Recently in Carbon Category

While BP has tried to convince every one of its capability and competence to handle the crisis, we are now 36 days into the deep sea oil leak. Oil continues to gush out unabated from the damaged riser as can be seen here. Some of the problems which have been encountered in collecting the oil before it can cause environment damage have been:

  • Remoteness (the accident site is 50 miles offshore and 5,000 ft underwater)
  • Extreme pressure (150 atmospheres) and temperatures at the depth of leak causing engineering difficulty
  • Formation of Methane Hydrate (ice) crystals
  • Debris getting in the way of collection
  • Dispersion of oil before it can be collected at the ocean surface because of surface turbulence
Yet the solution seems pretty obvious to me. (1) We need a collection dome of the right size, (2) placed at the right area and depth, and (3) connected to the right collection device. While BP has seemingly got part three right, it is still struggling with parts one and two.

Townsend Solutions solves these problems using a collection dome that can be scaled to the required width and cross section area depending up on the size of spilled area. This "dome"--and it's called a tent, by the way--can be bought off-the-shelf and suitably modified for anchorage. This then inverted tent made of high performance fabric can be placed at a suitable depth that collects the oil below the "turbulent zone" but above the "Methane Hydrate" zone.

Because of its light weight the tent can be airlifted to the remote site and located right over the rising oil and gas plume. It can then be dropped to any desired depth by filling its anchoring cylinders at its edges with right amount and mix of seawater and air. It can then be fully extended to cover the entire area of the rising plume. Vertical and horizontal position in the water will be controlled with lines/hawsers and adjusting the buoyancy of seawater/air cylinders. (See picture below)

Phils Idea May 25.JPG

As a stratified plume of oil and gas bubble rises into the sections of the tent, it forms lighter gas/liquid phases in the peak of the tent which are collected along with a considerable volume of (contaminated) seawater by rigid pipes connected on top. After conventional separation of gas, liquid, and seawater phases on surface barge, we envision pumping seawater back down to the tent for recycling through the system.

An important design element is the need to minimize ocean pollution from the heavier and more damaging portions of the leak. Methane, Ethane, Propane and other hydrocarbons will invariably saturate surrounding seawater and be left behind in noticeable quantities. But heavier hydrocarbons are much less soluble in seawater and, therefore, a very large part the heavier hydrocarbons will be recovered by this system. Furthermore, crude oil will be concentrated in the down-current portion of the plume, so we expect 99% recovery of the crude portion of the leak. However, only tests will allow accurate estimation of the recovery for lighter fractions.

A famous quote from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle says "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

My version of the same for BP would go something like "When you have tried the bold and the bountiful, whatever remains, however simple, must be the answer." Anyone listening...??

As we learn more about the events in the Gulf, we learn more about BP's failures. Not just technical failure, but managerial and leadership failure as well.  While President Obama puts together an independent commission to look into what actually happened, we can start the discussion as follows:

Subject: The whole world needs offshore oil, so it's time we gave everyone enough insight to help solve the BP/Horizon accident and make sure there are no repeats anywhere in the world.

  • The whole world needs offshore oil from areas which are not a part of OPEC, to bridge to a post-OPEC world and hold down oil prices. Some countries such as Brazil, Angola, China, Australia, India, and others will produce offshore oil no matter how the BP/Horizon accident is resolved.  We need them to have a disaster prevention and recovery tool kit to make offshore oil clean and safe.

  • It took 40 years to get over the Santa Barbara accident in 1969.  I worked for Shell at the time; in 1970, Shell had their own platform explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.  In 2010,  the USA government briefly considered drilling off of the Pacific coast of North America.  Whoops.  After the BP/Horizon experience, however resolved, offshore drilling is set back by N years.  N may be approaching infinity this time, unless new management and technical tools are developed.

  • BP is nearly the worst major company to lead that effort.  The current top management of BP have been playing catch up and trying to change a slipshod culture since the Texas City refinery accident.  In the real world, the Amoco component wrecked the Amoco Cadiz tanker in the Bay of Biscay long before that.  It becomes apparent that a safety culture would have: 1) not hired the Horizon rig without changes, and 2) would have established a management system and culture which made good long term decisions about safety and environmental protection.  Management should have responded to anomalous pressure readings from an exploratory well by ceasing everything out of the ordinary until the condition of the well was understood.  Murphy was the first recorded safety engineer.

  • Those of us who have tried to help BP solve this problem have learned that BP is a closed system whose communication with the outside world is in a coma, induced by their lawyers.  A whole succession of other bright people have found the same.  Those silly engineering solutions tried so far are demonstrably off target, but who is listening?

  • For the Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar to announce that BP has all the smartest people included in looking for solutions is sublimely na├»ve.  Did BP offer him Kool Aid?  Why did he drink it?

  • The offshore technology community has a lot of smart people, but it becomes apparent that the best work for someone other than BP, Transocean or Halliburton.  Are they being listened to?  We get from others that there are 500 engineers and scientists from 160 companies working at the Houston war rooms of BP.  So why is BP not dispensing needed information to smart people elsewhere to work on this unprecedented problem?  Why did a Purdue professor have so much trouble getting their videos so he could assist by estimating how much oil was spewing? This is no longer "confidential information"; it now falls into the domain of public interest. Measurements show the flow from the well to be closer to 70,000 barrels each day, not 5,000 as BP has been repeating, all the while incorrectly saying the flow cannot be measured. BP has even had the audacity to say that they have not embraced better estimates because it does not matter enough.  To whom?  If you don't know how to measure the flow, how do you design a solution?
  • This circus is proof positive of a leadership crisis at BP.  Over the weekend, we learn that not only was this the first well drilled into the same formation by Horizon, but that the first well was a dud.  A shouting match broke out between BP and Transocean over how to seal this second, troublesome well with anomalous pressure readings.  Now, I am as skeptical of TV journalism as the next thinking person, but look into the eyes of one of the coolest, bravest people I have watched being interviewed and see what you think about how this accident came about.If you wish to get the facts in writing, see this.

