Artificial Leaf Might Be Key to Reversing Climate Change - InformationWeek

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3/13/2015
09:06 AM
David Wagner
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Artificial Leaf Might Be Key to Reversing Climate Change

A new invention from CalTech could help reverse the effects of climate change.

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Whenever I write a Geekend about climate change I know some eyes are going to roll and some people will stop reading. It is normal, because the problem is so big and daunting. But please don't look away this time. I am going to cover a technology that might arrest climate change without you having to do a darn thing. All you have to do is keep driving your car and using electricity and you will be helping the planet.

Before I tell you about this new magical invention, you need to understand something important. This year, the Earth passed a very frightening milestone. In 2007, it was predicted that if the Earth did not stop increasing CO2 emissions by 2015, we would pass a point of no return. Global temperatures would rise at least 2 degrees Celsius no later than 2100. We didn't stop that pace. In fact, we're on pace for a rise of perhaps as much as 4.8 degrees. This would cause rising ocean levels that would put many major cities underwater and cause catastrophic weather patterns. As the World Bank said in a report: "There is no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world is possible."

At this point, major environmental disaster and the potential extinction of all people is inevitable in our children's (or at least our grandchildren's) lifetimes. The only way to change this is to go beyond simply flattening emissions to actually reducing them to pre-2010 levels or better. By 2050, we have to reduce emissions by 41%, to 72% below 2010 levels, in order to have a chance. Considering we haven't even come close to flat emissions year-on-year, how are we going to do that?

[ Do battery advances offer viable energy options? Read Tesla Battery Looks To Disrupt Home, Office Power Consumption. ]

One solution is to build something called a carbon-negative power plant. Essentially, it is a power plant that creates fuel from the CO2 trapped in plants. The emissions from burning the CO2-rich plants are then captured and buried (it is called Carbon sequestration). Such plants aren't easy to build, and they're expensive, but studies show they can provide some relief. In fact, one study showed that just adding a couple of carbon-negative power plants to California, combined with an existing energy plan involving solar and wind, could reduce emissions by 148% below 1990 levels.

There's another technology that is a little farther away from happening that might be the real answer though: The artificial leaf. I wrote briefly about an artificial leaf in August 2014 that would help astronauts with oxygen. This leaf is even better, though it looks less like a leaf than that version does. It carries out actual artificial photosynthesis.

(Source: Lance Hayashida via Caltech Marcomm)

(Source: Lance Hayashida via Caltech Marcomm)

Created at CalTech, this artificial leaf, also known as a solar-fuel generator, takes CO2, sunlight, and water and creates oxygen and hydrogen. Hydrogen can easily be used to power cars or power plants. The reason we stopped trying to make hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is that hydrogen itself takes quite a lot of cost and energy to create. Using current technologies, it is an emissions wash at best, compared with traditional gasoline-fueled vehicles.

But here's the thing. An artificial leaf takes CO2 out of the air. It then creates a ready source of fuel, which can be burned without emissions. The only emission from burning hydrogen is water. That's a CO2 negative power plant. The more sunlight you turn into energy, the more CO2 you are sucking out of the air. It is like planting more trees without needing to take up the space.

So what's the catch? Well, as usual, it is making the thing on an industrial scale. In a prepared statement, Prof. Nate Lewis, one of the inventors of the CalTech leaf, says it exhibits, "record efficiency, stability, and effectiveness, and in a system that is intrinsically safe." If the technology can be perfected at the right price, you may someday be driving around in vehicles powered by hydrogen created by the sun.

Of course, regular solar power is always going to be cheaper because it has a decades-long head start. It is part of the equation. The problem with solar at this point is that it isn't carbon negative. Yes, we could go a long way if we could turn 100% of our energy production to solar. But the carbon is already in the air.

This technology, or something like it, could allow us to restore carbon emissions to pre-industrial levels without changing lifestyles. We wouldn't be asking anyone to recycle or skimp on anything. Getting people to change lifestyles is the hardest part of the environmental equation. That's literally a solution we all could live with.

