When research and development starts to feel like a delaying tactic

I am endlessly frustrated by the fact that there are so many things that we could be doing about climate change, and we just…


Even without the obvious large-scale stuff like replacing fossil fuels with renewable and nuclear power, we could be rebuilding or relocating cities to deal with sea level rise, and building greenhouses, and making sure everyone who wants one can have a solar water heater, and the list goes on.

But I think the one that annoys me the most is carbon capture and sequestration. It’s not that I think it’s a bad idea to pull CO2 out of the air and sequester it; quite the opposite. It’s that of all the challenges created by this climate crisis, this is perhaps the easiest one to tackle, and something we could start doing at a massive scale today if we wanted to. Instead of doing that (and eliminating fossil fuel use), we seem to be investing money in ever-more elaborate ways to capture carbon using “cutting-edge” technology.

“Our new method still harnesses the power of liquid metals but the design has been modified for smoother integration into standard industrial processes,” Daeneke said.

“As well as being simpler to scale up, the new tech is radically more efficient and can break down CO2 to carbon in an instant.

“We hope this could be a significant new tool in the push towards decarbonisation, to help industries and governments deliver on their climate commitments and bring us radically closer to net zero.”

A provisional patent application has been filed for the technology and researchers have recently signed a $AUD2.6 million agreement with Australian environmental technology company ABR, who are commercialising technologies to decarbonise the cement and steel manufacturing industries.

Co-lead researcher Dr Ken Chiang said the team was keen to hear from other companies to understand the challenges in difficult-to-decarbonise industries and identify other potential applications of the technology.

“To accelerate the sustainable industrial revolution and the zero carbon economy, we need smart technical solutions and effective research-industry collaborations,” Chiang said.

The steel and cement industries are each responsible for about 7% of total global CO2 emissions (International Energy Agency), with both sectors expected to continue growing over coming decades as demand is fuelled by population growth and urbanisation.

Technologies for carbon capture and storage (CCS) have largely focused on compressing the gas into a liquid and injecting it underground, but this comes with significant engineering challenges and environmental concerns. CCS has also drawn criticism for being too expensive and energy-intensive for widespread use.

Daeneke, an Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow, said the new approach offered a sustainable alternative, with the aim of both preventing CO2 emissions and delivering value-added reutilisation of carbon.

“Turning CO2 into a solid avoids potential issues of leakage and locks it away securely and indefinitely,” he said.

“And because our process does not use very high temperatures, it would be feasible to power the reaction with renewable energy.”

The Australian Government has highlighted CCS as a priority technology for investment in its net zero plan, announcing a $1 billion fund for the development of new low emissions technologies.

How the tech works

The RMIT team, with lead author and PhD researcher Karma Zuraiqi, employed thermal chemistry methods widely used by industry in their development of the new CCS tech.

The “bubble column” method starts with liquid metal being heated to about 100-120C.

Carbon dioxide is injected into the liquid metal, with the gas bubbles rising up just like bubbles in a champagne glass.

As the bubbles move through the liquid metal, the gas molecule splits up to form flakes of solid carbon, with the reaction taking just a split second.

That is genuinely neat. I think it’s amazing that we can do that, and I have no doubt that there are going to be good uses for that technology in the future.

But, as I said earlier, we have everything we need to start large-scale carbon sequestration right away, without using any fancy new technology. As was mentioned in the interview I embedded in yesterday’s agriculture post, we could take existing farmland that’s not currently in use, plant cover crops, bale them up, and store them where they can’t rot. We could pull vast amounts of carbon out of the air by doing that, and it would almost certainly require fewer resources than elaborate processes like these liquid metal bubblers. This obsession a lot of people seem to have with finding some technological “quick fix” seems like a desperate ploy to avoid having to change, and to justify continued inaction.

The problem is not technical, it’s political.

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  1. says

    The whole “clean gas” bullshit, and the carbon capture, make me want to hammer my face into my keyboard until I’m permanently QWERTYface.

    I have a dream, which is just a dream, and it’s not going to happen, but humanity could just take one decade break from war, planning for war, funding for armies and building weapons – and spend that money and time and effort on replacing all the things with renewable energy, and doing renewable R&D. Instead of bombing civilians in Yemen, you know, the US Air Force could spend that money on solar panels for those people. In ten years when the “time in!” bell rings, then go ahead and bomb the solar panels – assholes gotta asshole. But there’d be a chance that people around the world might wake up and realize “hey, you know, that was a pretty nice vacation!” and maybe we wouldn’t go extinct.