  • The worst strategic mistake that BP has made is not being an open system to the many bright scientists and engineers who are eager to help.  There will never be a "safety culture" or an "ecofriendly culture" at BP until the very top management creates and supports it.  And that culture requires that BP embrace help where it is clearly needed.

  • Here's the most frustrating part: clowns from BP, Transocean, and Halliburton being grilled by other clowns in Congress (and a couple of very good public servants) is great theatre.  But refer back to point 1 above.  The world needs safe, clean offshore oil as a bridge.  Almost the whole world suspects that getting offshore oil cannot be clean and safe.  Everyone loses if we leave the world with that impression, which must be corrected.  At the very least, BP is part of the problem and a very much smaller part of the solution.

  • I had hoped that with 400 or 500 engineers reported to be working on the problem at BP war rooms, the flow would be drastically reduced by now.  I believe that management of the solution tool kit must be wrestled away from BP.  President Obama has begun that process by recruiting the O-Team, but they are not (yet) in charge. This team includes brains and experience from NASA ventures into space and decades of US work on atomic weapons, energy and research.  Why have these creative, skilled people waited until now to learn what they need to know about the accident and the aftermath?   Why wasn't that conveyed widely? Why was there no contingency plan? Or why is the current state being called a "contingency plan that is working"?  Why does it take a global scale disaster and an act of God/the President to bring together a team of experts to look at ways to solve this problem after the fact?

  • The world needs all offshore-interested parties to participate in one or more open collaboratives to fix the problems highlighted by the BP/Horizon accident; more importantly, the collaboratives must create a priori technology and management systems to prevent or fix the next offshore accidents, without regard to who is running the show.  Finally, these collaboratives must truly embrace anyone who can help with solutions - they must be open and transparent.
Let me leave you with a visual.  If we believe BP, they said the spill is at 5,000 barrels a day. That's 210,000 gallons per day.


A typical tank truck holds 8000 gallons, Then, BP's claim looks like this:


However, if we are to believe the worst-case scenario, it looks more like this:


It is a sad commentary on the state of our industry, when the public and the government can't trust or verify what BP is doing. 

And meanwhile, the leak still rages.  It's time to get BP off the case. This war is too important to be left to the generals.
When Bill Joy said: "There are always more smart people outside your company than within it," he wasn't trying to be a smart-alec.  Instead, he was urging companies to leverage ideas from outside to solve some of their most challenging problems.
Now, in a world of frozen financial markets with justified discouragement about returns to investors in conventional venture capital models, how can needed innovations be funded in relatively mature, but suddenly stressed,  industries such as plastics, electric power delivery, alternative energy, and energy delivery?

I think the answer is to form Solution Collaboratives.


A while back I blogged about Opening up Reverse Innovation in which I tried to make the case for another business model where solutions become the focus of "open collaboratives,"  Let's call this a solution collaborative:

Companies with a strategic interest in solving a problem or a class of problems can participate by funneling resources (money, labs, information, smart people, etc.) through the collaborative; by participating in direction; and by contact with analysis and expertise. Information from a collaborative world would logically lead to new entities which make problem-solving investment, but also could be individually exploited by strategic players.
How to Organize a Solution Collaborative

A solution collaborative is created in 2 stages, just as a proprietary venture might be formed. The first stage is to collaborate in researching and analyzing the solution to a technoeconomic problem of general interest across an industry or industries.  The result of this stage is a stream of information and consultations which flow back to all participants.   The collaboration brings technical expertise and knowledge of market needs to bear on any feasible solutions to this need, together with actionable information for individual collaborators to pursue.

The second stage is conditional.  If demanded by participants, the collaboration can even evolve to creating an organization to bring about the solution, to the mutual benefit of collaborators.   Since the collaboration is organized and has access to the "best and the brightest" from everywhere, and especially  benefits from having excellent feedback about market needs, a collaboration removes most of the risks which attend venture capital firms or the use of a proprietary R&D effort.

establishcollab.gif Why Collaborate?

Others have talked about the anecdotal benefits of a collaboration curve.  We can assure you that the benefits of collaboration are not anecdotal - but quantifiable, economic benefits.

Studies have shown that too many firms mistakenly applied an "outsourcing" mindset to collaboration efforts. This fatal mindset leads to three critical errors:

  1. they focus solely on lower costs, failing to consider the broader strategic role of collaboration.  
  2. they don't organize effectively for collaboration, believing instead that innovation could be managed much like production and partners treated like "suppliers."
  3. they don't invest in building collaborative capabilities, assuming that their existing people and processes are already equipped for the challenge.
To be successful requires you developed an explicit strategy for collaboration and make appropriate organizational changes to aid performance in these efforts.

Collaboration is a new and important source of competitive advantage. Speaking from experience, one of my companies - PTAI - has been doing collaboratives among industry competitors since 1972.  Back in the day, we called them "multiclient studies."  We acted as if we were a corporate staff group but with better access, studied the heck out of an issue, wrote a detailed analysis and sold it to the many interested parties.  Those in the plastics, automotive, paper, packaging  and other industries bought them widely on a variety of technoeconomic  issues.

Then, in the 1990s, PTAI innovated a method to benchmark performance among competitors in an industry, allowing any participant to quantitatively place its performance among competitors along hundreds of variables.  We continue to execute this method to the advantage of hundreds of global businesses in 55 specific industries and both numbers continue to grow.

