The Improbability of CO2 Removal from the Atmosphere

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The Improbability of CO2 Removal from the Atmosphere

The concentration of carbon dioxide gas in today’s atmosphere is 417ppm (parts per million). There are 10^44 gas molecules in the entire atmosphere (78% diatomic nitrogen, 21% diatomic oxygen, 1% everything else), so 1ppm is equivalent to 10^38 gas particles. The 417ppm of CO2 represents a total of 4.17×10^40 molecules.

Some people hope for new technology to remove carbon dioxide gas from Earth’s atmosphere, and then forestall the advance of global warming, or even completely eliminate it. I see this as improbable because I think any such technology would be extremely inefficient at CO2 removal, and be energy intensive as well. The process of gaseous diffusion, as with the release of CO2 into the atmosphere, requires no energy; the gases just mix, spread and dilute, and the entropy of the atmosphere increases. It is an “irreversible process” in the parlance of chemical thermodynamics. This means that the spontaneous un-mixing of gases and their re-concentration into separate volumes has never been observed. Energy must be invested to effect any such desired separation of component gases in a mixture. To explore the possibility of CO2 removal, I have quantified my sense of improbability about it, and describe that here.

Consider a hypothetical CO2 removal machine that is a tube with a filter box in the middle. Air is fanned into the tube, flows into the filter box where some of its CO2 is removed, and then flows out of the tube to rejoin the atmosphere and to slightly reduce the global average concentration of CO2. Energy is supplied to entrain air into the device, and energy is supplied to power the unspecified process that effects the CO2 removal within the filter box. The machine would operate continuously so that over time all the atmosphere would be filtered and de-carbonized.

This would be a very large machine, and most likely be a large array of identical or similar units all over the world that would comprise a composite machine. I will describe this composite as if it were a single tube. [1]

Machine #1

This machine has a filter cross-sectional area of 10,000 km^2 (10^10 m^2) into which air is fanned through at 1meter/second (2.24mph). Producing that continuous mass flow from still air requires 16GW of power, assuming an efficiency of 40% (from raw power into moving air). The filtration process is assumed to consume 40GW (1% of the power used by the United States) and be 1% effective at CO2 removal. The anthropogenic emission of CO2, at its current rate of 35.5GT/year (giga metric tons per year), is assumed to continue indefinitely (the economy!), with the oceans absorbing 29% of those emissions (10.4GT/y).

At the end of 10 years of continuous operation Machine #1 would have cleared 3.26ppm of CO2 from Earth’s atmosphere, at a cost of 1.77×10^19 Joules of energy (4.92×10^12 kilowatt-hours). Reducing the CO2 concentration to the pre-industrial level of 280ppm would require 507.6 years.

Machine #2

Clearly, improvements are required for Machine #1. So, we assume that 10% efficiency of CO2 removal can be effected by investing 400GW (10% of the power used by the United States) into the filter box. Now, the power consumption is 416GW for Machine #2. After 10 years of continuous operation 31.5ppm of CO2 would be removed from the atmosphere (bringing the concentration down to 386ppm), at an energy cost of 1.31×10^20 Joules (3.64×10^13kWh). Reducing the atmospheric concentration of CO2 back to 280ppm would require 51 years. This might seem promising except for the fact that the assumed 10% efficiency is pure fantasy.

Machine #3, All Earth’s Lands

To regain a sense of reality, consider the actual performance of the entire land surface of the Earth (1.489×10^14 m^2) acting as a CO2 removal filter. This was the case in the clearing of 2500ppm of CO2 from the atmosphere over the course of 200,000 years during the geologically brief episode of explosive global warming 55.5 million years ago, known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). I described the PETM and cited numerous public-access scientific references to it in [2].

Using the same rate of CO2 removal (the e-folding time) as occurred during the PETM, in my formulation of CO2 removal machines, it transpires that the efficiency of removal by the Earth-filter (rock weathering reactions in the long term) is 8.6×10^-8 (0.0000086%). After 10 years, this Earth-machine would clear 0.42ppm of the atmospheric CO2 (bringing the level down from 417ppm to 416.6ppm). That level would be reduced to 280ppm in 3,984 years.

