Get the carbon out of natural gas

Turning natural gas into hydrogen might sound like the alchemists dream of turning lead into gold but the technology has been around for decades.

image: FuelCellsWorks

It’s long been the dream of our fossil-fuel hungry society that we can continue to burn fuel without the consequences of climate change. We’re totally hooked on fossil fuels and the future of reliance on renewable energy sources is decades away.

One proposed solution is to extract CO2 out of the air by sequestration: capture and store CO2. But that technology is unproven and even if it worked, would require billions of dollars to build. 

It would help a lot if we could, at least, remove the carbon from the natural gas used to heat our homes, cook our meals, and heat water. Fifty per cent of Canada’s household energy needs come from natural gas, with electricity at 45 per cent in second place, and heating oil at 4 per cent.

As far as gas goes, hydrogen is the fuel of the future. When burned, it produces nothing but water.

The feds are big on hydrogen. Last year, the federal government released its Hydrogen Strategy for Canada. It’s an ambitious plan to get Canada to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and make Canada a global leader in hydrogen technologies.

There are a number of ways of producing hydrogen including the electrolysis of water using green sources of electricity. There are even pockets of hydrogen beneath the ground that could be mined.

And since a massive system of natural gas pipelines already exists, the hydrogen could be sent through those pipelines.

However, sending hydrogen through natural gas pipelines is a bad idea, says professor Michael E. Webber of the University of Texas at Austin:

“Moving and storing gaseous hydrogen is also a challenge. Because of hydrogen’s low density, it takes a lot of energy to move it through a pipe compared with denser gases such as methane or liquids such as petroleum. After several hundred kilometers the inefficiency makes moving hydrogen more expensive than the value of the energy it carries (Scientific American, April, 2021).”

A better solution would be to convert natural gas to hydrogen at the end of the pipeline -at home. The process is called pyrolysis. It breaks down in natural gas into hydrogen and solid carbon. The method is efficient and eliminates CO2 emissions. It’s been known for decades. Pyrolysis takes conventional natural gas and converts is to nearly zero carbon.

However, pyrolysis is not magic. It requires heat which would have to come from renewable electricity sources. On the plus side, the solid carbon produced is a valuable industrial product; more valuable than any other product we place at our curbsides. It could be collected with other recyclables. Also, the gas jets in our appliances would have to be replaced to burn hydrogen.

The installation of home pyrolysis generators would be expensive but compared to the billions of dollars being put into carbon sequestration, not prohibitive. The sale of the valuable solid carbon collected would partially offset costs.

Home-based natural gas converters would allow us to have our fossil fuels and burn them too. And feel good about doing so.

Who is responsible for the CO2 produced by streaming?

Two decades of Eye View

This column marks twenty years of writing Eye View. Thanks to former editors of the Kamloops Daily News Susan Duncan and Mel Rothenburger for encouraging me to write, to CFJC Today for their support, and to James Peters for helping me to refine my writing and carefully read what I’ve written (I’m a lousy editor).

I’m seldom at a loss for subjects. What motivates me is my curiosity of the world and my desire to share what I found in a clear and concise manner. My ultimate goal is to write the perfect column. Maybe I’ll live long enough.


Who is responsible for the CO2 produced by streaming?

We are regularly reminded to reduce energy our consumption by replacing lightbulbs but when was the last time we were reminded to stream less?

Server Farm.  Image: Los Angles Times

The videos we watch consume 80 per cent of energy used by energy farms located around the world. Netflix alone pumps out over one billion hours of video a week. Now Disney and Apple have started streaming services. Streaming is just part of the picture says Jane Kearns, vice-president at MaRS Discovery District:

“Add those to our video chats, music playlists, online games, virtual assistants, smart thermostats and global positioning systems. Throw in road sensors, surveillance cameras and cryptocurrencies; and, soon, 5G connectivity, remote surgeries and autonomous transportation (Globe and Mail, Dec. 9, 2109)”

Even a simple search on Google adds up. A typical search requires as much energy as illuminating a 60-watt light bulb for 17 seconds.

While lightbulb replacement is promoted as an energy saver, no one reminds us to stream less. Perhaps it’s because server farms are so invisible: videos seems to descend from the clouds.

Yet, there are over eight million server farms around the world running full-tilt, all hours of the day. The fact that these processing machines are working 24/7 at maximum output barely registers on us. These invisible machines use 200 terawatt hours a year, about one-half of Canada’s annual electricity consumption. They emit roughly as much CO2 as the airline industry. And with global data traffic more than doubling every four years, they are growing fast.

It’s part of a bigger problem: when servers are located in a specific country but internet use is international, which country is responsible for the greenhouse gases they produce?

Northern countries are ideal for locating servers because the biggest cost is in cooling the computers. Companies like to build them where the weather is temperate – countries such as Iceland, Ireland, Finland, and Canada. Or where there’s lots of water for cooling. It doesn’t seem fair that those countries must add the CO2 produced by these servers to their total commitment.

British Columbia faces a similar situation with natural gas which it plans to export to Asia. Since natural gas will, theoretically, replace coal-fired generators, should B.C. be credited with the net reduction in CO2 or China?

It’s the same problem for China, where goods are made for sale globally by manufacturers burning fossil fuels in China.

The problem of energy consumed locally for global use needs to be addressed but when nations won’t own up to CO2 produced for local consumption, streaming will remain someone else’s problem.


We’ve evolved to move

Herman Pontzer’s discovery defied common sense. He found that exercise doesn’t result in weight loss.

image: Best Health Magazine Canada

Defying logic, upsetting the plans of many to lose weight through exercise, and threatening exercise industries -there is no connection between exercise and calories burned.

