that could be helpful in the respective area feature on the right.

As said, each of technologies may be able to help out in multiple areas. As an example, by reducing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, biochar and carbon air capture can also indirectly reduce carbon dioxide in oceans and thus help out with ocean acidification. Enhanced weathering could additionally reduce carbon dioxide in the oceans directly, thus presenting itself even more prominently as a proposal to achieve sustainability in this area.

Similarly, algae bags located in the mouth of a river could help out in multiple areas. They could produce biofuel and thus help reduce aviation emissions, while in the process catching fertilizer runoff, thus reducing emissions of nitrous oxide (the largest ozone-depleting substance emitted through human activities in a 2009 NOAA study) and also reducing depletion of oxygen in oceans.

1. Climate ChangeCDR: biochar, carbon air capture, enhanced weathering, algae bags, EVs, renewable energy, clean cooking & heating, LEDs, etc.
SRM: surface and cloud brightening, release of aerosols
AMM: methane capture, oxygen release, river diversion, enhanced methane decomposition
2. Ocean acidificationenhanced weathering
3. Stratospheric ozone depletionoxygen release
4. Nitrogen & Phosphorus Cyclesalgae bags, biochar, enhanced weathering
5. Global freshwater usedesalination, biochar, enhanced weathering
6. Change in land usedesalination, biochar, enhanced weathering
7. Biodiversity lossdesalination, biochar, enhanced weathering
8. Atmospheric aerosol loadingbiochar, EVs, renewable energy, clean cooking & heating, LEDs, etc.
9. Chemical pollutionrecycling, waste management (separation)

Implementing the most effective policies

Policy support for such technologies is imperative. Just like some technologies can help out in several areas, some policies can cover multiple areas. As an example, a policy facilitating a shift to cleaner energy can both reduce greenhouse gases and aerosols such as soot and sulfur. Sulfur reflects sunlight back into space, so reducing sulfur emissions results in more global warming, but conversely global warming can be reduced by releasing sulfur over water at higher latitudes.

How many different policies would be needed to support such technologies? What are the best policy instruments to use?

Traditionally, government-funded subsidies and standards have been used to contain pollution, sometimes complemented with levies and refundable deposits; this can also work for chemical pollution. Standards have also proven to be effective in reducing the impact of CFCs on the ozone layer, while - as said - policies could at the same time also be effective in other areas, in this case reducing the impact of CFCs as greenhouse gases.

However, standards don't raise funding for support of such technologies, while taxpayer-funded subsidies make everyone pay for the pollution caused by some. Hybrid methods such as cap-and-trade and offsets are prone to corruption and fraud, which compromises their effectiveness. Local feebates are most effective in facilitating the necessary shifts in many areas.

Two sets of feebates

To facilitate the necessary shift away from fuel toward clean energy, local feebates are most effective. Fees on cargo and flights could fund carbon air capture, while fees on fuel could fund rebates on electricity produced in clean and safe ways. Fees could also be imposed on the engines, ovens, kilns, furnaces and stoves where fuel is burned, to fund rebates on clean alternatives, such as EV batteries and motors, solar cookers and electric appliances. Such feebates are pictured as yellow lines in the top half of the image below.

Support for biochar and olivine sand could be implemented through a second set of feebates, as pictured in the bottom half of the image below. Revenues from these feebates could also be used to support further technologies, as described in the paragraph below.

Further technologies should be considered for their effectiveness in specific areas, including:
  • release of oxygen to help combat methane in the Arctic and to help combat loss of stratospheric ozone
  • use of plastic sheets to capture methane
  • use of radio waves to enhance methane decomposition
  • diversion of water from rivers to avoid warm water flowing into the Arctic Ocean
  • release of aerosols over water at higher latitudes
  • surface & cloud brightening to reflect more sunlight back into space