Machine #4

Hope in technology springs eternal for some, so maybe our Machine #2 even with a realistic efficiency can better the clearing-time set by the Earth, natural Machine #3. We accept an efficiency of 1.474×10^-7 (0.00001474%), invest 1.31×10^19 Joules of energy every year at a rate of 416GW of continuous power, and after 10 years find 0ppm of CO2 removal! In fact however long we run this machine there will always be 0ppm of CO2 removal, because the rate of technological removal is equalled by the rate of anthropogenic emissions. Reaching 280ppm is literally infinitely far away.

Machine #5

Maybe by some technological breakthrough the efficiency can be raised by a factor of 100, to 1.474×10^-5 (0.001474%). Then in 100 years Machine #5 would have cleared 0.0478ppm of atmospheric CO2 (reducing the level from 417ppm to 416.95ppm) for an investment of 1.31×10^21 Joules (3.64×10^14kWh). Achieving 280ppm would require 348,577 years. It’s hard to beat the Earth at its own game.

Best Course of Action

It should be obvious by now that our best course of action is to apply our energy resources to the betterment of our many societies and the equalization of living standards worldwide, and to the transformation of our economic activities for minimal CO2 emissions. The current catch-phrase for this transformation is “degrowth.”

During this pandemic year of 2020, the U.S. GDP shrank by 33%, and the CO2 emissions by the United States also shrank by the same proportion. Worldwide CO2 emissions shrank by 17%. Zero emissions require zero GPD, as we now know it.

Global warming will advance and its consequences will add great stresses to many human, animal and plant populations. This geophysical process could be experienced as “the collapse of civilization,” or it could be taken as a collective challenge to advance human civilization by bonds of solidarity, and the restoration of its reverence for the natural world. If we put our energy into fashioning that imperfect utopia, we would live through global warming with a justifiable sense of pride, and even have fun.

Notes

[1] Stream Tube CO2 Removal Machine
8 August 2020
Stream Tube CO2 Removal Machine
or
https://manuelgarciajr.files.wordpress.com/2020/08/stream-tube-co2-removal-machine.pdf

[2] Ye Cannot Swerve Me: Moby-Dick and Climate Change
15 July 2019
https://manuelgarciajr.com/2019/07/15/ye-cannot-swerve-me-moby-dick-and-climate-change/

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11 thoughts on “The Improbability of CO2 Removal from the Atmosphere

  1. Mr. Garcia Jr.,

    This is Gary, a person that contacted you originally about your “Fall of America” poem. Just wanted to say that if you came-up with and produced this article yourself, then you are a very interesting man, and thank you once again for seemingly always coming-up with unique ideas and/or at least sharing them, or perhaps simply sharing those that go right-along with ones you’ve already come-up with on your own. I find it all really quite remarkable, I really do. Since you did post this though, I thought I’d at least take the time to let you know that I am considering building a machine (and/or coming up with the tech or schematics) to do exactly what you have described. So, first, I’d like to find-out if that is okay with you, because if you have already been working on such a machine, then I won’t, however, either way, I will continue to find ways to restore Earth to its former glory, with or without humanity on my side. I think I agree with you also though either way that humans (not necessarily we – you and I) are (and never really have) done the best work they could to protect our (the current planet most of us are on, I think), but there are actually some in the past that have, however their names have been ignored from “the history books” essentially, and that is a worldwide thing that “people” (“rulers”) came to agree upon at the time. Believe it or not though, not even the indigenous peoples around the world (including American – both North and South) did all that much better of a job, which unfortunately is contrary to what I used to believe, because I really thought and was really hoping they did. But the good news is, now, at least I know that if I (or anybody else) wants anything done right (or straight, because straight is actually the original word that was the opposite of wrong, but then as usual, “Westerners” changed everything in their favor by switching it to right since left was deemed to be the side of “The Devil” according to their “rulers” at the time, and so the “people” followed in suit like they always seem to do because I personally think they are relatively mindless/dumb non-unique unsurprising persons in general, but that is neither here nor there, I’m just letting you know where I stand, but of course that is subject to change, possibly, and that does not mean you have to or that I want you to change anything about yourself including but not limited to what you say nor do, because quite honestly I do not really think I’m sharing anything with you that you do not already quite possibly know yourself, and that is because I really do think you are a very smart man – sharp at least, and I think that’s a good thing, but really it doesn’t even really matter what I think, because I do believe every man is and should be for himself, however of course anytime that involves anybody else, then I still believe the same holds true: we are ultimately only responsible for the things we do, not otherwise. That being said, I respect you greatly Mr. G Jr., because I really do think you are at least trying to make a difference in the world, and anybody that does exactly that is somebody I admire). I apologize for this long message, and quite honestly I do not even know if it will go through, but to make this shorter and to the main points, I think I value your ideas, thank you for sharing as usual in turn, and may I use what you shared in continuing my research as to how to restore Earth to its former glory as a planet of provision to be protected, as well as work therein that I have already begun? I already have knowledge about the subject-matter (how to restore Earth), but the permission request is purely in regards to the info-data you shared in your post. Keep in mind, should you allow me to use any of the info-data in the post (if it is indeed your own), any and all work I do herein that is of any benefit to anyone and/or anything (mostly Earth), would have your name attached to it as well, because that is the way I am. I would not blame anything on you should anything go wrong at any time, because that is not the way I am. But if you can prove to me that the info-data you provided is true and accurate to you as the sole provider and creator of it (not necessarily that it is all true nor necessarily entirely factual, though I must admit, sounds pretty good to me man haha, and if you came-up with it all, then you are truly a genius, at least in my book), then I shall gladly consider you an ally either way from this day forward, even though quite honestly I never really considered you otherwise from the start, and nothing must remain the same – everything is open to change. All you would ever need to do (if you want) is give me your word, and I’d change any form of agreement we might actually have. But of course only if any of this is applicable for you as well. Thanks either way Mr. G Jr. for being/doing you.

