$25 Million Offered In Climate Challenge -- Tycoon Hopes to Spur Milestone Research

by phil on Sunday Feb 11, 2007 4:29 AM

Ignore the cynics. This idea is brilliant:

From The Washington Post:

British billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson, with former vice president Al Gore at his side, offered a $25 million prize Friday to anyone who can come up with a way to blunt global climate change by removing at least a billion tons of carbon dioxide a year from the Earth's atmosphere.

Richard Branson's inspiration is the 1714 Longitude Prize which offered £10,000 for any method capable of determining a ship's longitude within one degree; £15,000, within 40 minutes, and £20,000 within one half a degree.

Other contests also come to mind. There's the $10M Ansari X Prize which spurred on the first privately funded human spaceflight. There's the $2M DARPA Grand Challenge for driverless cars which Stanford won in 2005. And there's the seven $1M Millenium Prize math problems, one of which has already been solved.

These prizes are successful because they provide an opportunity for the unsung genius to become a hero. They are the ultimate ascendancy for the amateur who then becomes a legend.

The "Virgin Earth Challenge" is a clarion to the underpaid engineer in Silicon Valley who just knows—knows—that he could build a self-replicating, invisible swarm of nanoscale robots to clean up the atmosphere. Al Gore, who frequently dines in Mountain View, CA on Google's campus knows this very well. In the cavernous cafeteria of Google, the conversation is often abuzz with some leftfield solution to global challenges.

It's when people begin to open their minds and dare to dream that progress is made. Slashdot offers up some interesting proposals:

How much carbon dioxide does a single tree consume in a year of respiration and how many trees could be planted for $25 million?

Either that or find a way to build large scale air scrubbers that simulate plant respiration (stripping the carbon atom off a CO2 molecule and releasing O2), then compress the pure carbon into bricks for use in industry. If it could be done cheaply enough it might not just be eco-friendly, but profitable as well, with the $25 million payment as a bonus.

-- gbulmash

Put a couple thousand square miles of solar cells out in the desert, and for every megawatt they generate, reduce coal/gas/oil energy production by that much.

Install wind generators up and down the coast, and similarly replace coal.

Use some of this energy to create hydrogen from coal, and use that to power automotive fuel cells.

Mandate (and pay for) bicycle lanes on every thoroughfare in every city. Offer health insurance discounts to people who bike to work most of the time. Make biking a safe, cheap, and convenient way to travel and people will use it.

Implement modern, safer nuclear technology. Rocket the waste into the Sun, or maybe dump it on the Moon or a passing asteroid.

Create solar powered ozone production plants with 5-mile-high smokestacks to replenish the earth's O3 layer.

How do we pay for all this? Halt the war in Iraq, and use the hundreds of billions we save from that. Also, exploit space; send robot mining ships to obtain 10000-ton platinum and gold asteroids and the like; one or two of these will pay for everything.

-- yog

Warning: back-of-envelope calculations follow. The bond energy of the two carbon-oxygen double bonds in carbon dioxide is about 374 kilocalories per mole of carbon dioxide. At 44 grams CO2 to a mole, a billion tons of carbon dioxide (using 1000kg=ton) is on the order of 2x10^13 moles. This would require 3x10^13 megajoules of energy, which to provide in one year (31556926 seconds) would demand 950 gigawatts of power, which will undoubtedly require more than 25 million dollars to generate. This assumes perfect efficiency in the process, of course, and does not factor in any carbon dioxide released in the generation of that much power.

The reason this process works so well in plants is that frankly, that's not how it works in plants at all. While photosynthesis involves the net breakdown of carbon dioxide and water to form oxygen and glucose, it's a complex set of separate, but connected reactions, rather than just using sunlight to blast oxygen atoms off carbon dioxide. For instance, the oxygen produced doesn't come from carbon dioxide- it comes from water split by sunlight, with the help of an enzyme. The carbon dioxide that enters plants is never actually split apart- it's simply fixed into an organic molecule, and used to generate a glucose precursor. Breaking down carbon dioxide to its component elements is simply too energy intensive.

I suppose that's an idea though- if there were a catalyst that could fix carbon dioxide into an organic molecule, and do so at reasonable conditions of temperature and pressure, it might provide a useful way of recycling carbon. For example, if you could react carbon dioxide with methane to produce acetic acid, you could pull two greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and use them to make an industrial product (and one which could be conceivably then be used as a feedstock for plastics and fuels). Currently, this process uses carbon monoxide and methanol (made from steam reforming of methane, actually), in the presence of a metal catalyst- it seems like it could be done with CO2 and methane instead. Even if the economics might not be as favorable, the benefit in sequestering greenhouse gases might be worth it.

-- reverseengineer

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