Carbon Dioxide and Pandora's Box
I'm a chemist, and I am about to burst. Every time I witness the poor knowledge of the Global Community regarding the issues behind the so-called greenhouse gases and global warming, I shake my head.
I am going to write a number of blogs over the next weeks about the chemical realities of global warming and greenhouse gases. I will try to keep the discussions as simple as possible, without compromising my message.
LET'S BEGIN WITH THE BASICS
Carbon is an element, among the most important for life on earth. Other important elements are hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorous, and nitrogen. We define an element as a substance whose smallest unit is an atom. Atoms contain electrons, protons, and neutrons, however, what defines the nature of the atom is only the number of protons.
Carbon has 6 protons. Any atom with 6 protons is a carbon atom. Molecules are defined as "bonded collections of atoms." Carbon dioxide is a molecule containing two oxygen atoms and one carbon atom.
Carbon dioxide is an extremely important gas. Plants, for example, pluck carbon dioxide molecules out of the air and incorporate the carbon atoms in their leaves and branches for strutural strength, in their fruits as sugars to fuel the next generation of offspring, and to make the enzymes that are so important for life processes.
Additionally, the plant "strips" away most of the oxygen from the carbon dioxide and returns it to the atmosphere as oxygen, a crucial gas for human survival.
When we eat an apple or some other fruit, the sweetness is due to sugars. Our bodies metabolize these carbon-containing sugars into . . . . That's right, carbon dioxide, plus water. So, you can see a cycle, what I call the Oxygen Cycle.
Plants form oxygen from carbon dioxide, and we form carbon dioxide from the oxygen the plants release. Cycles are good. The word "recycle" tells us that we reuse a waste product. The survival of our global resources hangs on our ability to recycle.
THE CARBON CYCLE
Like oxygen, carbon has a cycle also. Unfortunately, the carbon cycle is not as simple as the oxygen cycle. The atoms in carbon dioxide are split by plants into oxygen gas, that is recycled into the atmosphere, and carbon atoms. The carbon atoms are incorporated into the structural elements and sugars of a plant. This process requires a good deal of energy; plants get the energy from sunlight and use the miracle of photosynthesis to achieve it.
As long as the global quantity of carbon remains stable, this is a wonderful cycle and the processes of life continue.
IN-CIRCULATION AND OUT-OF-CIRCULATION CARBON
There are many ways of differentiating carbon. For the purposes of this discussion, I divide carbon into two different types: in-circulation and out-of-circulation. The in-circulation carbon is part of the carbon cycle. It goes into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and is pulled out by plants and through other, minor, ways. Out-of-circulation carbon is the carbon that is in the ground. It has been in the ground for thousands of years, mainly in the forms of coal, petroleum, and natural gas.
Only recently, in the history of humankind, we have begun to pull this out-of-circulation carbon out of the ground and we burn it in our automobiles, in industrial applications, and so on. The major product of this burning is to increase the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Since the Industrial Revolution started, the level of carbon dioxide has risen 50 percent.
The reason the carbon dioxide levels increase is because the global climate is overwhelmed. There is too much carbon dioxide being produced, the plant world, which takes the carbon dioxide out of the air cannot handle these increased levels.
Pandora's Box, as the myth goes, was given to humankind as punishment for stealing the secret of fire and, when opened, it released all the troubles we face today. Burning petroleum is that fire, and the increasing level of carbon dioxide is the punishment.
Mythology tells us that, once Pandora's Box was opened, and our travails released, they could not be returned into the box. The same with the release of out-of-circulation carbon. Every time we turn on the engines in our cars, run our lawn mowers, we re-open Pandora's Box. There is no practical way to return that carbon into the ground.
WHAT DO WE DO?
In the next postings, I will discuss what our leaders are doing that is constructive and not constructive, from a chemical point of view. For the time being, I will say this: Our continuing to remove out-of-circulation carbon from the ground is absolutely the wrong thing to do. We must stop this practice as soon as possible.
In future postings, I will explain how our proposed solutions are flawed, some of the reasons why we can't be more fuel-efficient, and a solution for getting unlimited fuel without creating a single greenhouse gas.