    Sincerely,

    A potential ally (named Gary)

    • Thank you, Gary, for your thoughts. Please feel free to use whatever information you find here. Good luck with your inventing, it can be a lot of fun.

  2. Dear Manuel-
    Thank you for a thoughtful perspective on today’s CO2 levels and the unlikelihood of reducing them with a machine. I certainly agree with that specific conclusion, but not your recommendation.

    Would you be open to a viable solution to our need to remove a trillion tons of CO2, as you say in your intro (using units I like)?

    Nature has removed a trillion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere ten times in the last million years, as we’ve gone into and out of ice ages, with CO2 varying from 180 to 300 ppm and back. We need to reduce CO2 the same amount, from today’s 415 ppm to below 300 ppm. Can we use the same methods that nature uses?
    Of course we can, if we choose to. Nature stores 99.9% of CO2 in limestone, and most of the rest in ocean carbon–organic and inorganic. That ocean carbon turns into coal and oil under certain circumstances.

    Creating synthetic limestone to replace quarried rock, and increasing (by 1%) ocean carbon content by increasing photosynthesis from natural algae (phytoplankton) can get us back below 300 ppm by 2050. And we can do it commercially, just as we increased the CO2 as by-products of commercial processes.

    The synthetic limestone can be sold competitively, and the phytoplankton feed fish, increasing fish harvests 5 to 15 times–the revenue will pay for the operations

    The best news is that the companies doing these things are taking off this year. You don’t need to do anything.

    If you’re interested, check out my white paper at the Foundation for Climate Restoration. F4CR.org/resources.

    warmly,
    Peter

    • Thank you for your interest in my work. I have looked at your website (previously) and I note that it presents the initiatives of a group of investors and business people. I can see why you do not agree with my recommendation, because when implemented it will directly end the kind of activity you are dedicated to. You are capitalists, and I am a socialist, and never the twain shall meet. But, I am all in favor of innovation, so long as it serves the genuine interests of humanity. Kind regard, MG,Jr.

      • These nature-based solutions can be done any way you please. If you can get governments to finance them, that would be fantastic!
        I just want it done. As someone said, “Ride the horse in the direction it’s going”.
        If companies are doing it already–I’m going to support them. If government becomes involved, all the better.

        We all wish governments would ensure the survival and flourishing of humanity.
        Can you make that happen?

      • we will never be free until the last banker is strangled with the entrails of the last politician.

    • hey pete, you cant create something to clean up the mess you made creating that something, thats how the universe works friend; I love how you want government money, but will you also redistribute the profits back to the government at the same rate you got the money in the first instance? your ‘foundation for climate restoration’ sounds not very interesting, nice tax play though I bet.

  3. Pingback: One Year of Global Warming Reports by MG,Jr | manuelgarciajr

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