Now we're turning our attention to solution collaboratives through another one of my companies - Townsend Solutionsto address some of the most pressing problems faced by some of the mature industries.

The problems that best lend themselves to a solution collaborative. 
When companies have problems that are not necessarily central to their core strategic business but still large enough to drain their resources, these problems become prime contenders for a collaborative. Widespread problems are even better candidates for a collaborative. A collaborative allows even direct competitors to solve a problem without poaching each other's competitive advantages. Of course there are many legal and anti-trust issues that need to be handled well. PTAI and TS have done collaboratives for over three decades now and deal with these issues.

In conclusion, a solution collaborative gains a company access to outside expertise. It is also a platform that promotes collective experience gains, propelling the collaboration curve for the whole solution. A collaborative not only allows participants more access to smart people but also creates an environment where these people actually becomes smarter through the interaction with other participants. 

shanghaismog.jpgThe view from Shanghai, China

A recent New York Times article - “China Leading Global Race to Make Clean Energy” by Keith Bradsher - reminded me to write down some thoughts about industry progress in reducing carbon dioxide emissions—a road less traveled.

The Times has finally discovered that the Chinese will dominate the clean energy world by using cheap labor, a huge and hungry domestic market, governmental uber-subsidies and hordes of trained technologists.   By clean energy, the author means wind and solar, with hydro and new nukes thrown in for good measure though not really discussed. Ironically, a raft of other, recent articles make the same point, and although the brevity of their treatment makes them worth reading, it leaves one wondering how much of this (“The Chinese are coming, the Chinese are coming!!!”) is truth and how much hyperbole.

So what should we do as patriotic Americans?  Fortunately, a young Ms. Miley Cyrus is on the case, so we can all breath a little easier. Incidentally, her song “…Wake up America. Tomorrow becomes a new day. And everything you do matters. Yeah, everything you do matters… Oh, it’s easy to look away, but it’s getting harder day by day…” was more popular in Europe than in the US.

We Have Already Lost the Race for Wind Turbines and Solar Panels
Let’s concede this point.  It is now practically impossible for European or U.S. industry to catch up with the Chinese in building and installing equipment such as advanced wind turbines and piezoelectric solar cells.  So we can expect that wind and solar equipment manufactured in China will be at least cost-competitive if not dominant.   Our response should be to buy those components from China and install them wherever they make economic sense.

But even in China, these clean energy sources will not necessarily be economically competitive with other traditional energy sources.  All of these innovations are necessary. But they do not preclude in any way the need to innovate in the conventional energy sector, which will still be around and important in the year 2030 and beyond.

Even if the Chinese win this race, so what?   

This still leaves plenty of room for new technological innovation in other areas. The question is: where does it make sense for us to innovate?

Here are some suggestions:

- radically better wind turbines or solar cells
- storage of off-peak clean energy
- better long distance high voltage transmission of clean power
- new methods for CO2 capture and sequestration
- geo-engineering (see previous post on Nathan Myhrvold’s Stratoshield and Salter Sink)

The Chinese are also beginning to lead the world at long distance, high voltage transmission as well. However, installation and maintenance is another ballgame. We could innovate in areas that are part of this ecosystem where we already have an established lead and huge expertise.

Let’s Not Ignore the Biggest Clean Energy Contributor
This brings me to the original purpose of this blog entry. We must not overlook the ways to do Carbon Capture and Sequestration (or Storage), which we’ll abbreviate as CCS.  Conventional power generation stations, either those already in place or the newer generation of coal-and-gas-fueled thermal power stations being rapidly installed in China, India and elsewhere are between half and 80% of capacity in many places.  The huge stock of sunk costs in coal-and gas-burning thermal power units will not be replaced by the best Chinese wind and solar equipment. unless their carbon emissions cannot be economically reduced. 

So the biggest opportunity is to create clean, economical fixes to the world’s stock of existing electric stations.

The owners of these coal facilities have the lowest variable power cost in many areas of the world.  In areas like the Middle East, gas is provided at such low value that this is the least cost producer of power. So most big utilities would like to continue to operate these sunk costs.

Refitting existing plants with proven CCS technology, especially ethanolamine absorption and desorption, is difficult at many existing plants; is capital intensive; uses from 15 to 30 per cent of the capacity of the power station to remove CO2 and other pollutants; and seems to add about 3 to 4 US cents per KWH ($30 to 40 per MWH) to costs of generation of power.  A good, concise treatment of the technology and cost for this approach is in Energy Procedia 1 (2009), 1289-1295.

Yet the mega-utilities seem to be betting politically on this retrofitting plus transporting, pressurizing and injecting of relative clean CO2 streams to subsurface storage sites.  Once again, many environmentalists don’t like this solution either (go figure!).

Of course, for a sizable fraction of coal/thermal power facilities, a shutdown will be preferred to refitting.  Yet coal is forecasted to be so much cheaper than other primary energy sources that massive refitting is still seen by utilities as the best answer.

Enter Shale Gas—The New Kid in the Block

In North America and soon elsewhere, new discoveries of shale gas deposits will make natural gas competitive with coal for most new facilities equipped with CCS.  This is because gas generates about half as much CO2 and because gas-fired plants are cheaper to build than coal-fired ones.  Existing wind and solar technology will not be competitive with shale gas using new CCS technologies.

China Needs Coal CCS, but Someone Must Lead in Innovating

Despite news to the contrary, this is where the U.S. and Europe have an innovation window!   There must be some way to climb off of the experience curve for this mature CCS technology and develop a better, even radical improvement which has its own, lower experience curve. 

So here’s my nomination: instead of pure CCS, as currently envisioned, we need to develop Crud-O2 (explained below) as our CCS. 