Professor Schuiling proposes olivine rock grinding

Dutch Professor Olaf Schuiling has been working on rock grinding for many years. Remember the Virgin Earth Challenge, launched early 2007 with the promise to award $35 million to the best method to remove greenhouse gases? Schuiling said: Let's grind more rocks! Last thing Schuiling heard was that he was among the final ten contenders.
Schuiling's method is simple. Crush olivine rock to small pieces and it will bind with carbon dioxide. This process - called weathering - happens in nature but takes a long time. Crushing and grinding olivine rock will speed up the process and is therefore often called enhanced weathering. It works best in wet tropical countries, but can be done everywhere around the world.
Schuiling proposes to cover beaches, levees and railway tracks with the material, and proposes olivine to be added to building materials like pavement and concrete. It can also be added to soil and water. Adding olivine can fertilize the soil and improve its ability to retain water, and can work well in combination with biochar and other ways to increase organic carbon in the soil. When added to the sea, it can reduce acidification, and stimulate growth of diatoms and other forms of biomass in the sea.
This is a win-win solution, Schuiling says, as it helps grow more food, while combating global warming. To add another win, it can also produce drinking water that is healthier than rain water. Schuiling recommends cities to build olivine hills, to remove carbon dioxide from the air while filtering water.
There's is a video with more background, in Dutch with English subtitles. Also have a look at this poster.


What works best is implementation of feebates that put in place combinations of local financial incentives and disincentives, as illustrated by the image on the right.

Energy feebates, working in a parallel yet complimentary way, can clean up energy supply within a decade, while feebates as pictured above can continue to bring carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere back to 280 ppm, as well as bring down carbon dioxide levels in the oceans.

Rock grinding should be part of a comprehensive policy that also includes replacing fuel with renewable energy and support for biochar. The latter is also discussed in the posts Biochar and The Biochar Economy.

As the above diagrams try to show, biochar and olivine sand can be combined in soil supplements, to help bring carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere back to 280ppm. Rebates could be financed from fees on nitrogen fertilizers, livestock products and Portland cement.

Enhanced weathering is possible with other types of rock, but more easily done with olivine. The paper Olivine against climate change and ocean acidification includes the map below with the global distribution of dunite massifs. By removing their lateritic overburden, the underlying dunites (rocks that consists of > 90% olivine) can be mined. 

As the image on the right shows, there's no need for long distance transport. One dot often represents several dunites and olivine is available in abundance at many places across the globe.

The benefits are great and this looks like one of the most economic ways to bring down carbon dioxide levels. 

The energy can come from wind energy, which is clean, price-competitive and available in abundance in many places. Rock grinding, the transport and distribution can be largely automated, and take place predominantly at off-peak hours, while wind energy can be supplied very economically at off-peak hours.

Olivine sand can also be combined well with biochar, as soil supplement. Have a look at the post the Biochar Economy.

Further reading:
Carbon Air Capture and Algae Bags
Enhanced weathering
Oxygenating the Arctic
Ozone hole recovery
Enhanced methane decomposition
Vortex towers could vegetate deserts
Carbon-negative building
LEDs: When will we see the light?
Thermal expansion of the Earth's crust necessitates geo-engineering
Towards a Sustainable Economy
The way back to 280 ppm

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Thermal Expansion of the Earth's Crust Necessitates Geo-engineering

THERMAL EXPANSION of the Earth's crust due to global warming risks disturbing Arctic methane hydrates, and the process has already started, necessitating geo-engineering, argues Sam Carana, editor of the Geo-engineering Blog.

In a search for the smoking gun, locations of Arctic temperature anomalies were used to pinpoint methane emission points, which were subsequently matched with seismological data.  

Extrapolation of the data points at Total Extinction Zones during which all organic life on Earth risks going extinct, due to accelerating release of methane from Arctic hydrates destabilized by Gakkel Ridge earthquake activity.

This danger necessitates geo-engineering, argues Sam Carana, insisting that temperatures of the water deep down in the Arctic Ocean need to be brought down rapidly, while carbon dioxide levels need to be brought back to 280ppm in the course of this century, as part of a comprehensive plan of action that will lead us Towards a Sustainable Economy

Editor's note: An extended version of this post is at the Arctic-news blog

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Biochar Economy

The Biochar Economy offers a sustainable alternative to economic systems that fail to sufficiently take into account care for the environment and concerns for global warming.

