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Appetite for Oil, Coal Drives Search for 'Painless Cure'

As Planet Heats Up,
Scientists Plot
New Technologies Appetite for Oil, Coal Drives
Search for 'Painless Cure'
To Global-Warming Issue
Storing Carbon Inside a Rock

October 22, 2004; Page A1

In a warehouse on the outskirts of Tucson, Ariz., engineers are building a prototype machine they believe could help stave off global warming. The scheme, hatched by Columbia University physicist Klaus Lackner, would remove carbon dioxide directly from the air -- and store it in rocks or under the earth.

Dr. Lackner says it will take decades before his idea for a world-wide network of wind-powered machines, each able to remove several hundred pounds of carbon dioxide from the air a day, could become reality. For now, the plan is more than a little quirky. The company behind it, grandly named Global Research Technologies, has three employees and operates on a $5 million line of credit from a wealthy donor.

The wind-machine is a massive long shot. But a growing chorus of scientists, environmentalists and large corporations now agree that to seriously address the world's global-warming problem, a major technological shift is what the planet needs.
If Russia ratifies the Kyoto Protocol -- its lower house of parliament is expected to approve it today -- it will trigger the implementation of the treaty for most industrialized nations. The treaty is meant to slow the rapidly accelerating release into the atmosphere of so-called greenhouse gases, chiefly carbon dioxide. CO 2, produced by the burning of fossil fuels such as oil and coal, forms an atmospheric layer that reflects the sun's heat back toward Earth, heating the planet in a process known as the greenhouse effect, or global warming.

But the Kyoto Protocol won't solve the world's climate problem, the pact's supporters and detractors agree. That's not just because the U.S. -- the world's largest carbon emitter -- hasn't signed on. Or because India, China and other emerging economies, whose collective global-warming emissions are expected within a few decades to overtake those of today's developed world, aren't covered by the pact.

The reality is that the Kyoto treaty, named for the Japanese city where it was negotiated in 1997, never was intended as anything but a first step. Countries that ratify it agree to emissions reductions between 2008 and 2012, which add up to a 5.2% cut from 1990 levels for the industrialized world.

Most scientists believe trimming emissions by 5.2% isn't anywhere near enough to protect the planet. Atmospheric concentrations of CO 2 are over 370 parts per million today, up one-third from pre-industrial levels, according to the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Many scientists say the Earth can tolerate CO 2 levels of about 550 parts per million before it faces a host of dangerous climate effects, from increases in extreme weather to regional droughts to significant rises in sea level.

Given current projections of economic growth and emissions increases, many scientists believe the globe could approach that point around the middle of this century. Stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at 550 parts per million would require the world to cut emissions between 55% and 85% below where they'd otherwise be by 2100, a range of studies predict.

Yet a consensus is emerging that fossil fuels, particularly coal, will remain abundant for a long time -- and that as long as they're around, they'll be burned. "It's just too cheap and easy to do otherwise," Dr. Lackner says.

The upshot is a race to find a technological fix that lets the world keep burning fossil fuel without heating up the planet.

Wind and solar power and a re-emergence of nuclear power offer potential help, but they face major political and economic challenges. In the U.S., renewable energy's share of total energy consumption is expected to remain about the same for the next quarter century, the Department of Energy predicts. In 2001, that was about 6%.

Governments and industry around the world are pursuing two technological tracks for fossil fuels. One is aimed at improving efficiency, reducing the amount of fossil fuel that has to be burned. The other is to find a way to safely dispose of the huge amounts of CO 2 that still will be produced, before those gases waft up into the atmosphere.

These ideas are the motivation for the Bush administration's main climate-change response, a $1 billion, 10-year research project dubbed FutureGen, intended to help the U.S. electric industry develop a "clean" coal-burning power plant. Not only would it burn fuel more efficiently, but rather than piping CO 2 into the air, the plant would be hooked up to a separate system to inject CO 2 underground, where it could be stored permanently.

Scientists at the Earth Institute, a research center at Columbia, don't think these steps are going nearly far enough, or fast enough. China is expected to add immense new coal-burning capacity to meet its energy needs, but if it builds conventional plants they will only add to climate problems for decades. "These are not hypothetical issues for the future," says economist Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute.

Columbia has plans for a $200,000 international prize for ideas on how to keep CO 2 below 550 parts per million. And the school says it will launch a roundtable made up of business, environmental and political leaders to discuss long-term strategies. Dr. Sachs has begun reaching out to leaders to join the group, and within three years hopes to see "serious convergence" around some key ideas.

