A truly astonishing series of exchanges occurred over the past few days on Dr. Judith Curry’s blog, Climate Etc. that prompts me to chronicle these comments here. see link Also, I include some more in-depth discussion. The sheer ignorance (I hesitate to use that word, but in this case it certainly fits) of the commenters about such an important issue is well, staggering. One commenter in particular, Rud Istvan, a Harvard-trained economist, was particularly snide and obnoxious when I pointed out the errors in his claims that carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) cannot work without nuclear power as the electricity source.
The general topic is CCS, one of the chief aims of the man-made global warming camp. CCS is a technology that captures carbon dioxide (CO2) either from a man-made source before it enters the atmosphere, or directly from the atmosphere. The sequestration can take many forms, including injecting CO2 as a gas or liquid into subterranean rock formations, and chemical conversion of CO2 into other, solid substances such as sodium bicarbonate. The warmist-alarmists' basic (and mistaken) belief is that CO2 build-up in the atmosphere is causing, and will cause in the future, catastrophic consequences around the world including polar ice melting, glaciers melting, sealevel rise and shore inundation, heat waves, droughts, floods, and a host of other disasters. It’s pretty scary stuff, except that none of it is true.
Regarding CCS, I should note here that chemical engineers have been capturing CO2 and removing it from gas streams for many decades. The problem is not new, in fact, an amine-based process has been perfected and optimized over many years. An example is natural gas plants, which remove impurities from raw natural gas received from wells, and have CO2 removal as but one of many steps in the purification process. The CCS proponents don’t like the amine-based CO2 removal process that is used in natural gas plants because of its relatively high energy consumption. CCS technologies with lower energy consumption is one of their goals. With that as background, on to the ignorance and snide-ness.
Dr. Curry’s blog article for August 30, 2016 leads with: “The economic models that are used to inform climate policy currently contain an unhealthy dose of wishful thinking. Technologies that remove carbon dioxide from the air are assumed in the models that avoid dangerous climate change – but such technologies do not yet exist and it is unclear whether they could be deployed at a meaningful scale. – Tim Kruger” (Mr. Kruger is Programme Manager, Oxford Geoengineering Programme, University of Oxford) (emphasis added)
And, a bit farther down in the article, Mr. Kruger again: “Technically, there are serious doubts about the ability to sequester the vast quantities of carbon dioxide that are implied in the models.” (emphasis added)
Knowing those statements to be false, I took keyboard under fingers and joined the conversation. My first comment was as follows:
“Seems somebody missed a memo re CCS. Not only is carbon capture possible on commercial scale, it has been operating for more than one year in San Antonio, Texas. It is not (pure) CCS, but carbon capture and mineralization.” I added a weblink to a recent article from a San Antonio newspaper on the success of the Skyonic company’s SkyMine® plant that captures CO2 from the flue gas created in a cement plant. (note, the word “pure” was added here for clarity)
Then, Rud Istvan responded with a dismissive story about a high school chemistry experiment in which one places Drano in a bottle of soda water to absorb the CO2. He then wrote as follows:
“NaOH is made by electrolysis of salt water. NaOH and Chlorine are two of the highest volume basic chemicals made industrially. Guess what. The electricity needed to make the precursor NaOH when produced by fossil fuels almost exactly produces what Sky Mines (company is Skyonics) sequesters. Actually, a bit more due to thermodynamic losses. So only way this works is if the NaOH electrolysis electricity comes from nuclear. But then just build nuclear and be done with it. . . . all the stoichiometry and chemical energy equations, with footnotes for those that did not pass high school chemistry but still willing to learn.
Your lovely picture is a consequence of $26 million of utterly ignorant DoE grantsmanship. Total waste of ‘climate’dollars. Skyonics claimed it was economic because they would use cheap off peak electricity to make NaOH. Yes, but that does not solve the basic chemistry problem their foolish scheme cannot surmount.” – RIstvan. (emphasis added)
“RS, (meaning me) you have yet to post any chemical engineering that might refute my post. You cannot, because it is irrefutable. You appeal to authority, I appeal to the fundamental laws of physical chemistry. I agree you can make the chemistry work; said so above. I disagree that it can net sequester CO2 absent nuclear electricity. Also said so above.” -- Ristvan
I then posted a few comments that describe the SkyMine® plant in general terms, and that the President and CEO, Joe Jones was issued a US patent for the process, but RIstvan apparently doesn’t read these comments or doesn’t understand them. ( He also ranted a bit about disproving patents himself, and (presumably) that makes Skyonic's patent invalid. That's plain nuts, as the Skyonic patent covers basic chemistry and chemical engineering; I should know, having read it and verified it myself.)
