General Biomass and Global
General Biomass Company was founded in 1998 to do
something about global warming. Since our founding, the General Biomass web site
has carried information on global
warming as a public service. This will now be focused on potential
technology solutions and public policy. General Biomass needs and welcomes
support from investors, partners and applicants to develop our own ability to
contribute to solutions. Our area of expertise is cellulosic technology
to make glucose and xylose from biomass. Glucose from cellulose and xylose from
hemicellulose are the core feedstocks for biofuels, whether
ethanol, butanol or designer biofuels. Inquiries about the company should be
directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Green plants are the only feasible way to remove carbon dioxide
from the atmosphere at ambient concentrations (now 388ppm). Plants use solar
energy to fix atmospheric carbon into sugars, which can then be made into
ethanol, chemicals, and plastics, partially replacing the use of fossil oil and
natural gas. Apart from this fossil fuel sparing effect, some biomass crops and
processes can sequester CO2, potentially giving carbon negative solutions
(decreasing atmospheric CO2). In the United States, it is feasible to replace
30% of the gasoline supply with cellulosic
ethanol. Newer technologies now allow the production of diesel and
jet fuel from biomass sugars, such as glucose produced by cellulosic
Irreversible Climate Change Due To Carbon
paper by Susan Solomon, Gian-Kasper Plattner, Reto Knutti, and Pierre
Friedlingstein in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2009)
makes it clear that whatever global temperature we reach will be largely
irreversible for at least a thousand years, even if CO2 begins to fall sharply.
This is due to a very slow loss of heat to the oceans, which takes much longer
than the decay of atmospheric CO2 levels. The practical consequence of this is
that we will have to live with whatever temperature maximum we reach, and
therefore that additional CO2 and other GHGs need to be reduced much more
rapidly than U.S. or international policies now envision. This requires a
massive amount of innovation, deployment and investment, far more than we are
Urgency of Global Warming
Recent calculations by Dr. Jim Hansen of Columbia suggest
that development of global warming technology needs to be greatly accelerated.
Global warming is a product of both positive (global warming) and negative
(global cooling) temperature forcings. There is considerable uncertainty about
the exact values of these opposing forces, and hence the true rate at which
global warming will occur. Additional positive feedbacks like the melting of
Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets threaten to accelerate global warming beyond the
direct effects of fossil fuel burning by humans. The bottom line is that we need
to slow and reverse production of new greenhouse gases much faster than
previously thought. A "safe" level of CO2 is probably below the current
388ppm, but we are committed to a trajectory which will take us up to at least
400-425ppm before we can reverse the trend. Dr. Hansen provides a very readable
summary of these issues in his recent Bjernkes
A good overview of the economic and technological tradeoffs
needed is provided in a lecture on Global
Climate Disruption by Dr. John P. Holdren of Harvard, now Director of the
White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Overview of Global Warming
The scale of technology development and deployment needed to
slow global warming appreciably, let alone stabilize atmospheric CO2 at an
acceptable level, is truly immense. Potential technologies therefore need to be
evaluated on scalability, effectiveness, timing, and cost.
These are defined as follows:
scalability - How much
do we need? How much could we do?
effectiveness - What is the net
carbon balance? Is this technology worth developing as a solution to global
timing - How soon can we get it?
cost - How much
will a ton of carbon reduction cost using this technology? Is the technology
cheap enough to become widely available?
Let's start with scale. An approximation of the total
amount of carbon-free power needed to cap atmospheric CO2 at double the
preindustrial amount can be estimated using an equation called the Kaya
identity. This equation has four factors: global population size, per capita
GDP, primary energy intensity and carbon intensity. These are multiplied by one
another, so the total CO2 reduction needed depends heavily on economic
development (hence energy demand) as well as the amounts and types of fuels
This analysis has been done by Dr. Martin Hoffert and colleagues
in Energy implications
of future stabilization of atmospheric CO2 content, Nature 395: 881-884,
1998. Their conclusion is that tens of terawatts (1 TW = 1 trillion watts) of
carbon-emission-free primary power will be required by 2050 to stabilize
atmospheric carbon dioxide content at double the preindustrial level. For
comparison, the power provided by all combined energy sources today is 10 TW. A
massive technical and commercial effort will be required to meet this
challenge. Recent evidence suggests that a doubling of CO2 to 750ppm is far too
high if we wish to avoid dangerous effects of climate change, and that a more
ambitious, lower cap of 425ppm needs to be planned now, with a subsequent
reduction below the current 388ppm. Current investment and government
support should be judged in this context, and both are grossly
inadequate to achieve these goals.
