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29Nov 2012

Ars Technica: Journalist-style, near-technical tale of carbon capture. An example for more such reporting?

Ars Technica: Journalist-style, near-technical tale of  carbon capture. An example for more such reporting?

  A flawed but nonetheless impressive and detailed report just out from a substantial if techie news outlet prompts the thought: what is it about chemistry that turns off so many reporters? Why don't science journalists more often take chemistry and chemical engineering stories to a deep enough level to give readers a sense of what the atoms and molecules in today's incredible industrial complex are doing with one another? Here's the yarn:

  The topic has gotten sporadic interest over the last decade or two from large, general-interest dailies and other news agencies. It is the idea that if only we could stuff  CO2 back deep in the ground whence its carbon came, we could burn all the coal we want. Writer Fellet takes the reader through a series of experimental and theoretical ways one could do that, focussing largely on the difficult matter of capturing the CO2 from the hot gases pouring up from a boiler's firebox. The message here is that if good markets could develop for the technology on a small scale, the door would open toward eventual, big-time carbon burial. It also is that this is not going to be an easy or cheap thing to do. Carbon taxes or other market manipulations, via internalizing those infernal external costs of energy production, will need some governmental impetus, it says here.

   It has many links to more info. More important, the piece is for serious people hungry for something to chew on and who don't mind a few numbers. It is not technical writing, not quite. It has no math or chemical reaction shorthand with all those subscripts, little pluses and minuses, and parentheses. But it does have such passages as this:

Workers bubble the CO2-containing natural gas through an amine solution, commonly monoethanolamine. Carbon dioxide binds to the nitrogen atom of the amines, while the rest of the gas passes through. Boiling the amine solution releases the carbon dioxide gas, which can be compressed and transported through pipelines.

  OK, that's pretty heavy going. But seeing such detail about chemistry is particularly rare - more so than finding similar levels of detail in media reports on, say, the subatomic stew in which a Higgs boson may leave its tracks, or in biomedical stories on the antigens that may be expressed on the surfaces of viruses. For some reason and I am as guilty on this front as anybody, chemistry does not as often get a deep dive by journalists as would similarly complex topics from some other disciplines.

   This story is well worth the read. It's written at what we used to call the Scientific American level of usage.

    It does have some flaws - mainly a few holes. For instance, the writer mentions that one bootstrap market for these technologies is to exploit the existing appetite by some oil companies for CO2 to inject into petroleum reserves that are down to their dregs. It cuts the viscosity of recalcitrant crude and makes it easier to pump. One would expect at least mention of the irony: that crude oil will then be turned at least partly into fuels that will turn largely into CO2 shooting from tailpipes. It is easy to suspect that's a net loser in the climate carbon ledger. Ditto for the writer's citation of baking soda as a potential product of CO2 processing, and a goad to carbon capture. "It can be used as an antacid for animal feed or eco-friendly sandblasting powder," she writes. I'd like to know if such uses eventually return the carbon to the air, which would be another irony during the baby step march toward full-on sequestration. Nonetheless, most readers of this story will come out far better informed about carbon capture, and far more acquainted with the vexing headaches and tactics that chemists and chemical engineers face as they slog toward designing systems that might make money...and help to save the planet.

Other Chemistry-Heavy Stories I'd Like to Read:

  Two other items crossed the screen today that offer similar opportunities for reporters who can find editors with appetites for what, most science journalists, will recognize, is the aspect we often leave out of stories for fear of screwing it up or in recognition we don't get it ourselves or under orders not to confuse too many readers. Which is: the key science of our topic.

1) Flow Batteries and Renewable Energy Storage:

  • (press release) Harvard School of Engineering - Michael Rutter: Greener storage for green energy ; Here's my salute to the platoons of science writers who are not science journalists and whose jobs requires them to hitch up their trousers rather often to get the hard stuff right. Of course, they also run the copy past their sources, which is a good way to evade dumb error. I speak of course of university and research lab p.r. people. They grind out all sorts of stuff, much of which's detail is ignored or transformed into hazy metaphor by writers for news agencies. Bloggers sometimes try harder to keep the rigor. Anyway, this is fascinating stuff in this release. Flow batteries are really fuel cells that include a factory, powered by solar or wind electricity, for making the fuel cells' reactants and storing them away for later use. Turn the pumps around and into a fuel cell and they swap electrons and cations or something like that and presto, pent-up solar and wind power flows on a windless night. Learn to do it cheaply and this is big news. DOE's ARPA-E program has put some serious money into a frontier research program.

2) Direct Carbon Conversion Fuel Cells:

  I had for several years wanted to write about direct carbon conversion fuel cells. Not that I worked too hard at it, but couldn't find an outlet. Such fuel cells do work. They've been built, the first one a century or so ago. One could grind up coal and pour it in, along with oxygen, and bingo we got electricty. Yes they work. And those made already tend promptly to gum up with crud on their electrodes and other such practical-investment show stoppers. But man, they are close to 100 percent efficient and emit an automatically self-capturing carbon dioxide effluent stream of the pure stuff. If affordable they'd save the coal industry and the planet to boot. This is pure blue sky stuff. But a feature on the topic would be a good conjectural piece, as in "Is this the salvation of the world as we know it?" And it ought to be written with enough electrochemical detail, as in that Ars Technica piece that got me started, for readers to grasp the nature and allure of the challenge.

   Maybe somebody has written it. If so, let me know and I'll append and update.

- Charlie Petit




If you still want to write it, why not pitch it to Cosmos mag  If you don't want to write it, there's a good chance it's been written by them.


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