Sunday, July 20, 2008

stop burping, stop climate change

Last year's Guardian Climate Change Summit was sponsored by greenwash kings and carbon whores Shell.

Hard to top that, but this year they managed it, getting the people who want to build the first British coal-fired power station in a generation, E-On.

The Summit was held last Wednesday, with the uninvited presence of 40 Greenwash Guerillas.

Greenwash Guerilla

Among other things, the protesters dished out bottles of Ev-Eon, a spoof E-On product that says it's water carbonated with captured CO2 from coal-burning. Very high production values, very witty stuff.

There's the art. Time for life to imitate. News that China is to build several power plants with carbon capture and storage means they could be the first country to have a full-scale CCS plant. But hang on, where will they put the captured CO2?

The 3,000 tonnes extracted each year, starting this July, will be used to carbonate fizzy drinks, the company said.

So that's alright then. As long as the people drinking it never belch or otherwise exhale the carbon dioxide, everything'll be fine.

This isn't 'carbon capture and storage', it's carbon capture and then release.

To be fair, that's their small plant that's opening this summer. But the commercial scale plant that's hoping to be running by 2013

is located near an oilfield, so some carbon dioxide will be used to enhance recovery of crude

This means they get oil that would otherwise have stayed in the ground, which will release massive amounts of CO2. And as much of that will be vehicle fuel, we can be sure there's no chance of any carbon capture with it.

But anyway, the fizzy drink stuff set me thinking, is this normal? Where does the carbon dioxide in drinks and fire extinguishers and whatnot come from?

Given that it's only around 400 parts per million of the atmosphere and that filtering it out of the air is one of the holy grails of climate technofixes (Branson's offering 25 million dollars to anyone who can make it work), it must be coming from some more carbon-rich source. What else is that going to be than fossils?

Blogger supreme Jim Bliss is not just the guy you need when you've got a question about oil or want to know about Talking Heads. Bizarrely, he's also a former international jetsetting engineering guy who used to set up factories, including a number of soft drinks facilities, around the world.

Sounds really weird, and I can't help suspecting it was a cover for his assisting De Burgh to prepare the way for global lizard domination, but it's true. So I asked him.

Soft drinks plants almost always buy CO2 in bulk (rather than manufacture it on-site, though that is done very occasionally). However, as far as I know, all industrial CO2 production is done by capturing the CO2 generated from other processes. Nobody burns natural gas in order to *just* produce CO2.

When I was working in the US, we were sourcing our CO2 from two companies. One was a manufacturer of food additives and preservatives (CO2 is a by-product of sodium phosphate production). The other was a fertilizer company who captured some of the CO2 generated during ammonia production in order to sell it to soft-drinks companies.

In that case, natural gas would indeed have been the initial source (being the main feedstock when it comes to fertilizer production), but in fairness the CO2 produced by that fertilizer company would have been vented to atmosphere if the soft-drinks industry didn't make a certain amount of CO2 capture profitable for them.

Which raises the question, what's sodium phosphate, Jim?

Sodium phosphate is one of the more common food preservatives used in the US (and I assume elsewhere, though I've not looked into that). It's basically a slightly modified form of ordinary salt (retaining the preservative, and blood-pressure heightening, powers of normal salt but with a significant loss of taste... so you can use more of it without it making the food taste "too salty").

As I understand it, health-wise it's no worse (or better!) for you than bog-standard salt, but I've not really looked into that.

Anyone know if this is typical sourcing for CO2 production?

And then that led me to think, what about nitrous oxide? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say it has a climate impact 298 times stronger than carbon dioxide.

When you hear a balloon being filled at a festival so that someone can get a little fuzzy hit that's scarcely a rung up from poppers, they're releasing the equivalent of 298 balloons of CO2.

How bad should they feel about it? What's the raw material - is it also a negligably priced by-product that'd be vented anyway or is it specially made?

Well Jim?

Not really sure about it. I know you can make nitrous oxide by heating ammonia nitrate - a fertilizer - but I've no idea if that's how it's done on a large scale (note: attempts to heat ammonia nitrate can go very badly wrong if you don't know what you're doing... not one to try at home unless you invite an industrial chemist over).

Indeed, as I understand it the major part of nitrous oxide emissions is from fertilisers.

But for industrial and munter uses, what's the feedstock? Anyone know?


UPDATE: After some trawling and discussion with others more knowledgeable, it appears that the feedstock for modern nitrous oxide production is ammonia from natural gas and/or oil. It is also not produced as a usable by-product in any quantity, so responsibility for its climate impact lies squarely with the end user.

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