Pontzer, an anthropologist at Duke University, lived with the Hadza people of northern Tanzania. He wanted to find out how many calories these hunter-gathers burned. It’s a grueling, energy-intensive lifestyle. He compared the calories burned by the Hadza with those burned by average adults in the US and Europe. They were the same. Even comparing average and sedentary adults of the Western world, they were the same. Pontzer was astonished:

“When the analyses came back from Baylor [university], the Hadza looked the same everyone else. Hadza men ate and burned about 2,600 calories. Hadza women about 1,900 calories as day -the same as adults in the US or Europe, We looked at the data every way imaginable, accounting for effects of body size, fat percentage, age, and sex. No difference. How was it possible? What were we missing (Scientific American, February, 2017)?”

I was astonished, too, when I read the article two years ago. Isn’t the obesity epidemic caused by lack of exercise? Can’t I eat that piece of cake and work it off in the gym? If exercise doesn’t reduce weight, why bother exercising?

I’m no anthropologist but both the fuel and the exhaust of our bodies are basic -oxygen in, carbon dioxide out. If we can measure CO2 output, that’s a measure of calories burned. A clunky way of measuring CO2 would be to have subjects wear a mask that collected CO2 while they exercised or sat around: not very practical.

Pontzer used a simple but elegant method employing “doubly labelled water.” This otherwise ordinary water has two tags, one isotope of hydrogen and one of oxygen. Subjects simply drink the special water and pee in a cup later. They are not confined in any way; they go about their daily business. Their urine now contains both isotopes in different amounts. The number of hydrogen isotopes is used as a reference. The number of oxygen isotopes indicates the amount of CO2. Subtract the two numbers and you have calories burned. The results were confirmed later using a device similar to a Fitbit.

Two years later, Pontzer wrote another article with some answers. (Scientific American, January, 2019).

This time he wondered how our close relatives, the apes, can live a sedentary lifestyle and not suffer from the the diseases we get from lounging around all day. In the wild and in zoos, apes sit around most of the day but don’t get carido-vascular and metabolic diseases. Humans who lounge around as much as apes suffer from type 2 diabetes, heart and brain disease.

Using doubly labelled water on apes (they are surprisingly cooperative in the collection of urine), he found that apes had evolved so that their calorie consumption matched their activity. They had evolved to lounge around.

Long ago when we were hunter-gatherers, our calorie consumption matched our daily activity. Now we don’t have to exercise and so we don’t. The problem is that calories not burned in exercise gum up the works. When we don’t exercise, calories are burned anyway. In a way not understood, calories not burned in exercise lead to an unhealthy outcome: carido-vascular disease and poor brain health.

Pontzer’s message is clear: “Exercise is not optional; it is essential.”

B.C. firm extracts fuel from air

It may sound like alchemy but Carbon Engineering Ltd based in Squamish captures carbon from the atmosphere and turns it back into automotive fuel.

Carbon Engineering,
Squamish, BC. Image: Google maps

It’s not just wishful thinking. Investors with deep pockets are putting money into the project, such as Microsoft’s Bill Gates.

Co-owner of Carbon Engineering David Keith describes the technology as “direct air capture” (DAC). They’ve been running a pilot plant since 2015 and hope to build a commercial-scale operation soon. The plant has been producing a variety of fuels, such as diesel, gasoline, and Jet-A since 2017.

Carbon capture technology is not new but the price barrier has been too high to make it feasible. Previous processes have cost US$600 a tonne. Professor Keith says they have broken the price barrier:

“At Carbon Engineering, we now have the data and engineering to prove that DAC can achieve costs below US$100 (Globe and Mail, June 8, 2018).”

Former processes haven’t worked, as Saskatchewan found out. At higher cost and lower reliability, they extract CO2 and store it into the ground. Former Premier of Brad Wall had high hopes that his province could avoid a federal carbon tax by carbon capture. However, these plants are only operational 45 per cent of the time. The old technology has been tried globally and abandoned; China cancelled theirs.

Professor Keith researched his DAC technology at the University of Calgary. The process is relatively simple in theory. First CO2 is extracted from the air. Then hydrogen is created from water through electrolysis using any energy source, preferably renewable. Solar cells, for example, could create hydrogen by breaking water into its component parts. In the final stage, hydrogen and CO2 are combined to produce hydrocarbon fuels.

The novelty of Professor Keith’s technology is that it solves three problems: rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, drilling for fossil fuels, and the storage of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

Of course, if you are going to extract CO2 from the air only to convert it back into fuels that will put the CO2 back in the air, that hardly seems like a solution. But at least it is not producing any more CO2. And mining the air for fuels is certainly better than fracking shale deposits.

Using renewable energy sources such as wind and solar to produce automotive fuel seems counterintuitive at first. The problem with renewable energy sources that they produce energy when it’s not needed and none when is -it has to be stored somehow.  The surplus electricity could be stored in batteries for use later. Or it could be used in conjunction with other renewable sources such as hydroelectricity.

Storing renewable energy as fuel is a good idea because the engines to burn the hydrocarbons already exist. There is no need to build new vehicles with electric motors.

The fuel produced is expected to cost 25 per cent more than traditional gasoline but it would fetch premium prices.

“It’s not a magic bullet, it’s not too cheap to meter,” says Professor Keith, “but it’s something that really we think could be built out, and could be built out at relatively low technical risk. So we hope it is really a turning point.”