Biochar is one of the products of pyrolysis, an oxygen-starved method of heating up biomass to (also) produce renewable energy.

The Australian Government plans to award carbon credits for the application of biochar to soil, for biochar's ability to abate greenhouse gases. As part of the Carbon Farming Initiative $AU2 million will be provided for a Biochar Capacity Building Program. This in addition to $AU1.4 million that is already being invested in the National Biochar Initiative as part of the Climate Change Research Program.

Carbon credits constitute just one way to support biochar. Ultimately, carbon credits are typically paid from profits on fossil fuel, which are scheduled to decrease over time. To develop more lasting support for biochar, alternatively policies should be considered.
The Biochar Economy

The idea behind the "Biochar Economy" is to try to embed biochar production into as many processes as possible, as pictured on above image, from open source ecology.

In carbon-negative 'Biochar Economies', biochar is proposed to also act as a kind of local 'gold standard' for local currency supply. Biochar-based currency could strengthen local economies and shield them not only from the volatility of global currency fluctuations, but also from the danger of global warming causing the entire global financial system to collapse, as discussed back in 2007.

Biochar-based local currencies go well together with three types of local feebates: 
  • Energy fees, imposed on polluting fuel and the equipment and appliances used to burn the fuel, to fund rebates on local clean energy programs.
  • Fees on polluting cement, livestock products and nitrogen fertilizers, made payable in local currency, funding rebates on locally-produced biochar and olivine added to local soils.
  • Local rates that incorporate feebates, i.e. higher fees the lower the soil's carbon content, with rebates for soils with the highest carbon content.
Since pyrolysis of surplus biomass can produce renewable energy, it can benefit from local energy feebates as pictured below. 

In addition, soil supplements that include biochar can benefit from feebates as pictured below. 

These policies will avoid emissions and effectively take greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. 

These policies will also create local employment and investment opportunities without having to borrow money elsewhere, and will increase local standards of living and health, as well as increase the quality and value of the land. 

All this can be achieved though mechanisms that work in parallel and are often complementary, e.g. pyrolysis of forest waste can stimulate forest growth, avoid termite infections and reduce the risk of wildfires; furthermore, when pyrolysis provides power that replaces the practice of burning firewood and fossil fuel to power lighting and cooking, this will also reduce the risk of lung infections.

To increase demand for the local currency, rebates on local clean energy programs and soil supplements could be paid out in local currency. Furthermore, a community can call for local rates and fees on products such as fuel, polluting cement, livestock products and nitrogen fertilizers to be paid in local currency.

Much crop is now used to grow feed for livestock ― less livestock could free up land that could be used to produce food & wood, and the associated organic waste. Furthermore, such feebates can avoid soil erosion and deforestation, and instead result in more vegetation, thus further increasing the amount of biomass available for pyrolysis.

Below are some further ways pyrolysis can be integrated in the local economy:

  • Pyrolysis of biomass is an excellent way of handling organic waste, while producing useful products such as biochar, biooils and gases such as hydrogen. Biooil and hydrogen can be used to power aviation and shipping.  
  • Bioasphalt® is a type of asphalt made from bio-oil. According to its manufacturer, it can save energy and money, since it can be mixed and paved at lower temperatures than conventional asphalt. 
  • Apart from burial of biochar to enhance soil fertility, biochar can also be used to manufacture a range of products, including vehicle bodies made of carbon fiber and capacitors. 

    A team at Stevens Institute of Technology has designed, fabricated, and tested a prototype supercapacitor electrode made from biochar. The team demonstrated biochar's feasibility as an alternative to activated carbon for supercapacitor electrodes. Currently, supercapacitors use activated carbon. The team estimates that biochar costs almost half as much as activated carbon, apart from being more sustainable. 

    Supercapacitors can be used to power electric buses. Ultracapacitor buses by Sinautecus have been operational in the Greater Shanghai area since August 2006, as mentioned under this post on electric bus systems.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Carbon-negative technologies

The image below, adapted from Negative Emissions Technologies report by Duncan McLaren (version 2, 2011), pictures a number of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) methods. 