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David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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mememine69
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mememine69,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/13/2015 | 9:17:44 AM
Fear Mongering Libeals
"Believers" fear mongered and exaggerated science's 99% certainty just to blame conservatives for something and 34 years of the world rejecting climate action proves it 100%.
Charlie Babcock
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Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
3/13/2015 | 8:06:52 PM
World economy grew, but not CO2 emissions
The Paris-based International Energy Agency said for the first time that the world economy grew 3% in 2014 but cabon dioxide emissions remained the same as in 2013 at 32.3 billion metric tons. That's a first for growth not to result in greater emissions, though it still sounds like a lot of CO2.
Gary_EL
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Gary_EL,
User Rank: Ninja
3/13/2015 | 10:20:11 PM
Leaf or Solar Cell plus Electrolysis
It isn't "we" anymore, it's "them". China and India produce far more carbon dioxide than does the US. Carbon dioxide levels are rising, and much of it is from human sources, but there's no proof that that's what's causing "global warming". Carbon dioxide absorbs far less heat than does water vapor.  The big example is the real climate change that killed the Old Kingdom of Egypt and changed so much of the Mid East into the desert it is today. No manmade excess of carbon dioxide 4000 years ago

That doesn't make this new artificial leaf any less valuable. The only reason that solar hasn't completely taken off is that there is no efficient way to store the energy. Lithium batteries, despite billions being spent on research here, in Europe and in China, are still too inefficient in terms of energy storage.

The leaf, as described in this interesting article, seems to solve that problem by not generating ephemeral electricity, but rather by producing more easily storable hydrogen and oxygen. The question is, would it be more efficient to use regular solar cells to generate electricity and to perform electrolysis on water in two steps, as opposed to this new leaf, which seems to be able to do it one.

As to taking carbon dioxide out of the air – that's going to be first step towards humans controlling the climate. The problem is that what's good for one region of the planet might not be good for another. I once heard a Russian joke that he's all for global warming – think of how valuable land in Siberia will become!

David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
3/13/2015 | 10:24:04 PM
Re: Fear Mongering Libeals
@mememine69- Well, I'm not sure the blame game matters at this point. The issue is that we have to do something big. And one big thing would be some sort of carbon nergative plan. The great thing about this carbon negative plan if we cna make it happen is that it doesn't require behavioral change or any real political will if it can be made cheap enough.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
3/13/2015 | 10:28:25 PM
Re: World economy grew, but not CO2 emissions
@Charlie- That is encouraging, but sadly not enough. At this point it needs to shrink. But hey, if we can build economic growth without hurting the environment, it is a step. 
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
3/13/2015 | 10:30:31 PM
Re: Leaf or Solar Cell plus Electrolysis
@Gary_El- You're quite right about the storage issue. And thanks for finding an apolitical way to point it out. I happen to believe climate change has been proven to be manmade, but I think the best thing about your comment is that people who disagree about something like this can still find a common ground. Common ground is what gets us through problems. 
W_Albany
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W_Albany,
User Rank: Strategist
3/14/2015 | 10:44:19 AM
Where does the carbon go?
 

The article states:

"Created at CalTech, this artificial leaf, also known as a solar-fuel generator, takes CO2, sunlight, and water and creates oxygen and hydrogen."

So the inputs are CO2 and H2O, and the outputs are O2 ahd H2. What happens to the carbon?

The article needs to be revised to explain this. It is meaningless without this important point. 

 
moonwatcher
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moonwatcher,
User Rank: Ninja
3/14/2015 | 10:49:13 AM
Re: Where does the carbon go?
Carbon fibers can be used in many things.  It makes materials very strong when woven and used to make composites. As such its use and generation would perhaps make economic sense.

I don't believe the fear mongering the global wamring crowd put out. The article repeats the mantra of us "reaching a point of no return in 2007" without disclosing that statement is based on self-serving computer models of the climate and not on real world data. 

Indeed, Dr. Phil Jones of the UN's IPCC is on record as saying there has been no scientifically significant global warming in over 18 years and counting. 

However, any developments that could possibly help ween us off foreign oil and energy resources would be a good thing. Ironic that such developments are forthcoming mostly from R&D and the private sector unrelated to the Jimmy Carter created Department of Energy and its waste of taxpayer dollars. 

A nuclear / hydrogen based economy will hopefully be in our futures within 50 years. 
mak63
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mak63,
User Rank: Ninja
3/15/2015 | 4:07:08 AM
Re: Where does the carbon go?
Video Comment
DanBluePlanet
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DanBluePlanet,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/15/2015 | 4:19:04 AM
The Tipping Point
The real tipping point will come when the oceans can no longer absorb CO2 and will then release it in a vast wave that will kill off most life on earth. You'll be way too dead to complaint then, why didn't anyone warn me?

 
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