RIstvan still hasn’t learned anything, so he posts the next howler: “Skyonics issued patent does not repeal the physical CO2 chemistry you have yet to refute. I provided the high school chem experiment proving the chemistry works. The simple chemE problem is CO2 net sequestration in the absence of nuclear electricity producing Drano. . . . You really need to learn more physics and physical chemistry before opining here against my research. You only display both your ignorance and your biases. ” (note, Ristvan wrote the name wrongly, Skyonics is incorrect, Skyonic is correct. I left his wording as is).
Then, a bit later in the comments, I posted a link to a Skyonic-produced document for the Department of Energy that has great details about the plant’s design and energy consumption. I added a brief summary for those who would not or could not follow the chemistry and engineering language. see link to Skyonic report to DoE.
Where to begin? There is so much wrong with Ristvan’s comments it is simply staggering. First, let’s start with Drano. Ristvan apparently does not know that Drano is not pure NaOH, sodium hydroxide. A material safety data sheet from S.C. Johnson, its manufacturer, shows the chemical components are NaOH, sodium nitrate, sodium chloride, and aluminum. But, he is an economist, not a chemical engineer.
Next, Ristvan claims three very wrong things:
1) CCS cannot work absent nuclear-based electricity to produce the “Drano,”
2) (CCS has) a “basic chemistry problem their (Skyonic’s) foolish scheme cannot surmount,” and
3) “You really need to learn more physics and physical chemistry before opining here against my research. You only display both your ignorance and your biases.” There was a similar dig, saying “RS (meaning me), you are apparently not very versed in high school level physical chemistry.”
Each point is addressed in turn below.
CCS Cannot Work Absent Nuclear-Based Electricity
One must understand that traditional CCS uses quite a bit of electricity, not only in the production of NaOH, but also in the pumps and blowers in the carbon capturing process, then to compress the CO2 into pipelines, and finally more compression to inject the CO2 deep into underground rock formations. The compressors are driven by electric motors.
One must next understand that it is indeed a losing proposition if one uses CCS to capture CO2 from a high-efficiency power plant that burns natural gas, while creating the electricity to run the CCS in a low-efficiency coal-burning power plant. Perhaps this is what Ristvan had in mind. However, the CCS plant would likely take power from the local grid and be powered with whatever mix of power generation the grid happens to have.
However, it is a winning proposition to collect CO2 in a CCS process from a low-efficiency coal-powered plant, and use electricity from a high-efficiency gas-fired power plant. Coal-burning produces two to three times the CO2 of a natural gas powered plant. There is no need to use nuclear power at all. It is even better to use power from a grid that has renewable power on it, such as wind power and solar power.
So, it can be seen that Ristvan’s first assertion is completely false.
A Basic Chemistry Problem
It’s not entirely clear what Ristvan is referring to as a “basic chemistry problem” with the Skyonic-patented CO2 mineralization process. There is no dispute over the basic chemistry, as it is well-known that NaOH will react with CO2, ultimately to form NaHCO3, however, there is an intermediate reaction to Na2CO3 and water. Whether Ristvan knows this, is very much in doubt.
There is no basic chemistry problem. There is, though, a matter of properly labeling the chemistry. Ristvan insists that this is physical chemistry, when the correct term is inorganic chemistry. But as an economist (he also claims a JD and MBA, and is quick to state that all degrees are from Harvard), perhaps he can be forgiven for his ignorance of chemistry.
What do exist are a few very beneficial modifications by the SkyMine® inventor, Joe Jones (who by the way is also a chemical engineer, and happens to be a graduate of my alma mater, The University of Texas at Austin).
The modifications Joe discovered include (but are not limited to): 1) operating the electrolysis process at optimal conditions for NaOH production, 2) using cement plant waste heat to provide heat to the electrolyser so it performs at the required temperature, and 3) no external energy required to evaporate the aqueous NaOH to market grade, which is at minimum 50 percent by weight NaOH.
These give the SkyMine® process an energy advantage over conventional chlor-alkali plants that otherwise produce the NaOH that could be purchased and used. Skyonic chose to build the electrolysis plant onsite, and take advantage of the several benefits listed just above, while conceding some capital costs due to lack of economy of scale.
