This article at the Energy Collective on "plastic trees" got me thinking about something that doesn't come up too often here at Energetics, though it should: geoengineering. From the article:
The idea employs biomimicry by deploying small-scale units of “trees” to soak up more CO2 than real trees, wherever you might need them. “You can remove CO2 anywhere you want, and it can deal with emissions from anywhere else on the planet,” said Allen Wright, a scientist at the Lenfest Center. “There’s no real major discovery or invention that has to happen that would prevent us from deploying that technology tomorrow.”
I was reminded of Nate Lewis' work at Caltech, where scientists are researching applications for artificial photosynthesis
through DoE's Energy Innovation Hub program. This is to say nothing of cloud-seeding, stratospheric sulfur injections, space-based mirrors, or other tricks we might deploy in the future to regulate our climatic effects.
Basically, humans are testing out a diverse array of technologies that will allow us to tap into energetic fluxes with more precision and control than ever before. Instead of (more likely, in addition to) mitigating fossil fuel combustion, we could literally suck the carbon from the atmosphere. Instead of relying on autotrophic photosynthesis to convert solar energy into useful organic matter, we could produce technologies that do so much more efficiently.
In short, the sun is the answer to all our problems. Popular solutions like solar panels, scaled biomass and wind turbines already tap into and tinker around with solar fluxes. Long-sighted research like artificial photosynthesis and plastic trees aim to do the same thing.
like to play the apocalypse card, noting that the Earth is finite and that economic growth on a bounded planet cannot continue infinitely. They're right. But they're also assuming humans can't expand the boundaries. Humans currently use on the order of 15 TW of power, which is a lot, until you consider the 6000 TW of solar power that hit the Earth's surface (on average). Most of this is refracted back into outer space, with some IR radiation trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gases. If we generate all human power with solar energy, we'd go a long way towards increasing resource security and access. If we could increase solar energy generation by just one order of magnitude, we'd really have energy that's too cheap to meter.
Technology has for centuries extended humankind's prosperity and wealth (good examples being the internal combustion engine, artificial nitrogen fixation, telecom and biotech, and the Green Revolution). Malthusians are right in that we live on a planet with bounded natural resources, but they assume that the machines that convert our most abundant fuel source are the most efficient (i.e., that plants are the best way to convert solar energy into useful energy).
We have nowhere near the technological efficiencies, capabilities, or scale to achieve this right now. But as a thought experiment, it's possible from an engineering perspective to imagine a future in which we expand planetary boundaries by improving on nature's energy conversion mechanisms.
Photo by Nasa.gov.
Alex Trembath is a policy associate in the Energy and Climate Program at Breakthrough. He is the lead or co-author of several Breakthrough publications, including the 2012 report "Beyond Boom and Bust: Putting Clean Tech on a Path to Subsidy Independence" and "Where the Shale Gas Revolution Came From." Alex is a graduate of University of California at Berkeley where he received his Bachelor's ...
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