Facing climate change: plants rather than plants? | UCI News
Growing up in Fairhope, Alabama in the mid-20se century, Gregory Benford engaged in more than his share of character jobs. In the arid fields of the sun, he chopped the sugar cane and bagged the potatoes. On shrimp and fishing boats operating out of Mobile Bay, he hauled in nets laden with ocean products.
Those years of toil on land and water planted a seed in Benford’s young brain that would, decades later, germinate into HARVESTa fledgling business venture he co-founded that may prove to be one of the most practical and effective approaches ever devised to solving climate change.
Permanent oceanic sequestration of crop residues is a method of atmospheric carbon dioxide removal that is simple, straightforward, and globally scalable. It relies on the natural, seasonally regulated processes of our planet, combined with readily available agricultural labor and mundane age-old equipment such as bale cables, trucks and barges. CROPS basically involves bundling agricultural waste into half-ton cubes and transporting it to the deep sea, where gravity will take it to the ocean floor. Here, the carbon that was once in the air will remain undisturbed for millennia.
“The scale of the climate problem is enormous; in a single year, about 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide enter our atmosphere and stay there,” says Benford, professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at the UCI. “Other methods of carbon sequestration that have been proposed are in the megaton range, but we believe CROPS can achieve this easily and go much further.”
A dominant factor, he notes, is expense. Carbon dioxide is currently being removed from the air by an industrial plant in Iceland that took five years and $500 million to build – at a cost of $1,000 per ton of CO2. Benford says that to seriously combat the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we need to remove about 5 billion tons a year.
“Five billion times $1,000 is $5 trillion. Per year. It won’t happen industrially,” he says. “Compare that with our technology for extracting carbon dioxide from the air: plants, which do the work for free. In the area of carbon sequestration, most people want to build factories, but we want to sequester factories. »
Benford and his associates have been developing the CROPS concept for decades. They have published peer-reviewed articles on this in 2001 and 2009. Twelve years ago, they sank a one-ton bale of corn stalks – plant detritus left in a field after harvest – in the deep ocean off the coast of California. Researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute visited the site approximately every three years to collect samples. So far, according to Benford, the block of material has remained intact and inert.
“Our method is to place this material on the seabed, below the thermocline, where the water temperature is just above freezing,” he explains. “There is almost nothing alive beyond the microbes on the ocean floor because there is no oxygen, no light and no nutrients, so the CROPS approach will have zero impact at all. minimal impact on the marine habitat.”
Early customers of CROPS carbon systems include French farmers who see the technique as a way to offset the carbon dioxide they produce, Benford says. Other countries with large agricultural sectors and extensive river systems, such as Russia and Brazil, are good candidates. And the biggest prize of all would be the United States, the world’s largest agricultural producer and exporter, as well as a major CO2 transmitter. Benford envisions bundled carbon barges sailing the Missouri, Ohio and Mississippi rivers en route to the Gulf of Mexico for long-term storage of their cargo.
science and fiction
Benford and his twin brother, James, both studied at UC San Diego in the mid-1960s, earning Ph.D. in physics in 1967, Benford moved to the Bay Area, drawn in almost equal parts by his interest in rock ‘n’ roll music and a job at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory under famed nuclear physicist Edward Teller.
He joined the UCI Department of Physics and Astronomy in 1971 and was tenured within two years. “Things were going faster in those days,” he says. Another difference: While today’s scientists tend to pick one field and stick to it, Benford started out as a theoretical physicist at Livermore, was hired to conduct plasma physics research at UCI and began to delve into plasma astrophysics later in his career.
He was closely associated with Norman Rostoker, the late UCI professor of physics and astronomy, whose ideas on particle physics and fusion formed the nucleus of another effort to do good for the climate, that of Orange County-based energy company TAE Technologies, formerly Tri-Alpha Energy.
Benford holds multiple patents and is behind eight biomedical startups. And he’s a major figure in the world of “hard science fiction,” a segment of science fiction that more closely embraces scientific reality, he says. Benford has lost count of the number of books he has published, but a scroll of titles at a popular online book retailer shows 40 to 50 entries. Temporal landscapea novel he wrote in the 1970s about how scientists might think and work in the near future has sold over a million copies.
“My brother and I both loved science fiction as kids, so we quickly realized we wanted to pursue careers in science,” Benford says. “Working on fishing vessels and farms in the Deep South convinced me that it would probably be smarter to go into a more intellectual field, so that was theoretical physics.”
He says the idea for CROPS came to him decades ago while sailing in the South China Sea. “I was struck by the enormity of the ocean; it is the majority of the surface of our planet. When you combine this profound and simple fact with processes evolved by the biosphere itself to take CO2 out of the air, you have a carbon sequestration technique that is bound to work.
“It’s true; it’s a natural process,” Benford adds. “So I guess it helps to have grown up on a farm.”
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