Let me explain: in the conventional coal power scheme, the flue gases are sequentially treated to remove nitrogen oxides (NOx), fly ash and particulates (including some heavy metals), sulfur oxides (SOx) and then subjected to CO2 capture. The emitted flue gas contains nitrogen, water and tails of each pollutant.  Each processing stage adds costs for chemical and energy and subtracts net, available energy from the plant.  Each pollutant needs separate handling and disposal and creates additional environmental exposure.  NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) always rears its ugly head.  So instead of doing this sequentially in a multi-stage, muti-handled operation, we need to develop means of recovering these streams as essentially one liquid stream, rich in CO2 but containing solids, metals, SOx, NOx, and perhaps some water: let’s call it Crud-O2.

This recovery is similar to proposed schemes, where relatively clean CO2  having been absorped and desorped in an amine plant, must be compressed to a liquid for transportation.  We propose that the entire flue gas stream, probably with solids filtered out, be compressed in multiple stages with intercooling, probably taking 4 or 5 stages.  All components heavier than CO2 will condense, some in the intercooling step, some at the end of the train.

As an alternative design, refrigeration loops can lower the temperature of the Crud-O2 until it forms a liquid at lower system pressure.  Optimizing the use of compression or refrigeration, including the draining of liquids from the intercooling steps, is a design process very familiar to chemical and power plant engineers.  As an end result, our Crud-O2 storage vessel will contain all (or most) of our bad actors.  Energy still contained in the flue gas, resembling the existing flue gases from a coal-fired plant with amine-CCS added, can be recovered back into the system, reducing net energy consumption.

With Oxygen Combustion, Crud-O2 May Be Even Better
There is much R&D being done on replacing combustion air with oxygen, either partially (let’s call it enrichment) or completely.  Current materials of construction will not withstand the temperatures generated with pure oxygen combustion, so designs use a recycle of cooled flue gases into the combustion chamber to limit the maximum temperatures.  This approach makes a flue gas with progressive reduction of nitrogen content, hence more easily captured by compression/refrigeration into Crud-O2.  At the limit, it approaches zero flue discharge.  Obviously, the energy for producing oxygen from air must be netted out of the net energy production, and the capital for an air separation plant must be added to the capital costs of such a scheme.  Optimization is required, but the net result is the same, with all of the bad actors in our Crud-O2 and ready for transport.

Crud-O2 Spends Eternity Under the Sea
But where in blazes do we take this Crud-O2?  Here, we enter Wonderland.  As proposed for pure CO2 over several years by many creative types, we propose putting the Crude-O2 in some appropriate place on the bottom of the ocean. 

Depending on the properties of the Crud-O2 and the temperature at the bottom of the ocean, it requires over 1000 meters of ocean depth, and some sources (here and here) suggest 3,500 meters of ocean depth. It’s easy to find out and scout unlimited places which fit, all over the world.  The ocean has many square miles of such places.

Shades of Captain Nemo 
At this depth, there is virtually no solar radiation, the population is mostly primitive worms, the bottom is covered with debris and plant/animal material which drifted down over the millennia, currents are rare or slow, and (importantly) CO2 or Crud-O2 are denser than the water overhead.  A quiescent layer of CO2 on that bottom would slowly diffuse into the water above at the interface, which environmentalists do not like.  We don’t see why they don’t like it, since the oceans of the world already contain gajillions of tons of CO2.  Better the deep oceans than our lungs?  But there is an easy answer to how to keep the Crud-O2 components from leaving this dark, underwater tomb.

We suggest that a membrane made of fibers, coated with polymeric material to be relatively impermeable and permanent, be installed at the bottom of said ocean before Crud-O2 is injected beneath the membrane.  Hydrodynamics virtually guarantees that the membrane, as it slowly rises atop the lake of Crud-O2, is under very minor net forces.  The membrane prevents diffusion of Crud-O2 components up into the water (and the obverse, of course).  but since they are acting on both top and bottom of the membrane, they cancel each other out.  We envision rolls of coated fabric, with Velcro or other connectors at all margins, dispensed and connected by remote vehicles.  A trench would be an ideal location, so that as the reservoir is filled, the membrane rises at the virtually flat water/Crud-O2 interface.

Using a protective membrane at such depths suggest several advantages to a good design engineer.  Polymer science knows how to design the membrane for a lifetime of centuries, given the cold, dark, quiescence in ocean trenches.  Resisting any corrosive effects of the Crud-O2 components is relatively easy for a polymer chemist, but the lack of light, temperature or cathodic currents makes this an ideal environment for long life. Also, the Crud-O2 can be delivered down to the bottom with minimal pumping pressure, enough to overcome flow pressure drop, as the head in a standpipe will be approximately the same as or slightly larger than the head in the surrounding water.  The same consideration means that a standpipe from the surface down to the membrane can be light gauge pipe, as internal pressures and external pressures are virtually identical.  Hydraulics also makes a “blowout” very unlikely and of minimal impact.  A “blowdown” would be much more likely.

In each of these cases, contrast the situation with high pressure pumping into depleted oil or gas formations, where high pump costs and high energy usage are the norm.  Blowouts are possible.  Safety is problematical.   With Crud-O2, you need only liquefy the stream and more energy use is not major.  This is an elegant solution.

And in the worst case, someone in the year 2050 or 2150 or 3010 can easily fix any unforeseen developments. 

Transporting Crud-O2
We envision towable, multiwall pressure vessels coated on the inside to resist Crud-O2 components.  Think giant kielbasa with double casing, having buoyancy and stiffness between the two walls.  Crud-O2 can be shipped either at high pressure at ambient temperatures; insulated/refrigerated to low temperature and modest pressure; or somewhere in between.  Unloading would not require any change of conditions to all injection to the bottom.  These tanks can be rolled into a stream or river near the source; towed by virtually any tow boat to join more tanks; be towed as a “train” out to sea; stationed by a platform above the storage site; unloaded by low head pumps in good weather only; sent back with a “heel” of Crud-O2 or else inflated with nitrogen (say); and eventually show up at some other Crud-O2 source for refilling.  Repeat over and over.