Effectiveness is a measure of the actual carbon reduction
potential of a given technology implementation. This reduction potential can be
estimated by an evolving discipline known as Life Cycle Analysis (LCA).
LCA has been used by numerous groups to evaluate the net energy balance and
carbon balance of ethanol from corn and cellulosic biomass. The two best
examples of this analysis are
(1) from Kammen's lab at Berkeley - Farrell et
al. (2006) Ethanol
Can Contribute to Energy and Environmental Goals
(2) from Michael Wang
(2005) at Argonne National Lab in Chicago . Updated Energy and
Greenhouse Gas Emission Results of Fuel Ethanol.
These two references
compare a number of studies, and make the point that boundary conditions matter:
e.g., do we count just the tractor fuel, or also the energy to make the tractor?
Have we considered all the useful outputs? What value do we assign to fossil
carbon displacement, which is distinct from gross energy balance?
LCA has been applied repeatedly to ethanol, with the conclusion
that cellulosic ethanol offers substantial greenhouse gas benefits compared to
gasoline. Going forward, we need to apply the same standards to other proposed
alternatives. What is the energy and carbon balance of hydrogen made from grid
electricity or natural gas? How many years of operation does it take for a
nuclear power plant to pay back the fossil energy used to construct it and
create the fuel?
Timing is important because CO2 from burning fossil fuels
persists in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. Additionally, CO2 directly
reduces the effectiveness of CO2 absorption in the oceans due to acidification.
There are numerous positive feedback effects (warming itself causes more
warming) in the Earth's climate system, among them the potential release of
stored biological carbon from frozen tundra areas (methane from peat bogs in
Siberia), and a loss of albedo (reflectivity) as white ice areas are replaced by
darker land and ocean. Human carbon emissions create a net injection of carbon
roughly on the order of 10 units per year, while the natural land and sea carbon
fluxes are on the order of about 100 units per year each. These large natural
fluxes are completely beyond the control of humans, hence our only leverage with
the climate system is the relatively small amount of fossil carbon we emit by
burning or not burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas. This fossil
fuel contribution needs to be reduced rapidly, and it is an open question
whether the necessary technologies can developed and deployed rapidly enough.
Cellulosic ethanol is
promising because it builds on the existing infrastructure in place because of
corn ethanol. In 2006, the U.S. produced about 5 billion gal of ethanol from
corn and had 6 million E85-capable flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs) on the road. All
U.S. autos can use E10 without modification. Corn ethanol is approaching its
limits within a few years, but the infrastructure can be supplied by cellulosic
ethanol as that technology develops. Brazil has built a large infrastructure
around sugarcane (sucrose) ethanol, and there are many ethanol opportunities in
Asia, Latin America and Europe. Cellulosic ethanol can be made from waste paper,
which is 40% of municipal solid waste, so urban centers can make cellulosic
ethanol from their own resources.
Cost matters because technology deployment on a large
scale requires commercial enterprises funded by revenues. There is a great need
at present for public funds to support R&D in all these areas, and to
subsidize early commercialization. In the longer term, technologies must be
embodied in profitable businesses to achieve the scale and longevity necessary.
This needs to be an international effort, since the knowledge base, markets and
people reside in many countries. Oil-consuming nations will get additional
benefits through job creation and the reduction or elimination of wealth
transfer for oil imports.
One way to begin looking at the overall solution is the
stabilization wedge model proposed by Pacala and Socolow (2004 - Stablization
Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current
Technologies, Science 305:968-972). They plot a business-as-usual (BAU)
trajectory for fossil carbon emissions through the year 2060 vs a stabilized
trajectory at about 500ppm CO2. They divide the roughly triangle-shaped
difference between the two curves into 7 wedges, or stabilization triangles.
Each wedge can in theory be filled by a different technology at some large
quantity, and they suggest 15 alternatives, including biofuels, wind, power
plant CO2 capture, and increased vehicle fuel economy. This is an interesting
first approximation, and serious consideration of any of the 15 alternatives
highlights the magnitude of the task. The criteria given above may be helpful in
evaluating these alternatives.
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