It can be seen, then, that there is no basic chemistry problem. However, there are several ingenious (and patentable) improvements over the conventional chlor-alkali process.
Sowell’s Need to Learn More Physics and Physical Chemistry
I repeat here Ristvan’s comment: “You (Sowell) really need to learn more physics and physical chemistry before opining here against my (Ristvan) research. You only display both your ignorance and your biases.” There was a similar dig, saying “RS (meaning me), you are apparently not very versed in high school level physical chemistry.”
This one is truly a gem.
Having known about and followed the Skyonic company, their patented process, and the San Antonio plant design, construction, startup, and operation for several years, I know the plant is based on sound engineering. I was somewhat surprised that Ristvan took such a tone as shown above. Clearly, there is no chemistry problem, and no economics problem either. The CO2 balance is negative when running a SkyMine® plant, on the order of 30 percent less CO2 on a net basis. In other words, for every 100 tonnes of CO2 removed from the atmosphere, the SkyMine® process cradle-to-grave analysis adds back only 70 tonnes. A net reduction of 30 tonnes occurs.
The one with ignorance on display is not Sowell, but Rud Istvan. (As my readers and friends know quite well, I hold a BS in chemical engineering and have more than 40 years of experience as an engineer in many countries world-wide; I also have university class education in nuclear chemistry and plant design and economics). I also started my career in chlor-alkali plants in 1975. We ran a CO2 absorbtion process using dilute NaOH to create our own sodium bicarbonate for in-house use in the plant. Chlor-alkali plants have done the same for decades, around the world. It is more than a bit amusing to read the rantings of Ristvan, an economist, on these issues.
What is also not obvious to Ristvan, apparently, is that producing the sodium bicarbonate in a SkyMine® plant, then selling the bicarbonate in the commodities market, ultimately keeps some other plants’ raw material in the ground. The sales from SkyMine® plants also reduces production from the liquid Solvay process that consumes NaOH. Both of these market adjustments result in less energy consumed and less CO2 produced. The mining process typically burns coal in the bicarbonate production, so the energy reduction there is much greater.
All in all, it was a very entertaining few days in commenting on Dr. Curry’s blog post. It is a bit dismaying to see articles published that continue with the false statement that CCS does not yet exist. The SkyMine® plant in San Antonio removes 75,000 tonnes per year of CO2 from the cement plant flue gas. This is admittedly described as a pilot-plant scale, and could be scaled up by a factor of at least 5. However, a net reduction of 33 percent would be 25,000 tonnes per year removed. Scaled up by 5, that would be 125,000 tonnes per year.
Built out at tens of thousands of plants world-wide, there would be 1.25 billion tonnes CO2 removed annually for every 10,000 such plants. IPCC claims a need for “hundreds if not thousands of gigatonnes” CO2 removed, but that is cumulative, not annually. Therefore, having 20,000 SkyMine® plants at 5 times the San Antonio size operating for 100 years meets the IPCC requirement, removing cumulatively 250 gigatonnes over the next century. It could also be done with 10,000 such plants at 10 times the San Antonio size.
Another point about Ristvan’s misplaced outrage, that of nuclear power being the end-all-and-shut-up solution to all the CO2 issues. As I have written before on SLB, nuclear power is not magic. see link One fellow (not Ristvan) argued that nuclear power would completely replace oil, gas, and coal world-wide. No, it won’t, not now and not ever. The world has a critical need for products that simply cannot be made using electricity, and their production releases CO2 into the atmosphere. Among these are cement, asphalts, lubricating oils and greases, petroleum-based waxes, petrochemicals including plastics and thousands of others, and transportation fuels (especially jet fuel for airplanes) and diesel for long-haul trains. In fact, one could not even begin to build a nuclear power plant without the CO2 intensive products (cement for concrete, diesel for trucks to haul the component parts, diesel for construction equipment, plastics for the hundreds of miles of insulation, more plastics for electrical equipment such as the generators, etc.)
So, I get a good laugh from Rud Istvan, who comments as "Ristvan" on various blogs. He bristles each time he tries to correct me, and I show him time and again that he is actually wrong.
A word to the wise: pick your battles carefully when you want to battle a highly experienced chemical engineer over the chemistry and economics of a chemical process. We seldom lose such a battle. Especially when the adversary is not a chemical engineer but merely an economist.
Roger E. Sowell, Esq.
Marina del Rey, California
copyright (c) 2016 by Roger Sowell - all rights reserved