30 September 2015 15:36:55 IST

The rise of carbon engineering

With anti-carbon sentiment riding high in the world, universities may soon offer MBA-Carbonomics

There is a machine that produces oxygen from air. It is usually for patients who need external supply of the gas all the time. My father was laid low by a lung disease and used the machine for four years; the machine, which is half the size of a washing machine, works on an absurdly simple principle: air passes through a chamber that is coated with a certain chemical; this chemical absorbs all the nitrogen in the air, and what comes out is 99 per cent oxygen-rich air. It is the same principle that catalytic converters use in cars.

Somebody wondered if that principle could not be extended to try and solve the most pressing problem of our times — carbon dioxide emissions.

Excess CO 2

The air today has a lot more carbon dioxide than can be absorbed by the plants and trees on the earth, and the excess CO 2 goes up above the world so high that it forms a blanket around the earth, trapping the heat — and what have you? Global warming!

(In two months from now, in Paris, the world will congregate to discuss this very problem. Watch out for the meeting called COP 21. More on it another time.)

So, a group of people racked their brains over how to get carbon dioxide out of the air and recalled the machines like the ‘oxygen concentrator’ that my dad and catalytic converters used. Why not apply the same principle to remove carbon dioxide from air, they thought.

The result, to use a cliché, is there for everyone to see. Near the Canadian town of Calgary, stands this monstrous ‘building’ that has nothing but enormous fans that suck the air and let it out on the other side, through a cube. In the brief period the air stays inside the cube, a chemical (potassium hydroxide, if you are keen to know) steals most of the carbon dioxide from the air, so that what comes out on the other side is ‘clean’.

But the chemical, after absorbing carbon dioxide, becomes a salt (potassium carbonate). Now, it is no big deal to separate carbon dioxide from the carbonate salt to ‘recover’ the original chemical. So in the process, you have separate tonnes of CO 2 !

The entrepreneurs who built this pilot plant at Calgary say their machines are modular, and can be put up anywhere — in fact, they should be put up everywhere so that the process of ridding air of CO 2 is continuous.

However, there are perplexing questions that need answers. For instance, won’t the electricity required to keep the fans running make it a costly proposition? And what of the CO 2 that you end up with? The gas has some industrial uses, true, but not if millions of tonnes of it are produced! Never mind these questions; the entrepreneurs seem to have convinced none other than Bill Gates to invest in their company.

Carbonomics on the way

But the point is not about the ‘carbon dioxide separation machine’. What this story illustrates, is the emergence of a new branch of study, called ‘carbon engineering’, which, incidentally, is what the Canadian company calls itself.

In the not-too-distant future, don’t be surprised to see universities offering courses in carbon engineering. It is still emerging, but one can see that the substance of it will be how to deal with carbon. To break it up further, carbon engineering will be the study of avoidance of CO 2 emissions, the separation of the gas from air, means of impounding and storing carbon, invention of industrial uses of carbon (so you don’t have to store it) and so on.

In the not-too-distant future, you might also come across job ads, that will read ‘looking to hire a Chief Carbon Officer’, who, (who knows?), might report directly to Director-Carbon. His job will be to keep a watch on carbon, perhaps by conducting periodic carbon audits.

Judging by the anti-carbon sentiment in the world today, it would surprise no one if companies that have a carbon department find it easier to attract investments.

The flip side of carbon engineering is the economics of the game. If you are a betting person, you could punt on your college offering ‘MBA-Carbonomics’ in a few years, and a further bet that it will be a damn difficult seat to secure.