Balloon goes up for geo-engineering - but that's the easy part...

Weather balloon Representatives discussed the proposed project at the Science Festival in Bradford

I'm not too keen on raising the same kind of point in successive articles, but the news that UK scientists are to trial an innovative piece of geo-engineering kit within a couple of months begs some of the same questions that came up in Monday's piece on carbon capture and storage (CCS).

The most basic one is simple - money.

One end of the hose will be attached to a balloon floating a kilometre up in the air.

The other will be tethered to the ground, with a pump pushing water up the pipe so it will spray out at the top.

This and other investigations that the UK team is performing will cost in the region of £1.6m ($2.5m).

And much larger sums will become necessary if and when bigger experiments are needed - because the eventual aim of this would be to get into the stratosphere, tens of kilometres above our heads.

And what comes out would probably not be water but tiny particles of sulphate dust, mimicking the cooling effect of volcanic eruptions.

For sure, technical research is needed to explore the potential of different forms of geo-engineering - as it is with CCS.

But the technology is, for both geo-engineering and CCS, probably the easiest piece of the puzzle.

As I discussed on Monday (and thanks as always for your comments on it), the big issue with CCS is that it costs more to generate electricity - and as things stand now, why would anyone bother?

(The kicker is that the CO2 can be used to bring up more oil from wells that are approaching the end of their conventional commercial life, which does pay for the carbon capture but will in the end lead to more CO2 entering the atmosphere - but that's another story.)

We're also in a grey area regarding regulation.

Under whose water

If you're an island nation and you want to store carbon dioxide in the rocks under your feet, in all probability that's going to be OK.

But what about if the storage sites lie in geological formations that extend under a neighbouring state, as could well be the case in much of Europe, for example?

And putting it under the seabed has already raised questions under the London convention on dumping at sea.

These obstacles are even clearer with geo-engineering.

Police and protesters There were protests against the nuclear stand-off between the US and Russia with Cuba in 1962

How would schemes like this be funded in practice?

Who would regulate them?

What would be the mechanism that arbitrates between conflicting interests when something goes wrong - if injecting particles into the stratosphere over Russia, for example, were to neuter the South Asian monsoon?

Given that some large-scale experiments could bring adverse impacts, how are they to be overseen - even if it's agreed that they should happen?

There have been a couple of international agreements (at the UN biodiversity convention last year, for example, when governments agreed there should be no geo-engineering schemes that damage nature).

But the big questions remain unanswered - even, largely, un-discussed.

Go back to the 1960s, and the biggest threat in the minds of many governments was nuclear war.

For sure, technologies were developed to fight it and to survive it.

But in parallel, governments and societies asked and answered some of the social questions.

The answers may not have been convincing and may not have been pretty, because nuclear war is possibly the ugliest prospect that has ever confronted humankind.

But at least discussions were had - and some of them, between governments in private, eventually led to disarmament.

Now, there are voices, some of them at the top of politics, who will tell you that climate change is the biggest threat facing the human race.

If it is, the social and political discussions that need to happen and reach conclusions around the topic of geo-engineering ought to be happening now - in parallel with the technical research, if not ahead of it.

Critical Path Analysis tells you that you should begin the longest part of a composite task first, in order to reach the conclusion as soon as possible.

The hurdles that CCS and especially geo-engineering present, along with the finance question, are almost certainly more challenging than the technical ones presented by carrying one end of a hosepipe up on a balloon and spraying some water out.

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Richard Black Article written by Richard Black Richard Black Former environment correspondent

Farewell and thanks for reading

This is my last entry for this page - I'm leaving the BBC to work, initially, on ocean conservation issues.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Perhaps it's time to revive the 1960s SciFi idea for clearing smog from LA. A lightweight pipe, e.g. plastic film stiffened by a wire helix, could be supported by balloon. Introduce warm air at the base to induce a chimney effect which would suck up the smog and discharge it at altitude. Nanoparticles could be easily incorporated into the airflow.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    UK emissions targets are very deceitful. Even now UK pays £millions in fines due to poor air quality in various UK citys not meeting EU requirements.
    UK government states it has reduced it's own departmental emissions by 14%, what it doesnt mention is that much of this & other UK reductions are due solely to austerity job cuts & nothing to do with better practices & real reductions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    I am not fooled by this, yes emissions are a threat to our existance but I and others are sick of the world conspiracy/fraud & pretentiouness that conspire to deceive us.

    Unaffordability of major projects is a lie, UK alone is wasting £200bn over 5 years just on debt interest payments.

    Even if these debts/repayments did not exist we would be told this available £200bn was unaffordable

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Carbon based fuels are not the main problem, carbon based humans are the main problem.

    Its impossible to reduce present emission by 20% let alone current world targets,due to continued development/growth of developing & undeveloped nations & increases to populations.

