These companies are sucking carbon from the atmosphere

Carbon capture is becoming increasingly popular among investors, and these companies are at the forefront.

Source: These companies are sucking carbon from the atmosphere

I’m currently not completely convinced that these “direct air capture” systems that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere are very practical. Technically they can certainly work, but the capital and operating costs are probably substantial, compared to the amount of CO2 you recover. However, if they do become widespread (as the linked article suggests), that will keep a lot of chemical engineers busy. And mechanical and electrical engineers too! And civil engineers during the construction phase.

Spending the Carbon Budget

Everyone is familiar with the idea of a “budget”.  It’s the amount you can afford to spend or allocate on certain things.  Once it’s all spent, that’s about it unless you overspend and are prepared to face the consequences like debt or bankruptcy.

The Paris Climate Accord seeks to limit global average temperature rise to 2°C, or even better 1.5°C (it’s already risen about 1°C).  One way of looking at it is to estimate (from the physics of climate) how much more carbon dioxide we can afford to emit into the atmosphere.  That’s our “carbon budget”, and if we overspend this budget the laws of physics will make it impossible to keep the temperature rise below our desired target.

One research institute in Germany has created a nice carbon budget clock.  It shows, based on the remaining budget and the rate of “spending” (i.e. emissions), how much time we have left until the temperature target becomes an impossibility. Here is a recent screen-shot of the countdown clock (click on the link for a live version).
Carbon budget remaining for 1.5C target, as of May 14, 2019.

Unfortunately, there is less than 9 years until we blow the 1.5°C budget.  This doesn’t mean the global average temperature rise will suddenly jump to 1.5°C, but it means that it will eventually rise that high and there is essentially nothing that will stop it.  Like with gravity, the laws of climate physics can’t be broken.   However, if we can slow down the spending (emissions), we can stretch our budget out over a longer time.  So far that hasn’t been happening, as seen below in the emissions graph from the past 20 years.

Engineers and others have the knowledge and ideas to reduce the carbon emissions rate.  We just need the collective societal will and government leadership to do so.  Hopefully well before the carbon budget is already spent, because it will take time.  Here is a rough estimate of where the temperature is heading over the next couple of decades based on current rates.

Very rough estimate of future global average temperature rise, from Berkeley Earth project.

It looks like we will reach 1.5°C around 2040, and 2°C around 2060, unless emission rates drop significantly and soon. That won’t stop the rise, only delay it somewhat. Achieving net-zero emissions is the only way to stop the rise. Unfortunately with the current leaders (and prospective leaders) in Canada and around the world the hope for emissions reductions seems dim. So, prepare for the continuing consequences.

U Waterloo #13 Worldwide!

The latest university ranking scheme is one from Times Higher Education (THE) and their University Impact Rankings for 2019.  This new ranking is based on the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals and how well each university contributes towards meeting those goals. According to a news summary, Waterloo does particularly well on 4 of the goals, namely Partnership for the Goals, Sustainable Cities and Communities, Climate Action, and Reduced Inequalities.

Listing of the 17 Sustainable Development GoalsOverall, Canadian universities score well in these sustainability rankings, with McMaster #2, UBC tied for #3, University of Montreal tied for #7, York #26, and Toronto #31.  McGill comes in somewhere in the 101-200 range.  I haven’t spent any time looking at the details yet, so I’m not sure what contributes to some of these rankings.

A lot of the “top” US universities didn’t participate in these rankings, so it’s hard to make many comparisons.  The top 3 ranked US colleges in these rankings were U of North Carolina at Chapel Hill at #24, Arizona State at #35, and U Maryland Baltimore County at #62.  I’m aware of these places because they have strong STEM programs and research activities, but most Canadians probably aren’t aware of them.  Perhaps next year more US colleges will participate.

In general, sustainable development is an important goal and increasingly a part of engineering education and practice.  Engineers Canada, the body responsible for accreditation of engineering education in Canada (among other things), has a national guideline on sustainable development for professional engineers published in 2016.  Various bits and pieces of this are already built into our curriculum for chemical engineers (and I assume in other disciplines), but there are further improvements we continue to work towards.


For further news details:

New powder could reduce greenhouse gas emissions | Engineering | University of Waterloo

Some interesting results from my colleague’s research group.  I add some further context below the link…

Researchers at Waterloo Engineering have created a powder that could be used to reduce greenhouse gases at factories and power plants that burn fossil fuels. The advanced carbon powder, developed using a novel process in the lab of chemical engineering professor Zhongwei Chen, could filter and remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from emissions with almost twice the efficiency of conventional materials.

Source: New powder could reduce greenhouse gas emissions | Engineering | University of Waterloo

My Context/Analysis:   Some interesting work in materials science and chemistry.  From the published paper (sorry it’s behind a paywall, but I can read it through the university’s subscription), I can see that the amount of CO2 captured is about 1.6 mmole of CO2 per gram of powder, or about 70 mg/g, at flue gas conditions.  As the paper points out, this is pretty good for CO2 adsorption, but it is not a miracle cure for all of our problems.  To put it in context, in 2016 the U.S. electricity sector emitted something like 1,800,000,000,000 kg of CO2 (from the EPA website).  So, if the powder can capture 70 mg per g it would take about 26,000,000,000,000 kg of powder for one year of capture.  That’s a lot of powder!!  And that’s only for one sector in the U.S. alone (representing about 28% of U.S. CO2 emissions).  So, it’s important to continue doing research, find new things and look at potential applications in a wide range of fields.  But carbon emissions and climate change is a huge problem and there aren’t any easy answers.  Reducing CO2 emissions will generally be better than trying to capture them afterwards, like the three R’s hierarchy (reduce, reuse, recycle).