Of course, we could design to deliver the Crud-O2 by pipeline in those cases where this is preferable.  A subsea pipeline could be made of flexible material and would be almost neutrally buoyant, since liquid CO2 and water are close in density.

Bonus Clean-up Opportunity: Bunker Fuel
Once the elements of the Crud-O2 system are in place, we would find other uses beyond stationary power stations and industrial plant furnaces.  The International Maritime Organization (IMO) of the UN is trying to reach final rules governing the quality of bunker fuel used by the great majority of the world’s largest ships. Closer to home, the  Environmental Protection Agency is targeting an 80% cut in nitrogen oxide, or NOx, emissions by 2016.

bunkfuel.jpgBeach Beautification with Bunker Fuel

Bunker fuel is literally the bottom of the barrel in the world’s refineries, blessed with several percent sulfur and scads of heavy metals.  Only petroleum coke is somewhat heavier (a solid) and bunker fuel has roughly the same consistency as road asphalt.  The proposed IMO rules will limit the allowable sulfur in bunker fuel from the current levels of 3.5% to 0.5% by 2025.  Oil refiners are skeptical about whether they can meet this new spec at any  reasonable cost, which begs the question, since bunker is used only because it is cheap.  Really cheap, compared to any alternative liquid fuel.

We envision multistage compression on the ships, with seawater heat exchangers, to create Crud-O2 from the stack gases.  Multi-wall, cylindrical tanks would be ideal repositories, as these could be stowed with freedom anywhere on these large ships.  When near a port or a Crud-O2 repository, the ship could let the tank overboard … it could even be towed … for pickup by a sea train of CO2.  Thus equipped, the ship would be able to burn whatever bunker was available with pollution of the air as is occurring today. 

There are approximately 50,000 ships over 5,000 DWTons which rely on bunker fuel. 

The largest bunker burners - the largest container ships - burn 75 to 125 tons/day of bunker fuel when under way.  Even larger tankers and bulk carriers actually burn less as they move at slower speeds.  But at 2.5 T/day of CO2/Bunker, and assuming only 50 T/day for 50,000 ships sailing 250 days per year each, the annual CO2 load is over 1.5 billion tons.  And this CO2 recovery would happen all over the world.  In the case of bunker fuel, the recovery of the sulfur is the driving force, not CO2 reduction.

Even under IMO’s proposed regulations, these ships would still be allowed to emit CO2 without limit, and be carbon taxed.  There are probably 400 significant oil refineries in the world which produce bunker.  These will be required to invest to improve their bunker fuel and produce less of it, given the proposed IMO regulations. 

The scope of this is enormous. 

What we need to compete with the Chinese, is not so much incentive, but imagination.  Our existing industrial solutions won’t cut it.  We can and must innovate our way out, or learn to live with the smog, the pollution, the global warming, and the global insecurity it produces.

NEXT: More fun clean-up applications for Crud-O2! You betcha.

In my last post, Beyond Copenhagen: Thomas Friedman’s “Earth Race”,  I proposed dividing the problem of global warming into three specific approaches:

1. Mitigation: ways to minimize the effects of greenhouse gases.
2. Reduction: ways to reduce the current production of greenhouse gases.
3. Substitution: ways to substitute cleaner alternatives which minimize the expanding  production of greenhouse gases.

In this entry, we look at mitigation - specifically at two ideas proposed by Nathan Myhrvold and his team at Intellectual Ventures.

Here’s the first of these remediation schemes - ladies and gents, the Stratoshield.  The Intellectual Ventures team says:

We’ve been working on some ideas related to climate change, as a kind of backup plan in case human effort to curb emissions don’t succeed fast enough to prevent devastating ecological damage. One of the ideas that has captured our imagination is replicating the way volcanoes have at times brought down the temperature of the planet by erupting sulfur dioxide particles up into the stratosphere. We’ve invented a hose to the sky we call the Stratoshield, which is a comparatively cost effective way to do this.

Take a look:

My view is that we do need to try something like this before it’s too late. If you thought the CO2 impact is bad, wait till the methane gets going. Actually, it already has. More to the point, we can’t even afford the risk that the alarmists are right.

My perspective (1) as an earth-based carbon-leased life form; (2) as a pretty good scientist; and (3) as a lifelong business manager working under uncertainty, tells me as do all my instincts: we must not let our primeval biases about ideas keep the world from running all experiments which show even a long-shot chance of helping solve global warming in the worst cases. Intellectual Ventures has hit on one such tool…and we need to push for its experimentation so we’ll know if it works.

We can fight later with the “Gore-ites” over the morality, but we need to find out enough economic incentives so that we can find someone who will be ready to pay for it.

The question I have is about the delivery mechanism.

With 100 mph winds in the upper atmosphere, the hose as suggested by Nathan, won’t easily stay up. And that first step, from no stratoshield to one stratoshield is a doozie. A better way would be to adapt the freighters such as UPS and FedEx planes with a sulfur-dispensing module which they use while they fly, scattering sulfur particles on each flight.  This module can be safely engineered to burn liquid sulfur using ambient air. It would resemble a turbine engine that is not mission critical, as propulsion turbines are. This will enable us to test the impact of the sulfur delivery over time, and will provide for a far wider range of distribution than would a single point source.

