An article published in The New York Times today describes a proposal to use carbon in the atmosphere to make gasoline. The principle itself is quite simple — similar ideas have been proposed before. According to the article:
Air would be blown over a liquid solution of potassium carbonate, which would absorb the carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide would then be extracted and subjected to chemical reactions that would turn it into fuel: methanol, gasoline or jet fuel. This process could transform carbon dioxide from an unwanted, climate-changing pollutant into a vast resource for renewable fuels. The closed cycle — equal amounts of carbon dioxide emitted and removed — would mean that cars, trucks and airplanes using the synthetic fuels would no longer be contributing to global warming.
The idea is purely theoretical at this point — no factories or prototypes have been built. But even as pure speculation there’s one major hurdle; the process requires large amounts of input energy. And where would this energy come from?
The two Los Alamos scientists envisioned using nuclear power plants to generate the necessary energy. While any form of energy could theoretically be used, the article notes that renewable forms like solar energy would be economically "less favorable."
No doubt, the idea has sex appeal (at least to science geeks like me). But building a "dedicated" nuclear power plant is hardly a long-term environmental fix. And it’s even sillier to increase our energy demand when we haven’t fully explored existing renewable clean sources to reduce the carbon emissions of stationary power generation.
Yes, transport is a major source of carbon emissions, but coal-fired power plants contribute even more to global warming. The main problem is that we consume huge amounts of energy, don’t get much of this energy from renewable sources, and don’t take advantage of existing approaches to reduce our total energy usage. And if we already fail to fund alternative energy sources, is it realistic to expect that we’ll just find the $5 billion necessary to build the prototype?
Ultimately, these techno-solutions are tempting but naïve. Our main obstacle in the climate change crisis is not technological but political — it is the lack of political will.