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posted by janrinok on Friday May 19 2023, @03:13PM   Printer-friendly

Alphabet and Meta are just a couple of the big names paying a startup to produce bio-oil as a way to trap CO2:

Some of the biggest names in tech have inked a deal to turn corn stalks and tree trimmings into a barbecue sauce ingredient and then pump the stuff underground to try to fight climate change.

That sounds wild, so let's break it down from the start. Alphabet, Meta, Stripe, Shopify, and McKinsey Sustainability launched a new climate initiative called Frontier about a year ago. The goal is to boost new technologies capable of sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere by convincing other companies to buy into them.

Today, a San Francisco-based climate tech startup called Charm Industrial announced that Frontier's founding members and a smattering of other companies have agreed to pay Charm a total of $53 million to capture and store 112,000 tons of carbon dioxide between 2024 and 2030.

Some of the biggest names in tech have inked a deal to turn corn stalks and tree trimmings into a barbecue sauce ingredient

Charm has an unconventional way of getting that done. First, it collects agricultural and forestry waste — i.e., discarded corn stalks or branches leftover from logging. Wherever it finds that stuff, it sends its fleet of flatbed semi trucks hauling reactors that heat up the waste to 500 degrees Celsius without burning it. That turns the waste into bio-oil, a tarry-looking carbon-rich liquid.

The watery part of the bio-oil is essentially the same thing as liquid smoke, an ingredient used to give barbecue sauce and other foods a smokey flavor, according to Charm CEO and co-founder Peter Reinhardt.

Bio-oil also holds the carbon dioxide that the plants or trees its made from absorbed for photosynthesis. Had those corn stalks or tree branches been disposed of by burning or simply left to rot, that CO2 would have escaped again — heating the planet along with all the other emissions that come from burning fossil fuels.

Trapped in the bio-oil, Charm Industrial thinks it can store the CO2 underground for thousands to millions of years to keep it from making climate change worse. That's how the startup can now sell carbon removal credits, representing tons of captured CO2, to companies that want to use its service to try to cancel out some of its own carbon dioxide pollution.

So far, Charm has successfully stored more than 6,100 metric tons of CO2 in the form of bio-oil. (A previous purchase from Microsoft, at 2,000 metric tons of CO2, is a big chunk of that.) So the deal announced today is a major escalation and a vote of confidence from Big Tech companies that have been early backers of the nascent carbon removal industry.

The advantage Charm says it has is that its plan is decentralized. Other companies are building big plants to suck carbon dioxide out of the air or sea. They need land (or offshore real estate) for their facilities, to start. And then they face lengthy permitting processes for pipelines transporting CO2 to specialized storage wells.


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  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 19 2023, @03:28PM (2 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 19 2023, @03:28PM (#1307017)
    I thought there were lots of complaints that stuff rots really slowly in landfills? So why not just skip wasting energy to heat it up and just landfill the stuff? Maybe in the distant future it'll slowly convert to "bio-oil"...
    • (Score: 2) by Beryllium Sphere (r) on Friday May 19 2023, @05:09PM (1 child)

      by Beryllium Sphere (r) (5062) on Friday May 19 2023, @05:09PM (#1307033)

      Don't landfills spew methane?

      • (Score: 3, Informative) by aafcac on Friday May 19 2023, @05:11PM

        by aafcac (17646) on Friday May 19 2023, @05:11PM (#1307034)

        Yes, but if handled correctly, that becomes a fuel source to offset the stuff that's been trapped in the ground for millennia. So, still a net improvement.

  • (Score: 4, Insightful) by JoeMerchant on Friday May 19 2023, @03:42PM (8 children)

    by JoeMerchant (3937) on Friday May 19 2023, @03:42PM (#1307019)

    >in the bio-oil, Charm Industrial thinks it can store the CO2 underground for thousands to millions of years

    https://conidia.com/diesel-bug/ [conidia.com]

    They'll start with addition of some kinds of biocide to their oil, and then the bacteria will evolve to withstand those, probably starting in the deepest darkest corners of the salt-mines they store this goo in and the only clue they will have that it is happening is the CO2 rich breeze that starts blowing from the mouth of the mine.

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    • (Score: 3, Interesting) by HiThere on Friday May 19 2023, @05:38PM (7 children)

      by HiThere (866) Subscriber Badge on Friday May 19 2023, @05:38PM (#1307038) Journal

      It won't be CO2. That is only emitted in oxygen-rich environments. Methane (CH4) is much more likely. Even yeast only emits CO2 in an oxygen rich environment, in and oxygen poor environment it switched to ethanol.

