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Deep Decarbonization: The Next 50%

by Christine Skolnik

Last week Professor George Crabtree presented Deep Decarbonization, a talk about new and emerging energy technologies within the context of climate change.  The talk was organized by 350 Chicago and hosted by the DePaul University Institute for Nature & Culture.  George Crabtree is a Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Director of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research at Argonne National Laboratory.  The talk included a brief review of some vitally important points related to climate change, a discussion of various current technology issues, as well as research and development challenges for the future.  The talk is available on the 350 Chicago website here

I was particularly interested in Dr. Crabtree’s discussion of business and industrial challenges.  While most people, including knowledgeable activists, tend to focus on issues related to consumer uses of energy, Crabtree explained the real research and development challenges lay in business and industrial sectors.   [ . . . ]

An EPA inventory of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions between 1990 and 2017 described emissions by sector.  Each major sector emitted over a billion metric tons of “carbon dioxide equivalents” every year.  Transportation was responsible for 29% of emissions; electricity generation responsible for 28%; and industry was responsible for 22% of GHG emissions.  (The remaining sectors were agriculture, commercial, and residential.) 


Unfortunately, the energy needs of commercial transportation and industrial manufacturing cannot be addressed by the same solutions we have developed for private transportation and residential energy consumption.  Amazon will introduce 100,000 electric vans for local deliveries between 2021 and 2024, but long-haul trucks are not yet electric due to current limitations in range and charging times.  Long haul trucks have to travel great distances, obviously, and such large batteries would take a great deal of time to charge.  Hydrogen fuel cells are a potential alternative to current battery technology for heavy, long-range trucks.  Hydrogen batteries are quite safe and create no GHG emissions.  However, it is still quite expensive to produce hydrogen as a fuel.  

Another transportation-related problem is commercial flights.  There are quite a few prototypes of small electric planes.  However, these have not yet been scaled up for commercial use.  Airbus is developing a large, hybrid plane with one electric engine (out of four), but this will not get us to 100% decarbonization by 2050.


The major alternative energy challenge in commercial flight lays primarily in getting planes up to a cruising altitude.  This seemed like a significant obstacle, but Dr. Crabtree observed the dramatic progress made by the airplane industry in the first half of the twentieth century. 

Industrial manufacturing was the other primary topic of discussion.  We know plastic is a problem before it enters and after it exists industrial processes, because it begins with fossil fuels and ends up in our oceans.  However, I was surprised to learn there is currently no method for producing steel with alternative energy sources.  Upon reflection this makes sense. We all know that steel is forged at extremely high temperatures (about 1000 degrees Celsius).  What I did not know is that high temperatures like this can only be produced by combustion.  Hydrogen is an alternative combustion fuel, but it is currently most efficiently produced from natural gas and coal gasification.  As an expert in materials science, Dr. Crabtree emphasized the need for research and development into alternative manufacturing processes and materials. [ . . . ]

The bottom line is this. To remain below a 2° increase in global warming, we have to invest a great deal of research and development into replacing “the last 50%” of dirty energy.  Crabtree said we have to brainpower, but insufficient funding.  He ended his talk by advocating for a carbon tax as a logical way of reducing carbon emissions and funding research. [ . . .]

See full article including an important note about recently announced breakthroughs in industrial energy technology at the 350 Chicago website here.


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