Solving for CO2

This graph is a record of Carbon Dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere from Nasa’s Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii.

This increase is due to an overheating of the top tropical forest regions. As global temperatures rise, tropical forests get hotter and dryer. The more hotter and dryer they get, the less Carbon Dioxide they absorb. It is a vicious cycle.

The most obvious problem with this increase is an increase in the Greenhouse effect. A quick Greenhouse effect refresher — greenhouse gases trap solar radiation within the earth’s atmosphere and gradually warm the planet.

As we’ve all probably learnt in our science classes in school, our entire ecological system is the result of a miraculous balance between the various forces of nature. Temperature is a key component of this balance and tipping the balance could be disastrous. The most obvious first problem of a warmer planet is the melting of ice caps and an increase in water levels.

So, where does Carbon Dioxide fit in here?
Ben & Jerry’s (yup, the ice cream folks) have a useful illustration on the topic using EPA data from 2012.

As you can see, Carbon Dioxide is 82% of US Greenhouse gas emissions.

The other emerging story around Carbon Dioxide is the effect it has on nutrients in plants. Politico recently wrote about the work of Irakli Loladze on how Carbon Dioxide reduces minerals in plants and replaces it with carbohydrates. The article concludes with the following 2 paragraphs.

What he found is that his 2002 theory — or, rather, the strong suspicion he had articulated back then — appeared to be borne out. Across nearly 130 varieties of plants and more than 15,000 samples collected from experiments over the past three decades, the overall concentration of minerals like calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc and iron had dropped by 8 percent on average. The ratio of carbohydrates to minerals was going up. The plants, like the algae, were becoming junk food.

What that means for humans — whose main food intake is plants — is only just starting to be investigated.

Researchers who dive into it will have to surmount obstacles like its low profile and slow pace, and a political environment where the word “climate” is enough to derail a funding conversation. It will also require entirely new bridges to be built in the world of science―a problem that Loladze himself wryly acknowledges in his own research. When his paper was finally published in 2014, Loladze listed his grant rejections in the acknowledgements.

The whole article is fascinating (in the links below). And, so is the discussion around Loladze’s original paper. His central thesis is that excess Carbon Dioxide for plants is like junk food.

(That’s Lozadle tossing sugar on vegetables to illustrate his point)

We are still in the early days but there’s enough in it to cause worry. To give you a sense of what matters —

Plants are a crucial source of protein for people in the developing world, and by 2050, they estimate, 150 million people could be put at risk of protein deficiency, particularly in countries like India and Bangladesh. Researchers found a loss of zinc, which is particularly essential for maternal and infant health, could put 138 million people at risk. They also estimated that more than 1 billion mothers and 354 million children live in countries where dietary iron is projected to drop significantly, which could exacerbate the already widespread public health problem of anemia.

That, then, leads us to the technology question — what technology solutions do we have for this problem?

While there are interesting bits of news from time to time, we are still at least a decade(s?) from a mainstream scientific solution. For instance, there was news recently about a Swiss company called Climeworks that extracts Carbon Dioxide from the air and sequesters it underground where it gets converted into stone. The yield of this process is very low. So, I’m not very hopeful.

A technology that may have a lot more promise in the long run is that of the bionic leaf. In 2016, Daniel Nocera and Pamela Silver from Harvard University combined their expertise in Inorganic Chemistry and Biology to create a system that uses solar energy to split water molecules and hydrogen-eating bacteria to produce liquid fuels. This is, in essence, an artificial photosynthesis system that is 10x more efficient than plants if “fed” with pure Carbon Dioxide and 3x-4x more efficient if it uses Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere.

Just to make sure I’m making the point emphatically, this is ground breaking!

Interestingly, these bacteria (called Xanthobacter) can be used as artificial fertilizer and increase plant yields. This is incredibly cool and is probably the highest potential solution to the Carbon Dioxide problem.

Saving ourselves
There’s an awesome George Carlin bit on saving the planet. In his words —

We’re so self-important. Everybody’s going to save something now. “Save the trees, save the bees, save the whales, save those snails.” And the greatest arrogance of all: save the planet.

The planet has been through a lot worse than us. Been through earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, continental drift, solar flares, sun spots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles … hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worldwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages … And we think some plastic bags and some aluminum cans are going to make a difference? The planet isn’t going anywhere. WE are!

He’s right, of course.

Solving for Carbon Dioxide will be critical if we’re going to find a way to survive on this planet. We don’t read about this stuff in the news because climate change is a dirty word these days.

Maybe we’d have a higher success rate if we stopped referring to all of this as efforts to “save the planet.” Maybe we should call it “save human beings from extinction” instead?

PS: If you’re wondering about what you and I can do to contribute. My top 3 things -

  • Be as self aware as possible about my energy consumption without becoming self righteous. Keep making small changes to minimize my impact on my environment. And, over time, aim to influence the organizations and communities I am part of to do the same.
  • Donate to groups doing research aiming to solve our greenhouse gas problems or to groups protecting forests and natural reserves.
  • Go out and take a nice hike. Breathing fresh air helps with solidifying our resolve to do something about ensuring humans continue to survive on this wonderful planet.

Links for additional reading

  • Carbon Dioxide from overheated tropical forests — on Space.com
  • Greenhouse Effect — on Wikimedia
  • Greenhouse gases 101 — on Ben & Jerry
  • The great nutrient collapse — on Politico (a fascinating read)
  • Elevated CO2 levels depletes minerals in plants — Lozadle’s original paper on NIH
  • Effects of environmental Carbon Dioxide on protein definiciency — also a paper on NIH
  • Climeworks begins extracting Carbon Dioxide from the air in Iceland — on Cleantechnica
  • A big leap for the artificial leaf — on MIT’s Technology review
  • Original paper artificial leaf paper — on Science
  • Radishes from artificial leaf derived fertilizer — on Chemistryworld
  • Overview of the artificial leaf — on Scientific American

This is an edition of a bi-weekly technology newsletter called Notes by Ada. If you like this and would like free weekly notes via email, please just subscribe here.