A second way to run tests or to supplement the stratoshield is to use the airships already being built by the military for their intelligence gathering tasks. There are patents on a new generation of lifting airships which can use helium to lift multiple tons of cargo to heights needed for the stratoshield. By either lifting sulfur and a burner designed to utilize the jet stream for mixing, or alternatively, by lifting liquid SO2 and “spritizing” it, a 21st century airship could be a cost competitive way to “SO2-ize” the atmosphere. And we can sell photos or videos to anyone who is interested—mostly intelligence agencies—to pay for mission. Did I mention that this would be an unmanned vehicle?

And here’s mitigation idea #2: Use over-ocean clouds to reflect sunlight back to space, reducing net sunlight to reach the surface just as the CO2 clusters reduce the heat leaving earth. Numerous people have suggested ways to put more clouds up over the oceans, but Intellectual Ventures has checked in with ideas on this too. More clouds mean lower ocean temperatures, countering the adverse effect of CO2 or methane.

Both of these ideas are easily reversible. Even if Intellectual Ventures is wrong…though I do think they are not. So as we work to lower CO2 (and methane) we can get to work learning to counteract; and we can always change our minds later, as and when we learn magical new ways to reduce or mitigate CO2. This is so simple that both Al Gore and Rush Limbaugh can understand and support it.

Then there is the Salter Sink concept. This Intellectual Ventures idea from Stephen Salter aims to take energy out of hurricanes/typhoons by lowering ocean surface temperature in zones where such storms get their “oomph”. Here, let Nathan and company tell you about it:

The Salter Sink works as a wave powered pump. Waves push hot water into the top of the cylinder, which pumps the water inside down. It comes out the bottom (around 200 meters below) and mixes with colder water. This brings the temperature on the surface down over time. A Salter Sink can move about a gigawatt of thermal energy! It may take thousands of these to protect Americas Gulf region (for example) but we estimate the cost would be much lower than the damage caused by one of these storms.

What’s intriguing about these ideas is not that they seem rather farfetched but their sheer audacity and, here’s the thing, their sheer simplicity. They may actually work. And so we may be able to sell them politically, since they are both (1) incremental and (2) reversible.

Again, what’s more interesting is, however, their marketing and economics. Who will pay for them?

Martin Varsavsky suggests we get the Saudis to fund these experiments, which may work, but, as an economist,  I have my doubts. We want to become less dependent on the Middle East, not more. I think a sure way to make the Salter Sink idea succeed is to give the locals a way to profit from it.

Let me explain:

If we have thousands of these floating cylinders pumping hot surface water to the colder depths, I agree, the storm intensity will be diminished. And that’s mostly good, although we need to test the idea to find all the consequences for ocean life, currents, and navigation…whatever. And we may have also helped counter global warming by bringing cold water to the surface. As a bonus, each Salter Sink collects warm, oxygenated surface water containing plankton and other fish food and pumps it 200 meters down over several hours.

Does that sound like a good place to raise fish? It does to me! And lo and behold, we have a potential natural fish farm that once appropriately designed raises some of the most healthy and fresh exotic sea fish ready to be supplied all over the world.

I suggest we find also ways to charge those who gain from lower storm intensity—insurance service providers, coastal town or cities’ real estate developers, states and federal agencies responsible for disaster management, electric utilities, and off shore oil operators.

Eventually, unless we learn from the economic theory of commons and build it into our model, we may have a great idea but no takers!

In a recent column titled Off to the Races, the New York Times' Tom Friedman describes the "Earth Race":

In the cold war, we had the space race: who could be the first to put a man on the moon. Only two countries competed, and there could be only one winner. Today, we need the Earth Race: who can be the first to invent the most clean technologies so men and women can live safely here on Earth.

I believe that averting catastrophic climate change is a huge scale issue. The only engine big enough to impact Mother Nature is Father Greed: the Market. Only a market, shaped by regulations and incentives to stimulate massive innovation in clean, emission-free power sources can make a dent in global warming. And no market can do that better than America's.
There's a lot of truth in what Thomas Friedman has observed through the eyes of a world class propagandist.  Through the LASIK-enhanced eyes of an industrial economics and politics junkie, however, that view is a good, simplistic place to start.

Copenhagen has shown us that politics trumps science, so, if we want to make a difference, we are going to have to innovate our way out of the mess we're in. We're going to have to disrupt the traditional oil-based economy by motivating thousands of efforts to produce real, practical solutions on the ground.  He's right in pushing The Market, as manipulated by laws and policies, as the only way that thousands of potential innovators can be harnessed to the common aim.

The goal of this blog is to start a discussion about these solutions, to bring together individuals and companies involved in making a difference, and to build an idea platform for some of the more "wacky" solutions we come across  (some of our most innovative ideas come straight out of the field, not the corporate labs).

So let's discuss this "Earth Race" toward green American technology.   As always, global participants are welcome, even critical, but the focus on innovation in America, the great incubator. First, we need to find a politically achievable way to place a disincentive on the global warming effects of carbon dioxide emissions.  The direct taxing of carbon emissions seems much more efficient than is the cap-and-trade approach.  As we have seen, establishing a system of capping and trading has devolved into lobbying and politicking, seeking favorable treatment.  A suggestion of how to do a time-staged, certain taxing of carbon dioxide emissions, and how to mitigate unintended consequences, will be posted here. But we need to embrace other tools beyond the carbon tax.

Let's begin by dividing the problem of global warming into three specific approaches which can be tackled collaboratively, many of which have been proposed and are being pursued somewhere out there on Earth.

1. Mitigation: ways to minimize the effects of greenhouse gases
2. Reduction: ways to reduce the current production of greenhouse gases
3. Substitution: ways to substitute cleaner alternatives which minimize the expanding  production of greenhouse gases

Taken together, these three approaches will help us begin the Earth Race in earnest. The next few blog posts will highlight examples of each of these approaches. Others will synthesize new approaches, or synthesize new approaches from what is already known. 

