Sunday, April 10, 2011

What lies beneath

The savvy cyber professor has been inattentive to his blog of late - like the past twelve months or more - a reflection perhaps of the gradually dawning realization that he really has nothing interesting to say; but there again, nor do most others that litter the internet with their streams of poorly crafted opinions, so why should that stop me?

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago I found myself in Anaheim for the March meeting of the American Chemical Society. As an aside I recall it was about four years ago that I started this little endeavour around about the time of the ACS meeting, then in Chicago, with a post about cold fusion making the news (again), which resulted in some interesting and lively comments forthcoming. This time around, cold fusion once again returned to the quiet, dusty, dark shelves of forgotten science.

Green chemistry was one of the theme's of this year's conference, and supposedly the Anaheim Convention Center stakes some claims for environmental awareness and energy efficiency, though a casual observer would be skeptical of just how green given the mountains of brochures, programs, and daily updates that were destined to be occupying a recycling bin somewhere in the vicinity. How soon the paperless conference?

I thought it my moral duty to attend at least one session so as to justify the enormous expense of the caper(thank you taxpayers for your contributions to the National Science Foundation, for without you the SSCP would be confined to the barracks of COD forever; every penny is duly appreciated), so I chose a session focusing on the business aspects, or lack thereof perhaps, in alternative energy sources. Rather depressingly, one of the speakers, who had analyzed the attractiveness of these things from the perspective of the venture capitalist, concluded that none of them was a worthwhile investment apart from smart grid technology. In other words, if you are looking to make money from investing in "green energy," forget it. I pointed out to the speaker that, if the only thing worth investing in was a method to distribute existing energy more efficiently, rather than ways of producing additional energy, then we were in trouble. On a side note, the City of Naperville has rather boldly ventured into the smart grid; a move that has met with considerable opposition from citizens who fear that it represents some kind of invasion of privacy.

This is all a bit of a labored bridge-in to the main point (there is one), and that is a talk presented by some young well-dressed (not a scientist) chap from a company called Green Fire Energy, which is a start-up whose mission is to develop large-scale geothermal energy projects based on carbon dioxide. This approach represents a massive extension of a well-established process: sucking heat out of the earth - an environmentally benigh energy source.

The field of alternative energy is really dominated by three approaches: solar, wind and biomass. The geothermal barely rates a look in; and yet, according to Green Fire, within the bowels of the earth, some 3 - 10 kilometers beneath the surface, just two percent of the energy will supply twentyfive hundred times the annual energy use of America. It is just a question of extracting it. Green Fire's proposal is to use carbon dioxide as the fluid that carries the energy from deep below, through an exchanger, then sending the now-cooled carbon dioxide back down to collect more energy; basically a fridge running in reverse.

While everyone knows the earth is really hot inside, I had not appreciated previously that there are vast oceans of carbon dioxide trapped in various regions deep within the crust - domes in the trade. There is one such region near the Arizona - New Mexico border. This is where Green Fire proposes to put its idea to the test. The carbon dioxide required to transfer the energy is already captive in the ground. They still need to prove that this approach is viable; the concept is simple, but needs to be reduced to practice. This is where the financial world appears to be baulking; investors are yet to be convinced that it will work, and the cost of the proof of principle is very high. It's a bit like prospecting for oil; you drill a well and see what happens. Folks are happy with the odds in well drilling; but in this entirely new technology, while the odds may be similar, the perception is different. So far, Green Fire, despite excellent relationships with the Department of Energy and other institutions, has only raised a few million dollars, way short of what is required to get it off the ground.

The ficklness of investors is well documented. Not so long ago, money was pouring into biomass-based energy. Soon, the investors were complaining that things were not progressing quickly enough, as if commercial processes should be springing up overnight. With the current GOP-driven obsession for reduced government spending, particularly in areas like basic research, and reticence to invest from the private sector, one wonders what is the way ahead for alternative energy sources in this country. Or are we destined to let the entrenched fossil-fuel cartels denude the landscape and foul the air, all because the system is currently designed to favour them?