    All that is done is emission stats are shuffled around in a new bubble, any gains are lost via population increases

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    To put in that much money into a project for quirting water on a balloon, & when the balloon goes higher up into the stratosphere, squirting sulphur compounds to accomplish the "cooling" effect. How does one predict [and I'm even going to get to the governments' conclusions and analyses] the "natural harm" these projects are set to cause? Either way, you last para. pretty much says it all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Actually trying something that has sound physics on its side! (Geo engineering that is.) Rather than wasting billions or even trillions on hair-brained bad CO2 science.

    The sun provides the energy that sustains life on earth & small changes in solar emissions completely swamp any other variations so it makes real sense to try modification of the solar flux (rather than the daft CO2 rubbish.)

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    I too was far from convinced the engineering made sense. But 1km of water (back of envelope) based on 33 feet of water per atmosphere is roughly 100atmos or roughly 100 bar. Modest commercial compressors can do 200 bar easily.

    But I fully agree an ordinary garden hose ain't gonna be good enough.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    anybody remember an article in the Weekend Telegraph colour supplement about 68-70, written by Fred Hoyle?. It was when the inexorable rise in atmospheric CO2 was first noted. I can't remember the details, but it was a pump mechanism to bring up cold bottom water to the surface, where it would take heat from water around, thus cooling the surface water.
    Hoyle costed it- it came out cheap.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    Off topic but I am afraid that you can't say "begs some of the same questions".

    The phrase 'such and such begs the question' means that the statement or argument is circular - the conclusion was assumed in the premises.

    It is not synonymous with 'raises the question' or 'prompts the question'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Far more dangerous is: INTENTIONAL, HOSTILE WEATHER CONTROL - UN General Assembly Resolution 31/72, TIAS 9614 Convention on Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques. Entered into force Oct 5/78; Ratified by US PRESIDENT Dec 13/79.
    HAARP & other HOSTILE WEATHER MODIFICATION TECHINIQUES must be identified, destroyed, banned...

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    I was so fed up with energy cost,and how much carbon that i was putting in the air, then I bit the bullet and had solar power installed, great work from and i got £1140 this year back from the energy supplier (about time) i got something back from them!
    I think its green all the way from now on1

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Even if we capture the carbon for transport later, I guess that justifies the start of CCS. Economic incentive for power plants to quit coal altogether is weak under stgnant economy. Coal prices might not only climb again but also expect more expense as cap & trade tax gets added.
    What's the alternative right now?

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Re : Feasibility of this project. By my incredibly crude calculation the force needed to support water in a hosepipe 1 km long is about a ton - in pressure terms about 1000 atmospheres at the head. To move the water the pressure rises to about 1500-2000 atm. Readily available water pumps can achieve over 3000 atm - though the hose itlsef probably needs to be specially made. Totally feasible!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Major weak point for CCS globally is Kyoto does NOT RECOGNIZE IT. That means poor countries wanting to participate can not do so. However, efforts are underway (since April) to change this.
    Risks: future leakages, costs involved in CCS...Even if factors mean partial solutions only, there is no way alternative clean energy such as wind or solar power is going to adopted overnight.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Plans: to use around 1.5M tonnes of CO2 from Canada's Weyburn per year for oil recovery. However, construction costs were almost DOUBLE estimates, at $2.35B. Regulations are another problem. EU ordered its member countries to invent their own rules for CCS. Individual countries must select storage sites & come up with standards.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Main problem preventing CCS adoption is technology is very expensive & LARGELY NOT PROVEN. Lobbyists say costs will decrease with experience, but the lack of precedent is again a cause for skepticism. Costs of CCS arise mainly because the process of capturing carbon & compressing requires a lot of power. Engineers estimate power plants require @ 25% more power + considerably more space.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates globally, over 200 power plants need CCS technology in the next twenty years (by 2030), in order to prevent temperature rises of over 3°C.
    Only 4 power plants and/or carbon storage projects utilize CCS as yet:
    Canada’s Weyburn-Midale CO2 Project is currently world’s largest geologic carbon storage project, located in S. E. Saskatchewan.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    @ quake.

    I don't consider them different- pumping co2 into the atmosphere is undesirable. It should be reduced, sensibly.

    Though i would suggest that given the 6 million CHILDREN that die every year due to easily preventable starvation, our money is better spent elsewhere than throroughly untestable knee-jerk geoenginerring projects that may or may not work.

    But your (types) call.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Re 16:
    "Reckless geo engineering to prevent an issue we don't even know is bad is so far beyond madness that i barely know where to begin."

    We don't know the effects of geo-engineering are bad either.

    How do you consider intentional and controlled geo-engineering to be reckless but not consider unintentional and uncontrolled geo-engineering (our CO2 emissions) to be similarly reckless?

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Re 16:

    "Every time humans interfere with the intention of doing 'good' there is an unintended side effect that noone foresaw and it's usually disasterous."

    Maybe then now you can see the case for cAGW. Humans are interfering with the carbon cycle (CO2 emissions) with the intention of doing good (cheap power). The danger being an unintended side effect has disastrous consequences.


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