Who's got a really crazy idea?

In today's Wall Street Journal they're blogging about Paul Mc Cartney - bashing him for trying to make a difference. And when you look at the list of all the blog entries for today, there's not one mention of Copenhagen, not one mention of the very real issues at stake for the world.

Instead we see a concert of ignorant swift-boating going on, targeting the masses with false claims and irrelevant chatter - in order to obstruct the work that needs to get done. This type of obstructionism is not going to help business interests, only hurt them.

The science historian (and physicist) Spencer Weart says in the WaPo:

The theft and use of the emails does reveal something interesting about the social context. It's a symptom of something entirely new in the history of science: Aside from crackpots who complain that a conspiracy is suppressing their personal discoveries, we've never before seen a set of people accuse an entire community of scientists of deliberate deception and other professional malfeasance.

Even the tobacco companies never tried to slander legitimate cancer researchers. In blogs, talk radio and other new media, we are told that the warnings about future global warming issued by the national science academies, scientific societies, and governments of all the leading nations are not only mistaken, but based on a hoax, indeed a conspiracy that must involve thousands of respected researchers. Extraordinary and, frankly, weird. Climate scientists are naturally upset, exasperated, and sometimes goaded into intemperate responses... but that was already easy to see in their blogs and other writings.
The Copenhagen diagnosis is bleak.  It documents the key findings in climate change science since the publication of the landmark Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report in 2007.

The new evidence to have emerged includes:

  • Arctic sea-ice has melted far beyond the expectations of climate models. For example, the area of summer sea-ice melt during 2007-2009 was about 40% greater than the average projection from the 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment Report.
  • The sea level has risen more than 5 centimeters over the past 15 years, about 80% higher than IPCC projections from 2001. Accounting for ice-sheets and glaciers, global sea-level rise may exceed 1 meter by 2100, with a rise of up to 2 meters considered an upper limit by this time.  This is much higher than previously projected by the IPCC.  Furthermore, beyond 2100, sea level rise of several meters must be expected over the next few centuries.
  • In 2008 carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels were ~40% higher than those in 1990. Even if emissions do not grow beyond today's levels, within just 20 years the world will have used up the allowable emissions to have a reasonable chance of limiting warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius.

The report concludes that global emissions must peak then decline rapidly within the next five to ten years for the world to have a reasonable chance of avoiding the very worst impacts of climate change.And here we have the Wall Street Journal bashing Sir Paul.  The press has abdicated its responsibility, it seems, and so have far too many businesses. 
A comparison between the 1988 global mean temp...

Image via Wikipedia

The US Chamber of Commerce has also laid out an aggressive agenda of obstructionism, causing several of its members to resign.

On the other side, some scientists, like James Hansen for example, point out that the "cap and trade" regime being advocated in Copenhagen is faulty from the outset. Hansen's point is solid: "only a direct tax on fossil fuels as close to the source as possible would succeed in stopping the rise of emissions."


So what's the big deal about Copenhagen, anyway?  

What should business be doing?

If you believe that there are important reasons to reduce CO2  levels in the atmosphere, or even to stop the growth of CO2 levels, then Copenhagen is crucial. You should hope that most of  the world's CO2-emitting countries cobble together individual targets and commit at Copenhagen to put teeth into individual company targets for future CO2 emissions. Let's call these the Copenhagen Rules.

The organizers of Copenhagen correctly emphasize that two other results will be important.  First, that all of us rich, developed countries agree to fund specific CO2-related activities by poorer, developing countries.  A series of big, important arguments going on there, since most of the increase by 2050 in the Global Middle Class will be in such countries.  And the global middle class drives CO2 emissions. Second, that recipients countries commit to a set of listed actions to use that help to minimize their emissions of CO2.  That negotiation will go on long after Copenhagen closes.

Instead of beating around the bush, businesses need to face the reality of climate change and craft new, innovative strategies to meet the challenges ahead.  Burying their heads in the sand is not exactly a business strategy.

Here's what needs to happen:

  • A carbon tax must become a reality: the free-lunch is over. Emissions must be controlled world-wide.
  • Businesses must invite all stakeholders to the table and look for collaborative solutions. Yes, that means Big Coal needs to sit down at the same table with Judy Bonds.
  • Collaborative does not mean industry-led.
  • Countries will not reduce CO2 emissions!  Innovators must reduce CO2 emissions.  Countries set either arbitrary, bureaucratic rules which incentivize and constrain innovators; or countries create economic incentives which guide innovators to the desired goal, in this case slowing and eventually reversing the CO2 content of the atmosphere from the current 380 parts per million (PPM), back toward the 19th century level of 280 PPM.  Until Copenhagen Rules have be agreed upon and later made effective, thousands of innovators are partially hamstrung in launching thousands of actions designed to reach that CO2 goal.
We have a strong bias against the individual governments getting in the way of innovators.  Applying a variant of Occam's Razor, the best way is probably the simplest way to guide innovation to reduction in CO2 concentrations.  We strongly suggest that, to make a difference, all emissions of CO2 must be taxed and economic mechanisms used to adjust the distortions and any unintended consequences. 

The truth (plus a simple carbon tax) will set innovators free!

If Copenhagen Rules emerge and are ratified and given teeth, then innovators will have a defined playing field for "getting the ball rolling."  Sustainable energy development needs to know that it will be allowed to create returns on a very large investment.  Taxing unsustainable energy will stabilize returns on any sustainable energy.  Currently, such projects are dependent on large, inefficient subsidies, funded by governments which would rather pick winners than let the innovators make and lose money by creating winners.  Well-intentioned people have for years agreed to use sustainable energy subsidies, and the ball is indeed rolling is some places. 

