September 3, 2009 / 9:03 AM / 10 years ago

FACTBOX: Technical fixes to slow climate change

Sept 3 - Interest is mounting in a technical fix to fight climate change as governments make slow progress in cutting global greenhouse gas emissions.

Following are the plans of four companies, and some theoretical schemes into which Britain’s top science academy the Royal Society has called for more research.

BLACKLIGHT POWER

Based: New Jersey

The concept: Force hydrogen electrons into a lower orbit, which releases enough energy to make the process self-sustaining. The hydrogen is obtained from water.

Ambition: “It represents a boundless form of new primary energy. I think it’s going to replace all forms of fuel in the world,” said Randell Mills, founder and chief executive.

Funds raised: Since 1991, Mills has raised $60 million from investors which collectively own 40 percent of the company. The company says investors have included, on a personal basis, top execs at Morgan Stanley including former chairman Dick Fisher and previous head of energy David Goodman.

Timeline: produce a 250 kilowatt prototype by end-2010

Estimated capital cost: $500/ kilowatt

CLIMOS

Based: California

The concept: Feed iron, a vital nutrient, to tiny plankton on the surface of oceans far offshore. They take in the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) as they grow. They then bloom and die and take the CO2 down with them several kilometers to the bottom of the sea where they decompose.

Risk: Experts ask whether so many rotting plankton may create a dead zone at the bottom of the ocean.

Ambition: “Global deployment” across 40 percent of the world’s oceans for 50-100 years could remove 1-8 billion tons of CO2 per year from the air, says founder Dan Whaley. That compares with manmade emissions now of about 32 billion tons.

Funds raised: $3.5 million

Timeline: On a “small scale” over 5-10 years, to research impacts and effectiveness, Whaley says.

Estimated cost: “Several dollars per ton of CO2 avoided.”

SOLAREN

Based: California

The concept: Launch solar panels into space where they convert sunlight into radiowaves. These are beamed back to Earth and turned back into electricity.

Risk: “If you’re out in the sun for a few minutes at noon time you’d receive at least five times the intensity as you would at the very peak of our pilot beam,” said Gary Spirnak, chief executive and founder. “The bottom line is, it’s safe.”

Ambition: “I think this could be like any other large power source, (and supply) 20-25 percent of the world’s electricity, 30 or 40 years out,” said Spirnak.

Funds: “We’ve raised the equivalent of $20-30 million from financial groups and private investors.”

Timeline: To produce electricity from a 200 megawatt prototype by 2016. “In late 2015 we’ll launch the plant, and formally deliver power in 2016. In 2013-2014 we have at least two space launches scheduled to test.”

Cost: Several billions of dollars per plant

SOIL CARBON

Based: Australia

The concept: Manage farm livestock in seasonally dry areas in a way which imitates the grazing of wild herbivores.

By grazing cattle intensively but briefly in fields or paddocks rotated across a larger area, the grass is fertilized with dung and grows back after grazing and trampling. Grass absorbs CO2 as it grows and deposits it in the soil.

Ambition: “I reckon you could have billions of tons (of CO2) pulled out of the atmosphere really quickly,” said founder Tony Lovell.

Timeline: Attempting now to put together deals to acquire and improve degraded land.

SCHEMES WHICH MERIT RESEARCH - ROYAL SOCIETY REPORT

1. Carbon capture from the air. This would involve filtering air, to capture carbon dioxide. “This would be the preferred method of geoengineering, as it effectively reverses the cause of climate change,” said the Royal Society report, referring to the build-up of heat-trapping CO2 in the atmosphere. “At this stage no cost-effective methods have yet been demonstrated and much more R&D is needed,” it added.

2. Enhanced weathering. This would involve quarrying very common rocks such as quartz silicates which absorb CO2 when exposed to the air. An alternative approach could be to deposit lime in the oceans, speeding up CO2 absorption.

“More research is needed to find cost-effective methods and understand the environmental implications,” said the report.

3. Land-use change. Trees absorb CO2 as they grow, and so planting more forests would be a cheap and safe way to trap carbon, but would also be limited in scale and speed of effect.

4. Stratospheric aerosols. Involves shooting highly reflective sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere, imitating the effect of a volcano. The eruption of the Philippino volcano Pinatubo in 1991 cooled the Earth by 0.5 degrees centigrade the following year, said Royal Society scientists. The method would be cheap and quick, but unpredictable, for example disrupting rainfall.

Sources: Reuters reporting, Royal Society

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