For further discussion of biomass use, see the post Biomass; for further discussion of policy issues, see The way back to 280 ppm and Towards a Sustainable Economy

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Runaway Warming

Thermal expansion

As mentioned in Ten dangers of Global Warming, one of the biggest dangers is that, without dramatic action, the atmosphere will reach certain tipping points beyond which sudden dramatic and catastrophic changes will take place. 

As Earth warms up, tectonic plates will expand and some areas will come under increasing pressure, especially along fault lines where tectonic plates collide. As described in this comment and this post, this could lead to earthquakes. Thermal expansion of land and water could put more stress on areas prone to seismic activity, triggering earthquakes that can make the greenhouse effect much worse. The danger is that such seismic activity will cause slope failure in regions with methane hydrates that are already unstable and vulnerable due to global warming.   

Ice and glaciers melting away

Links between climate change and geological and geomorphological phenomena were the theme of this 2009 conference. Several speakers addressed the danger that, as ice and glaciers in the mountains melt away, a substantial weight is disappearing, changing pressures that act on the Earth's crust and contribute to seismic activity. This link was confirmed in several scientific studies, such as this one dating back to 2003

Hydrates disturbed by drilling and fracking

There is also an indirect risk. Melting of Arctic sea ice may open up sea routes to hydrates. Drilling and fracking in these hydrates could trigger earthquakes, especially if they're already under extra stress, resulting in the release of huge amounts of methane. This is particularly worrying in the Arctic, where waters can be very shallow, leaving less opportunity for methane to be broken down in the water.

Deep Ocean Warming

The ocean conveyor belt transports water--and heat--around the globe, as shown on the image left, from a NSF press release describing recent research by scientists at NCAR and the Bureau of Meteorology in Australia, which found that deep oceans can warm by 18% to 19% more during a period corresponding with a La Niña event. 

Global warming is likely to cause thermal expansion of the oceanic crust, putting stress on areas where tectonic plates meet. Such a warming peak deep in the ocean could put enough extra stress on these areas to trigger earthquakes that in turn disturb hydrates, resulting in huge amounts of methane to be released. The NOAA image below shows how the Mid-Atlantic Ridge continues into the Arctic Ocean. 

Gakkel Ridge

One place to watch is Gakkel Ridge, the boundary between the North American Plate and the Eurasian PlateEarthquake activity along Gakkel Ridge has been rising since 1970. Earthquakes in the Gakkel Ridge area could send shockwaves into the shallows of the Arctic Ocean

Between 1999 and 2000 alone, there was an anomalously large number of earthquakes along the Arctic Gakkel Ridge (more than 250). In addition, two very unusual and extremely violent submarine pyroclastic eruptions occured in the central Gakkel Ridge region. 

Of the earthquakes measured on the Arctic Gakkel Ridge between March 19th 1980 and the 31st December 2010, most (94%) were strong enough to cause widespread collapse of the methane hydrates and release of methane plumes into the water column and atmosphere. [source:]

Runaway Warming

In conclusion, global warming can accelerate in a number of ways, including thermal expansion of tectonic plates, causing landslides and shocks from earthquakes, while extra stress can be added due to deep ocean warming peaks and a change in weight as ice retreats on land. This could be ameliorated by drilling and fracking activities.

The danger is that this will put increasing stress on hydrates that can contain huge amounts of methane. If such hydrates are disturbed, huge plumes of methane can be released, causing supersaturation of waters with methane. As a result, further methane releases will enter the atmosphere without being oxidized in the water. The risk is that such methane releases lead to runaway global warming

This risk is unacceptable, making it imperative to reduce emissions and bring atmospheric carbon dioxide down, which is best achieved by means of feebates and requires a number of geoengineering techniques, as discussed in Sustainable Economy. In Geoengineering the climate (Royal Society, 2009) various geoengineering methods are compared. These methods may differ in timescale, cost-effectiveness and wider impact (see e.g. this posts on Biomass), but the urgency to act on global warming is such that we may well need all of them to avoid runaway global warming.  

[adapted from NOAA image - click to enlarge]