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      • (Score: 2) by JoeMerchant on Friday May 19 2023, @06:38PM (6 children)

        by JoeMerchant (3937) on Friday May 19 2023, @06:38PM (#1307047)

        I'm sure you've seen / read / heard:

        https://www.edf.org/climate/methane-crucial-opportunity-climate-fight#:~:text=Methane%20has%20more%20than%2080,by%20methane%20from%20human%20actions. [edf.org]

        Of course, the proposers of the project to "sequester carbon for millions of years" will address all known microbes with biocides and other mitigation techniques. As a result, the microbe which will actually be digesting their goo will be something unknown...

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        • (Score: 3, Touché) by HiThere on Friday May 19 2023, @08:30PM

          by HiThere (866) Subscriber Badge on Friday May 19 2023, @08:30PM (#1307064) Journal

          Yeah, but any waste product will be low in oxygen, because that's a low oxygen environment. (I didn't say that methane was a good result...though it is if you capture it. But what they're proposing doesn't sound like it's designed for that

          I also don't believe that they would actually sequester the digested product for a really long time. It would be too valuable. Even methane is valuable, much less the longer chain molecules. If not as fuel, then as a chemical feed-stock. There's no way they could be converting it into bio-oil and not be planning on selling or using it.

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        • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 19 2023, @09:21PM (4 children)

          by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 19 2023, @09:21PM (#1307068)

          Pretty sure that microbes aren't going to evolve to transmute other elements into oxygen.

          • (Score: 2) by JoeMerchant on Friday May 19 2023, @09:49PM (3 children)

            by JoeMerchant (3937) on Friday May 19 2023, @09:49PM (#1307071)

            Pretty sure if you store something energy rich for millions of years, with lots of access to the diverse genome of the modern world, something is going to evolve to eat that goo.

            What's unknown is what it will be emitting as waste products. Oxygen is not required for all life reactions, not by a longshot.

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            • (Score: 1) by khallow on Saturday May 20 2023, @02:48AM (2 children)

              by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Saturday May 20 2023, @02:48AM (#1307093) Journal

              Pretty sure if you store something energy rich for millions of years,

              Why would we want to do that? I doubt there's anything going on millions of years from now that would be worth the bother.

              • (Score: 2) by JoeMerchant on Saturday May 20 2023, @11:58AM (1 child)

                by JoeMerchant (3937) on Saturday May 20 2023, @11:58AM (#1307124)

                RTFS. Trapped in the bio-oil, Charm Industrial thinks it can store the CO2 underground for thousands to millions of years to keep it from making climate change worse.

                --
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                • (Score: 0, Redundant) by khallow on Saturday May 20 2023, @12:24PM

                  by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Saturday May 20 2023, @12:24PM (#1307127) Journal

                  RTFS. Trapped in the bio-oil, Charm Industrial thinks it can store the CO2 underground for thousands to millions of years to keep it from making climate change worse.

                  My take is that keeping most sequestered CO2 out of atmosphere for a few centuries is more than sufficient. That's an order of magnitude below the lower limit. If you're trying to keep CO2 out of atmosphere for millions of years, the upper limit, then you're doing it wrong.

  • (Score: 1, Informative) by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 19 2023, @04:12PM (3 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 19 2023, @04:12PM (#1307024)

    The carboniferous [wikipedia.org] era, spanning 60 million years during which most of the coal deposits were formed.

    That's just one era of course. The biomass that formed coal and oil lived, died, and fell all that time. While it was alive it had the same incentives that all life has--the struggle for survival.

    Today that biomass is dug up and burned for energy. There's a tremendous financial incentive to do that, to burn whatever you can get.

    Any carbon sequestration scheme is competing against an awful lot of time during which carbon was sequestered naturally, and the much shorter time that it can be released by industrial processes. The scale at which any such sequestration scheme would have to operate in order to make impact is ludicrous.

    • (Score: 2) by JoeMerchant on Friday May 19 2023, @04:35PM

      by JoeMerchant (3937) on Friday May 19 2023, @04:35PM (#1307030)

      >The scale at which any such sequestration scheme would have to operate in order to make impact is ludicrous.

      They'd have to go full Ouroboros... perpetual motion machine, etc. Maybe with fusion (or fission) power they could sequester carbon faster than they release it, but there's not enough wind to make it happen, and solar is pretty well rate limited also.

      --
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    • (Score: 2) by Beryllium Sphere (r) on Friday May 19 2023, @05:13PM (1 child)

      by Beryllium Sphere (r) (5062) on Friday May 19 2023, @05:13PM (#1307036)

      I highly recommend the book "Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air" by David Mackay. It's not for or against any option. It just lays out what would be involved in implementing each. The cost/impact estimates are very rough, but consistently overwhelming.