Copenhagen Rules are about freeing up global innovation, which should not be limited to those rich countries who have been generous enough to pay for these large subsidies.  Copenhagen Rules will transfer the responsibility globally and cause the solution to also be global.

So even though Copenhagen Rules are certainly not optimal, they are a crucial first, global step.  Reducing CO2 emissions will not only help lead to lower CO2 levels and therefore help (by an amount yet to be determined) slow global warming, but it produces the following desirable results:

  • It will make coal mining and burning pay its own way, which probably will slow or reverse environmental damage.  If there is a viable technology called "clean coal," the Copenhagen Rules will replace dirty coal with clean coal, and replace all coal at the margins.  This is critical in China and India.
  • The Copenhagen Rules will quantify the incentives for better Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) technologies.  Innovators are working on these, but they need clear signals.
  • The potential for new natural gas supplies will be aided by Copenhagen Rules, since natural gas will be favored over liquid petroleum and especially over coal.  And new natural gas is apparently quite abundant at a "middling" price relative to petroleum.
  • Since new "shale gas" technology shows promise of domestic gas supplies in many countries on the Earth, the Copenhagen Rules will assist this new, domestic gas in displacing imported, OPEC-priced petroleum.  The economic influence of slowing the need for new liquid petroleum will improve the living standard of many poor and some rich petroleum importers.  
  • Development in emerging economies does not have to follow the same road we took in the west.  New alternatives can and will work, if the price is right to encourage technology transfers.
  • But maybe the biggest, vaguest impact of new, domestic gas production could be the geopolitical influence.  If the global community is less vulnerable to importing more petroleum, the Middle East might be a more stable region.  Or maybe not, given history. And the Copenhagen Rules are a step in this direction, away from petroleum addiction.
One final observation on swift-boating: we know that drama sells. In the American media, "climategate" is beginning to push Sarah Palin off the front page.  But it is also a big, fat, smelly red herring.  Throw out all that theater (for now) and Copenhagen Rules are still justified and important - for all the reasons above.

We are running out of time, and there are no bail-outs for the Earth.

With Copenhagen around the corner, let’s begin with a statement for the deniers of global-warming: despite a few overzealous scientists who have fudged their data, the science does overwhelmingly point to the burning of carbon-containing fuels as being partially responsible for increasing atmospheric concentrations of CO2 - and causing global warming. 

Instead of getting caught in this silly, finger-pointing, pointless debate, let’s look for real solutions. 

Here are the sources of greenhouse gases by industry sector (via BBC):


And let’s look at the breakdown of greenhouse gases:


We know that we have to deal with the carbon dioxide problem, and to do so, let’s look at carbon capture & sequestration.

Wikipedia descibes carbon sequestration as a “geoengineering technique for the long-term storage of carbon dioxide or other forms of carbon, for the mitigation of global warming. Carbon dioxide is usually captured from the atmosphere through biological, chemical or physical processes.”
Across the globe, we are seeing the rise of “carbon storage” projects, often at unsustainable costs, and sometimes with an accompanying set of issues


In my view, for any process which accomplishes carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), to remain sustaining, it would also need to be financially rewarding. This reward might flow either through the markets or directly by politically-powered subsidies. And second, rural areas and agriculture use more fossil fuels and generate more CO2, both directly and indirectly, than do urban areas and services, CCS processes would, therefore, ideally be located in such rural areas.

But most impo
rtantly, we must treat carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) as a business process, as a core competence for sustainable industry.

Capturing carbon from CO2 and storing it for a century or longer (CCS) needs to be treated as a separate business process practiced all over the world. Developed areas will need to develop improvements on the schemes being proposed today, such as the CO2 absorption and deep earth injection that is being put forward as “clean coal.” The components of this technology are relatively mature, yet the process is still capital- and energy-intensive, which suggests that only massive scale can drive down the cost.  With a mature technology, we cannot expect that this economics will change with foreseeable experience gains. Therefore, the CCS business will not be profitable at carbon taxes of $20 to $50 per ton, the range usually projected. So far, all such projects are dependent on heavy government subsidies and we do not expect this to change in the near future. We conclude that a new approach, descending a new experience curve, is the only way that the CCS business will ever be viable. Therefore, a lot more work needs to be done in this area to address the questions being raised.

A possible and sustainable solution is Bio-CCS. Interestingly, there are islands of scientific enquiry suggesting that Mother Nature has already provided us with the elements for this new CCS approach.

For instance, there is a global cottage industry to enable production of “bio-char” (smallish particles of carbon produced from plant material by pyrolysis a process involving burning in an oxygen deficient environment). Refer to Dr. Johannes Lehmann’s work at Cornell University, Ithaca, for example:


This bio-char industry has studied the soil productivity effect of dispersed bio-char, emphasizing that since microbes do not decompose bio-char that the projected half life of this carbon in soil is probably in the centuries. Apparently, water and nutrients are absorbed into the carbon, dispersed in the soil, serving a similar function to plant matter (hummus). This makes bio-char a perfect form of fertilizer since nutrients are released over an extended period of time.

Fuel gas or liquid can be a co-product, useful for generating electricity or as a chemical feedstock. This bio-char is capable of upgrading secondary or distressed land to higher productivity, therefore, adding real value to the land. Thus, growing plant material by absorbing CO2 combines with pyrolysis to bio-char, creating a BioCCS process with side benefits.

In our next post, we examine this BioCCS process in detail, and address both environmental and business issues simultaneously. 

We must explore these alternatives with open minds. That much we owe to our children and grandchildren - whose future we have changed by our inconsiderate use of the Earth. 

And being distracted by ethical lapses in studies - that’s treating the symptoms while ignoring the disease!

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