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Using CO2

Our industrial civilization has been mostly powered by chemical reactions, particularly those involving the element carbon and the element oxygen. When coal burns, its carbon content combines with oxygen and in the process releases energy as heat, heat which humankind has used in so many ways. The waste products of those chemical reactions include greenhouse gases CO2 and CO, gases which have generated global warming-climate change. Atmospheric change caused by greenhouse gases is becoming a more immediate, more pressing threat to life as we know it.

Chemical reactions are reversible. In the right circumstances, molecules of CO2 will break up into their constituent elements, carbon and oxygen, and CO2 is taken out of our air. The trick is that energy must be applied to the CO2 molecules at least equal to the energy released when the carbon and oxygen were combined into CO2. This can be done, but it’s a losing game if the energy needed to break down the CO2 comes from burning more hydrocarbons, which itself creates more greenhouse gases.

There is theoretical hope: a process has been developed in which solar energy collected by tiny nano engines can be used with a catalyst to break down CO2 at room temperatures. In other words, the CO2 breakup comes without adding heat energy, energy which might come directly or indirectly from burning more hydrocarbons. In theory, this process could be used to reduce Earth’s atmospheric CO2 and slow the greenhouse heating we have experienced along with industrialization.

The new technology even opens beyond-Earth possibilities. The atmosphere on planet Mars is about 96 percent CO2, and Mars’s CO2 could be used to make fuel and oxygen for humans by breaking up CO2 into breathable oxygen and into carbon. The free carbon could be combined with hydrogen, using solar-powered technology and the right catalyst, to make flammable methane, CH4, which is part of what we now burn every day as natural gas. The Martians would have created oxygen for their new homes and locally-produced fuel to make those homes more sustainable.

I spoke with my father, a consistent optimist, in 1980 about climate change dangers I saw. His response: “Aw, they’ll come up with some technical fix.” He may have been right about emerging technologies keeping Earth’s atmosphere comfortable, and maybe doing even more.


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