Ontario’s New Climate Change Plan

The new Ontario government recently released their plan to tackle carbon emissions and climate change.  This comes after scrapping the previous government’s relatively new cap-and-trade scheme that was set up in collaboration with Quebec and California.  Below I’ll give a detailed analysis of various parts of the plan, but here is my high level overview.  There are some promising bits and pieces (without knowing a lot of details yet), but it is relatively unambitious and somewhat odd in its approach.  This new government has generally focused on reducing regulation and taxpayer-funded spending, but this plan implements additional regulations and uses tax money to subsidize industry.  This seems inconsistent.  If you want to see the plan and comment, here is the link.  Now for my detailed analysis… Continue reading

Ontario Climate Change Plan Input

The new Ontario government quickly trashed the beginnings of an approach to reducing carbon emissions and climate change, i.e. a “cap and trade” system in collaboration with California and other provinces and states.

Now the government is looking for input into their promised new and improved approach, which you can provide at .   It’s open until November 16 2018.

A recent report has re-confirmed that we only have until about the year 2030 to substantially reduce carbon dioxide emissions, before the goal of keeping the global average temperature increase to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius becomes physically impossible.  (This is actually not surprising news since it’s been known for many years in the scientific literature, while the world at large continues to do nothing substantial).

Young people, and parents or grandparents of young people, should be commenting because these are the ones who will be inheriting the problem and all of its consequences over the next few decades.

Long-term effects of forest fires pose threats to drinking water

An interesting article about my colleague Prof. Emelko’s research.  I’m somewhat jealous that she gets to fly in a helicopter!

Forest fires are sweeping North America with detrimental environmental, economic and human impacts. A research team, led by University of Waterloo Engineering professor Monica Emelko, will receive $5.5 million from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s (NSERC) Strategic Partnership Grant for Networks to provide new knowledge on the impacts of different forest management strategies on drinking water source quality and treatability.

Source: Long-term effects of forest fires pose threats to drinking water | Water Institute | University of Waterloo

Teaching Climate Change

Since the 1990’s I’ve been teaching an elective course on Air Pollution Control.  We mainly focus on design of industrial systems, but I do include a small module on climate change science for background as to why certain things need emission control.  Over the past decades, some of the reports and discussions in the media and politics have been confused or nonsensical, so I try to keep it straightforward and factual.  I like to give the science a historical overview and context, to show where this all comes from.  The following is a very brief version of that overview.

The French scientist Joseph Fourier (famous for his work in heat transfer and mathematics) is credited for identifying the so-called “greenhouse effect” in the 1820s.  He didn’t know exactly what caused it, but recognized that the Earth’s surface is warmer than it theoretically should be, if there was no atmosphere trapping heat.

Some of the mechanisms behind the heat-trapping effects of the atmosphere were eventually identified, notably by the Irish physicist John Tyndall in the 1850s through his work on absorption spectroscopy.  He experimentally measured the heat absorbing effects of water vapour, carbon dioxide and other atmospheric gases.  These measurements and those by others provided the fundamental basis for the advances in radiative heat transfer used throughout science and industry to this day.

In retrospect, a big step forward in understanding and quantifying the physics of climate change came with work published in 1896 by the Swedish physicist/chemist Svante Arrhenius.  The first page of this work is pictured below, and in this work he calculated how much the global temperature would rise if carbon dioxide concentrations rose.

First page of Arrhenius’ paper on the climate effects of changing carbon dioxide concentrations. “Carbonic acid” is an older or alternate name for carbon dioxide in the presence of water.

Arrhenius is well-known by anyone who has taken chemistry (Arrhenius equation in reaction kinetics), and he received a Nobel Prize for Chemistry.  His work on climate change physics didn’t seem to receive much widespread attention at the time, since there was no particular concern that carbon dioxide concentrations were rising.  However it’s regarded as the first significant attempt to analyze the physics of rising carbon dioxide concentrations and over the subsequent century many scientists have modified and improved upon his initial work.  Arrhenius had to go through some rather complicated and laborious hand calculations, but in recent decades computers have made that work much easier and more precise.

So from this brief historical overview in my class (including some other work not mentioned here), we can see that climate change science has a solid basis in physics, dating back over 100 years.  Denying the basic physics of climate change is like denying the Bernoulli principle while watching airplanes fly overhead, or stepping off a cliff and denying that gravity exists.

Next I usually show some data for carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, usually from the Mauna Loa observatory operated by NOAA in the U.S.  An example is shown below that also includes my additions to illustrate the years when international  agreements have been signed to combat climate change at Rio, Kyoto, and Paris.  Unfortunately, the upward trend doesn’t seem to have been affected much, which is a bit depressing when considering our next generations.

Carbon dioxide measurement data since 1958.

In my class we then touch briefly on some of the current and future effects of climate change, such as sea level rise, extreme precipitation events and flooding, drought, and heat waves.  I ask students to try out one of the simpler carbon footprint calculators so they can see how their lifestyle contributes to carbon dioxide emissions.  They frequently comment on how surprising it is that air travel and meat consumption are significant factors in their total impact.  These estimates can help people understand the context and future challenges.

Finally, I conclude that as soon-to-graduate new engineers they will be dealing with climate change directly or indirectly throughout their careers.  Maybe helping with carbon emissions reductions, energy efficiency, electrification, alternative energy, process and materials redesigns.  Or if nothing much is accomplished in carbon dioxide emission reduction, dealing with the effects such as infrastructure repair and replacement, and water supply issues.  As a bit of personal advice, I usually recommend that they avoid purchasing property in coastal or low-lying areas, or anywhere within a 500 to 1,000 year flood plain.