The planet is getting hotter. Last year was the warmest year on record, with planetary temperatures passing the symbolic milestone of 1C above pre-industrial levels, according to the World Meteorological Organisation’s (WMO) state of the global climate report.
“This increase in global temperature is consistent with other changes in the climate system,” the report stated. “Globally averaged sea-surface temperatures were also the warmest on record; global sea levels continued to rise; and Arctic sea-ice extent was well below average for most of the year.”
Climate change made 2011 to 2015 the warmest five-year period on record, too. The cause is no longer in doubt. “With carbon dioxide reaching a record annual average concentration of 400 parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere, the influence of human activities on the climate system has become more and more evident,” the report noted. The conclusion is stark and scarcely needs repeating. To prevent further temperature increases, global greenhouse gas emissions must be drastically reduced.
As well as switching from coal and gas to solar and wind energy, one widely acknowledged solution is to increase the use of biofuels such as ethanol. Yet environmental concerns about biofuel production persist, ranging from energy requirements and carbon emissions levels, to deforestation, soil erosion and the impact on water resources.
One paper published in Science in 2008 even argued that shifting the use of land towards growing crops in order to make biofuel increases greenhouse gas emissions. “Corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20 per cent savings, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years. Biofuels from switchgrass, if grown on US corn lands, increase emissions by 50 per cent,” the paper reported in its abstract. “This result raises concerns about large biofuel mandates and highlights the value of using waste products,” the paper concluded.
Which brings us neatly to a company called Joule, which has developed technology that transforms waste CO2 into biofuel. The result? Reduced carbon emissions – without the use of additional agricultural land, fresh water or crops.
The science should ring a bell for any biology student. Using the principles of photosynthesis, Joule produces renewable transportation fuels from waste CO2, sunlight and non-potable water. The process begins when a liquid mixture of engineered bacteria and non-potable water is pumped into modular circulation units of transparent pipes. When the bacteria reaches the right concentration for fuel production, waste CO2 from an industrial emitter is pumped into the circulation units. That keeps the bacteria in motion and maximises their exposure to sunlight – which in turn drives the photosynthesis-like process to produce Sunflow-E ethanol, a biofuel that the US Environmental Protection Agency has registered for commercial use in petroleum blends.
Joule’s process doesn’t require corn, sugar or fresh water, and it results in a carbon-neutral biofuel that does not demand infrastructure changes. Little wonder the company has raised over $200 million to date – funding that it has pumped into piloting its technology. Today, Joule is preparing its product for final commercial use.
The environmental benefits are plain to see. Sunflow-E and its ilk represent a clean alternative to the 540 billion litres of hydrocarbon-based motor gasolineconsumed in the United States in 2016. Moreover, the fuel can be used without changing the infrastructure, reducing the cost of transitioning from fossil fuels to more sustainable energy sources. And because Joule’s production system is modular, it should be easy to roll out and expand. Which is just as well. With the planet getting hotter and raising the spectre of an uninhabitable planet, perhaps we should be looking for answers from modern-day alchemists such as Joule and their innovative fuel’s gold.