Ways to capture CO 2 and store it are expected to be a centerpiece of any plan, and so Columbia is also backing Dr. Lackner. He was among the first to propose "zero-emission" coal plants, an idea now endorsed in a less-ambitious form by FutureGen. Dr. Lackner believes it may be necessary by midcentury to begin removing tens of billions of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

That's the reason for the small wind-machine demonstration plant in Tucson, which is so far funded privately by billionaire Gary Comer, the founder and former chairman of Lands' End clothing. The project is partly a technology demonstration, and partly a "backstop" in case all else fails, says Wallace Broecker, dean of Columbia's climate researchers.

Whether the Tucson project will fly or fizzle is anyone's guess, and some experts give it low marks for practicality. But the spirit motivating it that seriously curbing global warming will require some very bold technological steps -- is beginning to wield broad influence.

Already, talks on what comes after Kyoto are heating up. The Pew Center on Global Climate Change, an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit group, has launched a series of closed-door discussions on the subject among corporate and political leaders from around the world. Russia's possible ratification of Kyoto "requires that people start thinking about what comes next," says Eileen Claussen, the Pew Center's president.

Exxon Mobil Corp. is spending $100 million over 10 years on global-warming research at Stanford University. General Motors Corp. is spending about $500,000 to fund a Duke University program on research into fuel-cell vehicles that would run on hydrogen. BP is spending $15 million and Ford Motor Co. is spending $5 million to help fund research at Princeton University into ways to reduce CO 2 emissions from burning fossil fuels.

That's much the same thinking that motivates Dr. Lackner's research at Columbia: acknowledging the necessity of fossil fuels, while proposing a relatively "painless cure" for the CO 2 problem they cause. "The do-nothing argument has become that fixing the climate will be just too expensive, and we're trying to show that it's not," says Dr. Lackner.

Dr. Lackner, who was raised in Germany and moved to the U.S. to work on physics experiments in California and at New Mexico's Los Alamos National Laboratory, has a history of hatching big-picture ideas. In the early-1990s, he developed a proposal for solar-powered robots called "auxons," able to carry out a host of industrial processes. Thinking about what jobs such robots could do, Dr. Lackner hit on the idea of removing carbon from the atmosphere by combining it with minerals.

Nature already performs a similar task, albeit at a slow pace, as air moves over the surface of the earth. CO 2 in the air reacts with some minerals to form carbonates, such as soda ash. Dr. Lackner believes if the reaction was sped up, it could be used to capture large amounts of carbon pollution inside rocks, which could then be disposed of by dumping them down mineshafts.

Some colleagues view Dr. Lackner's ideas as unproven, and possibly unworkable. Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Howard Herzog, an engineer and expert on underground storage of CO 2, assessed one of Dr. Lackner's plans last year for a group of energy companies. While Dr. Herzog's report called the idea "seductive," he concluded it would require so much energy it may actually create additional CO 2 instead of reducing it.

Dr. Lackner disputes Dr. Herzog's calculations, but concedes only a demonstration can prove doubters wrong.

Searching for someone willing to test his ideas, he corresponded with Allen Wright, an engineer at the environmental research station Biosphere 2, in Oracle, Ariz. The domed facility had already become something of an accidental laboratory in carbon chemistry. The dome's first group of eight full-time residents had faced unusual atmospheric conditions after CO 2 in the air began reacting with the facility's 100,000-square-feet of concrete flooring.

Columbia had been funding Biosphere, but in September 2003 cut its ties completely following a legal fight with its owners. That freed up Mr. Wright to discuss how to build a prototype with Dr. Lackner. Plans to seek grants to construct a demonstration on Columbia's New York campus quickly changed after Lands' End's Mr. Comer learned of the idea. Since selling the apparel company to Sears Roebuck & Co. for $2 billion in 2002, Mr. Comer has become a major source of private funding for climate scientists, and he agreed to put $5 million into the carbon project in $1 million installments over five years.

In March, the new company, Global Research Technologies, jointly owned by Mr. Wright and Mr. Comer, moved to an industrial park, where they have been testing a variety of ideas, many supplied by Dr. Lackner who remains closely involved. Mr. Wright built a 40-foot wind tunnel out of plywood and plastic to test prototype devices. Since CO 2 exists in air at very low densities, a key engineering challenge is creating a system of filters that can maximize contact between the air and an absorbent liquid used to soak up the gas.

The engineers are now focused only on the problem of efficient air-capture. What to do with the CO 2 once it is caught is another problem. It could be compressed and then buried in wells underground or, as Dr. Lackner prefers, combined permanently with rocks.

Dr. Sachs, the Earth Institute director, believes if world governments took up similar carbon-storage projects progress could be surprisingly rapid. "What's special about this technology is that no one has really worked on it," he says. "There hasn't been any intrinsic interest in managing carbon, because CO 2 is harmless, odorless and uninteresting from every point of view except that it could wreck the global environment."
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