Carbon Capture Revisited 9/21/21

Science with Richard Bleil

Recently, a friend of mine posted an Australian video on carbon capture.  The video was very clever, and quite funny, but also had a somber note.

The main point made by the video is how tax dollars are being funneled into the same oil companies that created the carbon dioxide debacle in which we find ourselves today as they promise to use the funds to capture the gas from the atmosphere.  The video points out, using humor, what a tremendous failure their government’s effort to develop carbon dioxide capture technology has been. The video focuses on several aspects of the effort, including the enormous sums of taxpayer money they’ve been giving to the coal and oil industries to develop this technology (and, honestly, they’re probably the only sect of industry properly equipped to actually be able to do so).  Most of the remainder of the video (save one aspect of which I was not aware) then spoke of the failure being related to the failure to reach the promised goals of building plants, and the failure to reach the goals for the individual plants that have been built.

The concept of carbon dioxide capture is a simple one.  The idea is to literally extract carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and convert it into some form (such as limestone) that will hold the carbon dioxide which can then be buried.  Superficially, this is a great idea.  It seems like if we turn the carbon dioxide into stone, then it’s been permanently removed.

Except that it hasn’t.  According to the laws of thermodynamics, it will only be a matter of time before this stone breaks down, again releasing the carbon dioxide.  If only somebody had known that this was a problem earlier.  Any guesses as to who might have said this?  Here’s a hint: .  See, carbon dioxide is so thermodynamically stable that any other form of it, including limestone, will have higher chemical energy.  The first law of thermodynamics tells us that everything tends towards lower energy, so yes, limestone might remove carbon dioxide for quite some time, perhaps even centuries, but eventually it will break down and again release that gas back into the atmosphere.  The video goes on to point out another obvious issue, that being how to power these plants.

The video also addressed the concept of “clean hydrogen” as an alternative fuel source.  Superficially, it looks like it should be clean, since on reacting with oxygen it only produces water.  Unfortunately, the part that those pushing fuel cells and hydrogen as a source of energy won’t tell you, is that the hydrogen is produced via electrolysis of water.  The power for this process is the same as that for capturing carbon dioxide, namely, the central power plants that still largely rely on fossil fuels to produce the electricity needed.  That means that as we struggle to capture, or avoid, carbon dioxide, we’re actually pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than we are capturing or avoiding.  If only somebody had realized this earlier ( ).

The reality is that there is no effective way to remove carbon dioxide from fossil fuels from the atmosphere.  Some might argue that trees will do it, and yes, trees will scrub carbon dioxide from the air, but we only have so much land, and as we continue to expand, there are few places where we are willing to let forests grow.  The problem is that every form of fossil fuel we burn, be it coal, oil or natural gas, we are taking carbon that have been in reserve and out of the carbon cycle for eons and releasing it into the atmosphere.  Trees will convert carbon dioxide into sugars, but even these will break back down into carbon dioxide.  The only way to actually prevent the earth from continuing to accumulate this carbon dioxide permanently is the only way that nobody is willing to commit, total freedom from fossil fuels.  But the reality is that we are not willing to give up our coal burning power plants, our gas-powered trucks and vehicles, and yes, even our plastics. 

Aside from the actual facts and figures, I didn’t actually learn anything from this amusing little video, except for one thing that, frankly, is so mind-numbingly dumb that I can’t believe it’s permitted.  As it turns out, one of the “carbon capture” technologies used by the oil industry is to capture carbon dioxide, only to use it to blow out oil from underground.  See, oil (as I’m sure you know) is kept in large underground caverns, and it is the goal of fossil fuel industries to find these caverns and drill down to them to extract the oil.  Anybody who has tried to enjoy a refreshing smoothy with just a straw understands what happens.  The thick delicious oil around the straw will be extruded, but that which is too far from the straw will remain.  There are ways that the oil companies can direct their pipes, just as you would your straw, to try to get this leftover oil, but it can only go so far.  “Fracking” is a technique in which they will pump water and chemicals into the apparently empty caverns in an effort to free the extra oil so they can extract it.

Apparently, one “carbon capture” technology that, according to this video, is presumably being used is essentially as a fracking compound.  Instead of the toxic water-based chemicals, they are pumping the carbon dioxide they “captured” into these caverns to force out even more oil that, when burned, will release far more carbon dioxide than they have “captured” for this process.  It’s like using a higher interest credit card to pay off a car loan.  In the end, it will just end up costing more, especially since, eventually, that gaseous carbon dioxide will find a way to escape that cavern as well.  Gases are sneaky like that.  So, they are burning fossil fuels to capture carbon dioxide, pumping it into “dry” wells where it will eventually leak back out, to get more oil to burn to add to the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere. 

Okay, seriously, I’m done.  The energy industry is feeding us lies to subsidize their already overly profitable industry, and since the average IQ of politicians is almost as high as my waist size (hence our waist sized problems), I think it’s just too late.  The Earth will be fine.  We’ll all be dead, but the Earth doesn’t really care about that.  Maybe in a few million years a species intelligent to actually survive will evolve from our ashes.


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