Lorne Oja: Carbon is not a demon, but a valuable commodity

The future of hydrocarbons, green energy, and the fate of the average citizen tax payer seems to have become indeterminable

With the United States having elected a new president, Canada changing from a Conservative to a Liberal government, and Alberta setting a political record with its unprecedented change to NDP, the future of hydrocarbons, green energy, and the fate of the average citizen tax payer seems to have become indeterminable.

The world’s leaders have agreed to a cutback in carbon emissions, but the exact course of action is still in dispute, and now the U.S. president-elect, apparently, dismisses all actualizations. Caught between the powers that be, the average working citizen faces huge increases in their cost of living. Taxes and essential services, such as electrical, transportation and heating fuels will cost us an additional $0.054 per litre more for diesel fuel in 2017, rising to $0.0803 in 2018, gasoline $0.0449, rising to $0.0673. The extra cost of using “clean” natural gas for heating our homes is expected to rise $1.011/GJ in 2017, and $1.517 in 2018. Coal is being levied a $63.59/tonne carbon tax, inexplicable, as it generates most of our electrical power in this province. The $30 per tonne carbon levy on industry implemented in 2009 has been supplemented by a $20.00/tonne levy on the average citizen which increases to $30/tonne by 2018. Is this drastic approach really necessary?

“Tax rebates” have been announced and will benefit low income families and part-time workers. However, any single adult making less than $51,250 will receive none of the carbon tax rebates proposed by the Alberta government. A hard working, journeyman, or professional, who managed to keep a job and the base rate of eight hours per day and $25/hour or higher, will not qualify, in addition, jobs are in jeopardy, as the coal fired electrical plants that generate our electrical energy are slated to be shut down.

One new technology is out there that can not only render these plants environmentally responsible, but actually use their carbon output as an additional source of energy and usable products. Researchers at Cornell University have developed electrochemical cells that capture carbon dioxide from waste streams and generate electricity in the process. Chemical engineer Lynden Archer and his colleagues investigated using aluminum and oxygen to convert a carbon dioxide waste stream into, not only the aforementioned electricity, as well as a byproduct, aluminum oxalate. Aluminum oxalate in turn can be converted to oxalic acid, a product used in everything from plastics, to bleaching pulpwood, to protecting bees from mites.

The laboratory device uses aluminum foil for an anode and a stainless steel mesh for a cathode. The mesh allows CO2 and O2 to pass through into the bridging electrolyte, which allows the molecules to diffuse. This electrochemical cell has generated as much as 13-ampere-hours per gram of CO2 converted.

Atmospheric carbon is not the demon; it is a valuable commodity that technology is finding uses for every day. Perhaps “we” should investigate this source of energy and chemicals, before giving up on coal.

Lorne Oja is an energy consultant, power engineer and a partner in a company that installs solar panels, wind turbines and energy control products in Central Alberta. He built his first off-grid home in 2003. His column appears every second Thursday in the Advocate. Contact him at: lorne@solartechnical.ca.

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