    Nah, let’s go extinct.

  2. says

    We do not even need to crop cover crops on farmland. We could just store unused hay, straw, and mown grass (of which there is a lot where I live) instead of leaving it to rot outdoors. And we could similarly dry, compress and store our immense food waste that way, instead of leaving it to rot in landfills where it produces methane due to anaerobic decomposition.
    Or IMO even better, we could use the surplus hay, grass, husks and desiccated (plant-based low-protein) food to make briquettes to replace our dependency on coal. Sure, it would not be ideal, but each grass briquette that is burned is a fossil coal briquette that is not.
    We also could plant hazel/willow/rowan/ash/maple coppices and pollards along all highways and roads and harvest them every ten years. That process could even be automated.

  3. says

    The problem is not technical, it’s political.

    Completely agreed. I can say, though, that what you’re observing (inventing every more cutting-edge tech solutions for CCS) is about economics: the researchers know that eventually we’ll do some large scale CCS and the longer we delay acting on the climate crisis the more likely it is we’ll publicly fund large scale CCS. .

    The researchers’ goal, then, is to have the most recent, highest tech, most bleeding edge solution available at the moment governments decide to act.

    The problem with not acting is political.

    The fascination with cutting edge research is an attempt to time economic opportunity, because rich people can’t help but want to suck more riches out of the social organized actions humans take to preserve the lives of humans. What, after all, will we pay more for than to save our own lives?

    Again, I’m not even saying this is bad tech. I’m just pointing out that the fact that it exists is down to the skewed view of capitalism and capitalists as much as it is to political inaction (which itself is the fault of capitalism and capitalists who pay politicians to maintain the status quo).

  4. says

    @Crip Dyke – it’s a fair point, though I’m having an increasingly hard time telling the difference between politics and economics – they’re always inseparable.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    … plant cover crops, bale them up, and store them where they can’t rot.

    Uh, where (on-planet) is that? How many cubic kilometers of completely airtight storage do we have available, indefinitely?

    I read, decades ago, of a proposal to capture tons of carbon quickly by planting and harvesting dense willow groves, which had promising numbers except for the long-term sequestration part. The purported “best” idea there entailed attaching weights and sinking big bundles of willow over oceanic subduction zones, which somehow was considered a bit impractical.

  6. says

    @Pierce – The idea Kowalski had was to bury them under the sea floor along the coast and places like that, but I don’t know how much that would work at scale, or how well it would prevent rotting. I think his hope was to basically try use them to encourage swampland to grow.

    Another option that appeals to me is basically building up topsoil as a “crop”. The most straightforward way is to plant something like a fast-growing grass, and run rollers over it a couple times a year. Rolling makes a mat that the next generation of grass can grow through, and you basically build up organic matter faster than it can rot away. The biggest problem with that is how vulnerable to wildfires it would be.

    I’ve heard the subduction zone idea, and it’s… intriguing, but I don’t know how practical it would be. I suppose there’s a degree to which NONE of this is “practical”, though.

    My own view is that we should dehydrate and compress the carbon crop, and either use the blocks for building material, or just bury them deep. Putting some kind of coating on them and re-filling coal mines comes to mind, but we’d want to be sure they couldn’t accidentally catch fire, or we’d have just another endless underground fire on our hands. I’ve also seen a compelling case for turning it into something like charcoal with a solar furnace, and burying THAT as a form of carbon that won’t rot as easily.

    Some form of processing will be required, but I seriously doubt that would require more resources than this liquid metal scheme.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    Abe Drayton @ # 6: … bury them under the sea floor along the coast …

    IANAMarine Biologist, but that sounds outrageously destructive to major ecosystems – just for starters.

    … building up topsoil as a “crop”.

    Now there you’re talking. Less carbon in the atmosphere, less nitrogen in the water, less use of artificial fertilizers, less erosion… That multiple-matting roller approach does sound potentially problematic, but overall this calls for a massive incentive program pronto – another example of all-that’s-missing-is-political-will syndrome.

    Mines tend to accumulate water, which would lead to eventual rotting of just about any carbonaceous material stashed therein. I got it – let’s just make gigatons of diamonds!!!

  8. says


    Diamonds as construction material?

    I think it’d be pretty neat to build a pyramid out of diamond made from grass or kudzu.

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