Electric Trees

Man has changed and shaped the planet since the time he was able to make tools. Now, nearly two centuries of rapid industrialization, can he reverse the destruction he has cast on Nature?

About a year or two ago, I took up graduate studies just for the heck of it, to satisfy my urge to gain more knowledge about my field. I also thought about it as my way to give/make something relevant to society since I believe research is a stepping stone for real development. We were asked in our first semester for our research interests and I had my sights on biodiesel production using microalgae cultivated from swine waste water since (1) swine waste water is a problem since it’s not treated and is just usually dumped as run off to rivers, (2) there are a lot of researches involved with microalgae so there’s already a knowledge base on the topic hence making innovations should be easy and (3) biodiesel is somewhat dear to me, having researched on it in high school (and my father based a biodiesel plant he made on our research. Which reminds me, we should’ve received boxes of pizza for the data he got from us)

I think I posted something on Facebook regarding my admission to graduate school and a former professor messaged me on taking up research under his guidance. He’s into electrochemical engineering, specializing in batteries. He offered me to study electrocatalysis, wherein the catalyst we’re going to develop will involve carbon dioxide reduction. I read it again: “CARBON DIOXIDE REDUCTION”

“WOW”

That was my initial reaction but doubts quickly shrouded my thoughts: (1) the reaction to carbon dioxide production is a spontaneous one (also irreversible if it’s through oxidation of carbon) hence the process will surely need a lot of energy, (2) what then will the end products be? Are they high value products that will justify the energy costs of the process and (3) how mature is the technology? Will I, an average engineer, be able to contribute to the “central knowledge” of this research?

I said yes even if the research topic’s still a bit hazy to me.

***
I run in on one of the lecturers of the department and in our conversation we discussed about my possible research. He’s a bit curious on how I’ll go about my research but he’s cynical about it because “it’s hard to translate an electrochemical process to an industrial scale”

Instead of doubting the research path I took, I was kinda motivated by that fact that it was nearly impossible to implement.

***

Now as I enter my 4th semester of graduate school, I’ve decided to start doing my thesis because I want to obtain my master’s degree as soon as possible because my studies becoming an apparent hindrance to my productivity at work. (However, the prospect of doing the actual research isn’t a problem at all since it keeps me refreshed, it keeps me going since managing a business is rather a bland exercise.) Since, I want to do a research that won’t just be contained in a pile of paper, wherein I want it to be something that can be integrated in future technologies that hopefully could change the environment of Man (wow), I took some time off from work and went to a nearby watering hole to play around in dreamland and think of the “future”. So far, I’ve thought about “electric trees” and a solution to a(n) (un)popular way of disposing plastics:

“Electric Trees”

In order to save nature one must be inspired by nature to come up with solutions. I’ve thought of this huge man-made tree, which gathers solar energy in which it will use this to convert carbon dioxide to let’s say, methanol or ethanol, which are also industrial fuels. I’ve thought of installing solar panels on existing skyscrapers, parks, homes; carbon dioxide scrubbers installed in industrial plants which will collect the greenhouse gas, and at the center of this man-made tree, is the CO2 reduction cell which will create the organic chemicals derived from carbon dioxide.

“An Answer to Problems of Plastic Incineration”

The main concern of the opponents to plastic incineration as a form of waste disposal for plastics is the toxic chemicals the flue gas contains. Also, since plastics are organic polymers, burning them would lead to the production of CO2. Now, if you couple this carbon dioxide reduction technology, you eliminate that. Also, it will go hand in hand since the energy produced from the incineration of the waste plastic can be used to produce electricity which will then be used by the CO2 reduction cell. I’m not sure though if we can make the base monomers for plastics so that we wouldn’t anymore need petroleum to manufacture these products.

***
Satisfied with what the possibilities are for the technology I’m going to try researching on (and a bit tipsy after a couple of beers), I headed home, hoping to write my thesis proposal soon.

As for the “upscale” problem, well, that’s what chemical engineers are here for: we’re supposed to make the impossible possible.

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