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Of EPA Bashing, Alternate Approaches to Clean Air, and the Triumph of Human Ingenuity

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 22, 2011

By Harold Hower


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I recently read two projections about the number of electric cars that will be sold in the U.S. in the future. One, from a government agency, said there would be 200,000 by 2015; the other, from a car-industry source, said there would be 15 million by 2030.

What’s common to both these predictions is they’re based on what is known today—about the cost of gasoline, about the emphasis of product development and marketing in car companies, and about the pace of development in electric-car technology.

Some predictions, though tricky, can be made, for instance, about the future costs of fuel, and about what car companies are likely to do in response to fuel prices and other market conditions. But what are harder to predict are inventions in this technology and the magnitude of their impacts. Sometimes, so-called “game-changers” really do change the game.

Similarly, there are many voices predicting dire consequences, even doom, because of global warming. Many of them are legitimate scientists who sometimes sound like Old Testament prophets issuing jeremiads to the effect that if we continue to go on as we do, we are doomed to perdition—maybe in 2050, maybe sooner.

And then there are the science deniers who say, it simply cannot be. Look at the severity of this winter in the U.S. as evidence, they insist. We cannot afford to abandon our carbon-based energy sources; we must continue our love affairs with our internal combustion engine cars, and have our traditional way of life.

Neither side of this argument seems to put much stock in technical solutions. Critics are quick to cite the problems associated with alternate energy, such as wind or solar, as well as their inadequacy in meeting the vast requirements for energy in coming years.

And the EPA tends to facilitate current carbon-based energy technology by making it acceptable through expensive controls and market devices such as carbon credits. These are practical moves, from one perspective, but limited in their vision. From the perspective of others, of course, the EPA should be disbanded.
 
What about the potential for game changers in this arena, ideas as profound as those that came from Edison or Bell?

Consider this one from Bayer AG in Leverkusen, Germany, as a possibility. Bayer announced last week that, with several collaborators, it has achieved a breakthrough in “laboratory-scale catalysis technology” that makes it possible to put CO2 to efficient use as a raw material.

Specifically, the CO2 is incorporated into a chemical precursor and then processed into polyurethanes. As a result, CO2 can be recycled, or beneficially reused, rather than contributing substantially to global warming. The CO2 used in this process replaces petroleum.

Following on the laboratory breakthrough, Bayer has created a pilot plant in Leverkusen to test the new process on a technical scale. The CO2 comes from a lignite power plant owned by the German power company, RWE Power, which is one of Bayer’s collaborators on the project. The CO2 is captured in a scrubber where it is separated from flue gas.

The main polyurethane products being created in the novel process are soft and rigid polyurethane foams, which have uses that include insulation.

It remains to be seen if this use of CO2 is a game-changing technical development. It still has to be proven in terms of its economics and ecological impacts. But who would have thought it—that carbon dioxide might become an alternative to oil in providing the carbon needed for chemical processes such as manufacture of plastics.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be so hasty to dismiss or disregard the potential for technical solutions and humankind’s incredible capacity for technological genius in devising innovative solutions to seemingly insurmountable challenges.
 
Then too, it’s amazing how necessity serves the cause of invention.

Details about this latest example of human ingenuity can be found at Bayer’s CO2 project.

ABOUT THE BLOGGER

Harold Hower

Harold Hower, CEO and founder of Technology Publishing Company, likes to think about ways of improving conditions in the architectural coatings industry.

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Tagged categories: Building envelope; Insulation; Spray polyurethane foam

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (2/24/2011, 11:54 AM)

Sure, just about any reaction can be performed, and scaled to "pilot" stage*. The big question becomes the net energy required for the process - is it more than we gained from burning the coal in the first place? *I have a hard time thinking of this as "pilot" stage when they are only working in kilograms, not even tens of kilograms.


Comment from Karl Kardel, (2/28/2011, 11:30 AM)

Prudence and probity should be maintained. Who benefits from 'global warming' technologies? Billions of research dollars from the government without end benefits a new industrial environmental 'complex.' Proponents are ideological, with catachisms of absolute truth, and vast intolernace of even reasonable disagreement. Odly enough proponents are not particularly scientifice, and base their beliefs on a sophomoric version of 'everybody is doing it, or everyone that is all real scientists agree.' The EPA itself is an interest group benefiting from ever advancing power. The 'anti's are often maintained by governmental support for narrow special interests and established industries. Industry historically has had an abysmal record in polluting, and 'command economies' (read communist) the worst. Here in California we hate windmills as they kill raptors, sunfarms-- turtles, dams--fish, and nuclear is the devil. I have a great deal of confidence in technology, some incredable developments are available in engine technology, transforms and new fuels. I doubt much will come from the government because it is at the center inefficient due to spending other's money, but will come from scarcity and high costs of our current wasteful use of energy and materials.


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