      • (Score: 2, Informative) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 20 2023, @01:34AM

        by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 20 2023, @01:34AM (#1307087)

        I read that book, it's free at https://www.withouthotair.com/download.html [withouthotair.com]

        It's from 2008 and I'd say the numbers presented are now out of date. Wind turbines are much larger (higher power per unit) than they were in 2008 and solar cells are much, much cheaper than they were back then.
         

  • (Score: 2) by squeedles on Friday May 19 2023, @04:17PM (1 child)

    by squeedles (28050) on Friday May 19 2023, @04:17PM (#1307026)

    I remember a plant was going up to process turkey heads a while back, but then the economic conditions changed. It works fine, but you need heat input that may or may not tip your carbon balance, and it generally only produces short chain hydrocarbons.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermal_depolymerization [wikipedia.org]

    • (Score: 4, Insightful) by ElizabethGreene on Friday May 19 2023, @04:59PM

      by ElizabethGreene (6748) Subscriber Badge on Friday May 19 2023, @04:59PM (#1307031) Journal

      My recollection is the turkey plant had another issue too, significant negative community feedback. It stunk, and they had to pile a bunch of money into that problem to keep it from being shut down.

      A lot of things that were proposed and built with oil at > $100/bbl aren't viable at $75/bbl. This is why "green"-energy groups work to make oil more expensive by e.g. blocking new drilling and construction of pipelines.

      Personally, I'm of the opinion that abundance is the only way to solve environmental problems. Creating "green" solutions that are more expensive than today's solutions is a trap. If you need $90/bbl oil prices to stay in business, OPEC will set the price cheaper than that. To actually solve the problem, the green solution needs to be cheaper than oil pulled from tar sands, the bottom of the North Atlantic, and out from under overtly hostile regimes. That's not an easy task. We have 150 years of experience figuring out how to get oil out of the ground cheaply, and beating that moat is non-trivial.

  • (Score: 2) by ElizabethGreene on Friday May 19 2023, @05:11PM (2 children)

    by ElizabethGreene (6748) Subscriber Badge on Friday May 19 2023, @05:11PM (#1307035) Journal

    Carbon credits are going for something like $35 per ton. Oil is selling for ~$75 per 300-pound barrel. If this stuff contains long chain hydrocarbons, why not sell it to oil refiners and 10x the profit?

    • (Score: 3, Interesting) by HiThere on Friday May 19 2023, @05:43PM

      by HiThere (866) Subscriber Badge on Friday May 19 2023, @05:43PM (#1307039) Journal

      I don't expect it to produce long chain hydrocarbons. Medium length at best. IIUC, building the long chain hydrocarbons is energetically favored only at fairly high temperatures with lots of pressure...and it still takes a long time. Perhaps they'll get up to 4 or 5 carbon long chains. Otherwise...if they have that kind of magic catalyst, they wouldn't be bothering with this approach.

      --
      Javascript is what you use to allow unknown third parties to run software you have no idea about on your computer.
    • (Score: 2) by deimtee on Friday May 19 2023, @09:25PM

      by deimtee (3272) on Friday May 19 2023, @09:25PM (#1307069) Journal

      Why not do both?
      "Hey government, give me money for pulling this carbon out of the air"
      "Psst, anyone want to buy some carbon compounds?"

      --
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  • (Score: 4, Interesting) by Thexalon on Friday May 19 2023, @07:50PM (1 child)

    by Thexalon (636) on Friday May 19 2023, @07:50PM (#1307055)

    It provides a solution to climate change that doesn't involve them having to do anything about it.

    And that's what everyone in the world is after.

    --
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    • (Score: 1) by khallow on Saturday May 20 2023, @02:56AM

      by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Saturday May 20 2023, @02:56AM (#1307094) Journal
      Obsoleting a problem is probably the best way to solve problems.
  • (Score: 2) by DadaDoofy on Saturday May 20 2023, @03:04PM (1 child)

    by DadaDoofy (23827) on Saturday May 20 2023, @03:04PM (#1307142)

    Given that China alone generates around 3 billion tones of carbon emissions each year, this is meaningless virtue signaling.

    • (Score: 2) by aafcac on Sunday May 21 2023, @01:55PM

      by aafcac (17646) on Sunday May 21 2023, @01:55PM (#1307220)

      It's a first step and things like this will be needed if we achieve a carbon neutral society to suck back some of the excess to preserve species that are just hanging on. But, yes, this is a tiny portion of what would be needed to show any measurable effect.

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