Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Carbon Dioxide Reduction - Different Strokes for Different Folks

On August 1, 2012 the US Energy Information Administration stated that
"U.S. carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions resulting from energy use during the first quarter of 2012 were the lowest in two decades for any January-March period. Normally, CO2 emissions during the year are highest in the first quarter because of strong demand for heat produced by fossil fuels. However, CO2 emissions during January-March 2012 were low due to a combination of three factors:
  • A mild winter that reduced household heating demand and therefore energy use
  • A decline in coal-fired electricity generation, due largely to historically low natural gas prices
  • Reduced gasoline demand."
Their news release went on to say that “The decline in coal-related emissions is due mainly to utilities using less coal for electricity generation as they burned more low-priced natural gas … Natural gas is the least carbon-intensive fossil fuel, producing the lowest CO2 emissions.”

In this post we’ll look at two Air Index patents issued in 2012. In reviewing these, I’m reminded of the chorus from the song "Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off" by the great Ella Fitzgerald and Satchmo (Louis Armstrong for some of you):
"You say eether and I say eyether,
You say neether and I say nyther,
Eether, eyether, neether, nyther,
Let’s call the whole thing off!
You like potato and I like potahto,
You like tomato and I like tomahto,
Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto!
Let’s call the whole thing off!"
There are many ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere, and these two patents illustrate widely different approaches. One actually reduces emissions, the second – not so much.

Reducing CO2 in offshore natural gas

Daniel Chinn (Bay Point, CA) and a team of co-inventors were granted US 8,192,524, “Process for upgrading natural gas with improved management of CO2” on June 5, 2012; their patent is assigned to Chevron U.S.A. Inc.
Chinn et al. state the problem they are attempting to solve:
”Offshore gas fields in many parts of the world produce natural gas containing a significant amount of carbon dioxide (e.g. greater than 10 vol % CO2). For example, the CO2 content of natural gas streams originating offshore can be as high as 80 vol %. 
In contrast, at onshore locations where natural gas is to be used, the natural gas should generally have a relatively low CO2 content. For example, a lower CO2content corresponds to a higher heating value for the natural gas. CO2 can also lead to freezing in the low-temperature chillers in liquified natural gas (LNG) plants. 
There are two main approaches to upgrading natural gas offshore. The first approach involves blending the gas with sufficiently low CO2 gas to reduce the overall CO2 content. The second, alternative approach involves subjecting the gas to some type of CO2 removal process. 
… there is a need for a process for producing a CO2-depleted product gas stream from natural gas containing a significant amount of carbon dioxide (e.g. greater than 10 vol % CO2). Such process should require minimal equipment weight and energy and take up minimal space. Moreover, such process should exhibit minimal hydrocarbon losses to the CO2-rich permeate. Accordingly, such process will be useful for upgrading natural gas offshore, will be profitable, and will result in minimal GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions.”
They achieve their goal by using a polymer membrane filtration process in which a natural gas feed stream comprising water vapor and greater than about 10 vol % COis passed to a membrane unit. The membranes are selectively permeable to CO2, allowing it to be separated from the natural gas and, according to the patent, “disposed of in any manner known in the art.” In other words, their invention separates the carbon dioxide, it’s up to you to get rid of it.

The drawing for this invention, which illustrates this post, is fully in keeping with the sterile line drawings that we have come to expect from modern patents, and is one of the least meaningful ones that we’ve run across in the universe of clean and green technology.

Emissions Trading, or Sales?

The second patent in today’s lineup is, according to the USPTO, primarily a business method – a clean tech (or green tech, if you prefer) business method invention, with a slight flavoring of hazardous or toxic waste destruction or containment. US 8,126,780, “Method for cultured sea algae” was issued to Katsumi Iwai and Hiroshi Horibata, both of Tokyo, Japan, on February 28, 2012.

Iwai and Horibata seek to provide a “method and apparatus for utilizing, processing, distributing and an accompanying business model for sea algae, particularly forced cultured kombu, to prevent the expansion of global warming, by encouraging a re-purchase of the cultured sea algae, by paying the purchaser back, in a constant rate, a part of the profit from the sales of a CO2 omission [sic] right, which right depends upon the CO2 absorption and fixation ability.”
From Wikipedia:
”Kombu (昆布 in Japanese, and 海带 in Chinese, Saccharina japonica and others), several Pacific species of kelp, is a very important ingredient in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean cuisines. Kombu is used to flavor broths and stews (especially dashi), as a savory garnish (tororo konbu) for rice and other dishes, as a vegetable, and a primary ingredient in popular snacks (such as tsukudani). Transparent sheets of kelp (oboro konbu) are used as an edible decorative wrapping for rice and other foods. Kombu can be used to soften beans during cooking, and to help convert indigestible sugars and thus reduce flatulence.”
Both natural and cultured kombu beds are harvested.
So how does a business method patent about cultured kelp help to reduce atmospheric emissions of carbon dioxide?
Claim 1 states:
A method for cultured algae comprising: 
storing, in a computer data base, records of culturing conditions, yield, and carbon fixation volumes for a sea algae culturing facility of a predetermined scale in a specific sea area; 
obtaining, via a remote sensing device configured to perform at least one of space satellite remote sensing, under water remote sensing, and direct artificial sensing, data pertaining to actual culturing conditions, yield, and carbon fixation volumes associated with the sea algae culturing facility; 
storing, in a computer data base, the data obtained pertaining to the actual culturing conditions, yield, and carbon fixation volumes; 
comparing the obtained data pertaining to the actual culturing conditions, yield, and carbon fixation volumes to the stored records of culturing conditions, yield and carbon fixation volumes of the sea algae culturing facility; 
computing a weight of cultured sea algae and a carbon fixation quantity from the obtained data and certifying the computed carbon fixation quantity in the presence of a third party; 
calculating a greenhouse gas omission [sic] right based on the certified carbon fixation quantity and the computed weight of the cultured sea algae; 
selling the greenhouse gas omission [sic] right through a global warming gas omission [sic] right trading mechanism; 
processing at least a portion of the cultured sea algae to produce a product, the product including at least one of a food article, an industrial article, and an agriculture-forestry-marine article; 
and distributing, via a market, the product produced from processing at least a portion of the cultured sea algae.
Kelp, an algae, is a plant. Plants convert carbon dioxide (in this case CO2 dissolved in ocean water) to sugar through the photosynthetic process. They absorb CO2 and fix it in sugar stored in their cells. In a nutshell (or maybe thallus since we are discussing kelp), this patent would calculate the amount of carbon dioxide fixed as sugars in the harvested cultured kelp, certify that computation “in the presence of a third party”, calculate a greenhouse gas omission [sic] (note to USPTO: your examiners should do a better job of correcting important errors such as substituting the word ‘omission’ for ‘emission’ in their correspondence with inventors.) ‘right’, sell that ‘right’ “through a global warming gas omission [sic] right trading mechanism” (will Al Gore get a cut? Where has Al Gore been during this very hot, stormy, and drought-ridden summer, by the way?), and processing the kelp and distributing the product to market.

Note that nothing in this patent actually reduces atmospheric CO2 emissions, it merely provides a mechanism to separate people from their money so they can feel good about having saved the planet from global warming.

Kelp growers/harvesters/processors establish omission [sic] rights? This is an entirely new one to me.

You really owe it to yourself to read through this patent, particularly the Background of the Invention and the Brief Description of Disclosed Invention sections (which constitute a the first major part of the patent “Specification”).