Painting our way out of the climate change corner|Hong Kong|


Painting our way out of the climate change corner

Updated: 2019-11-01 07:41

(HK Edition)

Two eminent scientists have started a project to tackle global climate change by capturing greenhouse gas emissions, with the aim of making China a world leader in eliminating air pollution. Beth Woskow and Vanessa Li report.

As global alarm over climate change sweeps across the planet like a solar wind, two scientists, one Chinese, one American have taken a step toward the solution. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is at its highest level (437 ppm) in over 800,000 years. Scientists are warning that it must be brought under control “before it’s too late”.

The scientists, Steve McDaniel, a molecular biologist, lawyer and founder of Reactive Surfaces, a company specializing in the development of bio-based, functional paints and coatings since 2002, and Dominic Lam Man-kit, a medical professor, founder of the Hong Kong Institute of Biotechnology, jointly develop and implement paints that can capture atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Carbon Capture Coatings (CCCs) are still in the later-stages of development, but early indications are that the coatings are “carbon sinks” much like plants, and rival forests and ocean algae in their ability to capture carbon. The coatings, in fact, contain live photosynthetic algae. Plants on land and in the seas capture atmospheric carbon, and use it as food through photosynthesis.

“Climate change is a threat to all humanity. The planet is our patient now it’s urgent we find a cure together. And China is a perfect place for us to start,” McDaniel said. That’s why he took his ideas to Lam, his friend for 40 years in 2017.

Why China?

China has become recognized as a leader in tackling global emissions. The air around some Chinese cities not long ago was choked with deadly smog. In 2011, China initiated a massive national program, halting growth of consumption, limiting emissions and improving air quality. China, a signatory to the 2009 Copenhagen Accord and the 2016 Paris Agreement, is the only country, thus far to take such aggressive action to improve air quality.

No such program exists in the United States, where Reactive Surfaces is based. Climate activists in the US have met with considerable resistance from business interests.

President Xi Jinping has emphasized that China is taking a lead in “guiding international cooperation to respond to climate change”. China created the Ministry of Ecological Environment, now replaced by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, to lead its battle against emissions.

Once fully evolved, CCCs could help to establish China as the global leader, in eliminating atmospheric pollution setting the standard for other nations.

How well do they work?

Preliminary studies show that Carbon Capture Coatings applied to the interiors of a tree-sized, plastic cylinder (“algae tree”) can 0.024 tons of atmospheric CO2 per year. That’s the same as a mature tree. The team predicts a capture rate double that, in the near future, as development continues. It’s a matter of developing greater paintable surface areas on the clear, plastic cylinders. At the current stage of development, five 1-square kilometer farms placed around Shanghai, a city of over 24 million, could reduce annual carbon emissions by 10 percent.

With the evolution of the coating and design, the technology will get exponentially more efficient with time. As a bonus, these facilities will produce lots of oxygen helping to improve the city’s air quality.

Why not use trees?

The two scientists believe the carbon capture cylinders painted with algae are a more efficient solution than planting trees. Trees respire more CO2 than they retain for up to 50 years, before they start retaining more carbon dioxide than they release. CCCs have shown successful carbon capture in as few as 45 days.

Trees require fertile land. CCC facilities can be built anywhere, so long as the needs for photosynthesis are present. It’s also been estimated that it would require at least one trillion additional trees to be planted to begin to conquer climate change. That would take up all the land needed to grow food. Because paint is lightweight and adheres well to surfaces, there are many available surfaces for applying CCCs, including skyscrapers or even cliffs. Available surface area is the key. With the ability to use vertical surface areas, the calculations look quiet promising. Only about 100,000 trees will fit in a kilometer square tree farm, about 100 million “algae trees” can fit into an area of the same size.

In theory, the two innovators think that the technology could take care of the entire climate change problem – they insist that it is only a matter of the paintable vertical surface area. When CCCs are applied over large vertical surface areas (Massively Iterated Vertical Surfaces or MIVS, collectively CCC-MIVS), the CCC-MIVS farms stand in a unique position to address climate change from excess carbon dioxide and to do so quickly enough to prevent the most damaging of predicted environmental changes.

A trillion-dollar business?

The developers believe the ultimate adopters of the technology will not only reduce greenhouse gases for all of civilization, but also stand to reap huge financial rewards through the production of marketable commodities.

Carbon capture by-products are part of a growing industry, called Carbon Capture Utilization (CCU), shaping up as a trillion-dollar industry. By way of illustration, in order to balance man-made emissions, we will need to drawdown 36.1 billion tons of CO2 from the air each year, netting many billions of tons of commercial by-products.

One by-product of CCC-MIVS technology is increased oxygen resulting from the photosynthetic process (just like natural trees). Oxygen is a commercially-viable product that can help to improve air quality in smog-filled population center. Additionally, due to the particular genetically-engineered algae used in the CCCs, there are other by-products formed – carbohydrates. The coating-bound algae capture CO2, converting it to oxygen and carbohydrates through the photosynthetic process. The carbohydrates resulting from the particular algae used in the paint are sequestered into a form of cellulose, much like a tree’s leaves convert CO2 into cellulose, which becomes the trunk (wood) of the tree.

Cellulose adds strength to plants. The cellulose by-product formed by CCCs is a rugged, durable raw material, used in the manufacture of products such as clothing, paper and building materials. Because the CCC-MIVS facilities and raw materials needed to achieve these results are inexpensive and renewable, the by-products will be well-positioned to capture sizeable portions of the markets.

Painting us out of a corner

The two friends point to the race against time to lower our greenhouse gas emissions dramatically. If we do not, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that humanity is looking at a global rise in temperatures of 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels by 2030, and 2 C by 2050. The previously unthinkable consequences of this level of warming include extreme weather, flooding of entire islands and coastlines, loss of millions of species, and human migration the likes of which we have never witnessed before, all giving rise to civil unrest across the globe.

Efforts to prevent these catastrophic effects include a global reduction of emissions by 40%, which seems unlikely to be achieved in time.

CCCs offer a solution that could be implemented without having to change the normal course of business. The goal of the scientific team is to build enough facilities to completely offset the entire world’s emissions (40-50 gigatons) before the 2030 deadline, to limit warming to 1.5 C, and well before 2.0 C by 2050. With this balance accomplished, the innovators hope to begin to drawdown the hundreds of gigatons of legacy (historical) CO2 that has been steadily accumulating since the start of the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s (from 437 ppm of CO2 atmospheric concentrations, down to 200 ppm, closer to pre-Industrial levels).

At full implementation, Lam and McDaniel predict that the technology could represent a type of global thermostat, available to climatologists for normalizing temperatures given various changed conditions. In that way, if global emissions were to rise, additional CCC-MIVS vertical atmospheric farms could be built.

So, can we literally paint ourselves out of a corner? It is getting more and more likely.

(HK Edition 11/01/2019 page9)


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