Can Human Ingenuity Save Us?

There used to be a television soap opera called–if I remember accurately–“As the World Turns.” Today, an all-too-real soap opera might be called “As the World Burns,” and those of us who believe in science and evidence have no choice but to watch–and worry about what will happen.

It seems increasingly clear that the outcome will depend upon whether we can avert calamity long enough to allow new technologies to moderate climate change and avoid the worst of the predicted outcomes. And promising technologies are being developed.

Just a couple of recent reports give a sense of the various efforts to provide food and energy while reducing global warming. From Fast Company, we learn that

Inside bioreactors in a Vienna-based lab, the startup Arkeon Biotechnologies is reimagining farming: Using a single-step process of fermentation, it’s turning captured CO2 into ingredients for food. Unlike other fermentation processes—such as brewing beer—it doesn’t start with sugars from plants. Instead, the company uses a microorganism with the unique ability to directly transform CO2 into the building blocks for carbon-negative protein.
“The unique feature of the microorganism we’re using is that it’s producing all of the amino acids that we need in human nutrition,” says Gregor Tegl, the CEO of Arkeon, which just raised a seed round of $7 million from investors, including Synthesis Capital and ReGen Ventures…. 

Because the fermentation process also works without any inputs like sugar, it can avoid the environmental impact of growing and harvesting crops. “Basically, it has the potential to bypass agriculture,” says Michael Mitsakos, principal at Evig Group. That efficiency will make the amino acids cheaper than what’s on the market now, he says. Arkeon has also calculated that using its bioreactors to produce protein takes 99% less land than traditional agriculture—potentially creating the opportunity for farmland to turn into forests to help fight climate change—and uses 0.01% of the water in traditional farming. Since the production process uses captured CO2 and few other resources, the ingredients are carbon negative.

When it comes to the world’s vast appetite for energy, we are seeing in real time how important it is to divest ourselves of reliance on fossil fuels-and not just to address climate change. If the West no longer needed oil and gas from Russia, one of Putin’s most potent weapons would vanish.  A Ukrainian climate scientist was recently quoted on the connection between climate change and war:

Burning oil, gas and coal is causing warming and impacts we need to adapt to. And Russia sells these resources and uses the money to buy weapons. Other countries are dependent upon these fossil fuels, they don’t make themselves free of them. This is a fossil fuel war. It’s clear we cannot continue to live this way, it will destroy our civilization.”

We are closer to weaning ourselves from fossil fuels– by accessing geothermal energy.

Geothermal energy resources are virtually immeasurable . One estimate is that the heat located just within the first 6.25 miles of the Earth’s surface would yield 50,000 times more energy than the world’s oil and natural gas supplies. If we can tap into it, it’s renewable and nearly free of emissions. The problem has been in reaching it, due to the immense heat encountered in the deep subsurface. (That heat has melted conventional drilling bits, among other things.) New, highly advanced drilling technologies are “pushing the envelope of what can be achieved in conventional drilling operations.”

The linked article describes one such advanced drilling process; an article from Treehugger describes another. 

But Quaise Energy, a startup spun out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is applying new drilling technology to make it possible to get geothermal energy anywhere. They don’t want to lily dip at 6.5 miles, either, but they want to go down 12 miles to where it is even hotter (930 degrees Fahrenheit) and anywhere in the world—perhaps right next to existing generating plants already attached to the grid.

Rather than using drill bits that will wear out or melt, they drill with microwaves. It vaporizes boreholes through rock and provides access to deep geothermal heat without complex downhole equipment. It’s described as a “radical new approach to ultra-deep drilling.”

Quaise’s long-term plan is to approach power plants running on fossil fuels and offer to drill geothermal fields customized to match their existing equipment. The fields sit on a footprint 100 to 1,000 times less than what’s needed for solar or wind. Once hooked up, it’s basically business as usual: turbines create electricity and feed it to the grid—and our homes, cars, and businesses—via existing infrastructure.

These and multiple other new technologies are enormously promising, but even if most of them come to fruition, their ability to halt planetary warming will take time.

I sure hope we have that time.