Carbon capture and storage may never be financially viable: leading economist

Leading economist Professor Gordon Hughes, professor of economics at the University of Edinburgh and a former adviser to the World Bank, has warned that claims of carbon capture and storage’s (CCS) potential are ignoring key considerations to its viability and that it will likely be too expensive to use.

The technology, which captures carbon dioxide from fossil fuel emissions to prevent it entering the atmosphere, has been touted not only as an environmental victory, but a cost-saver for industries not prepared to switch to renewables.

The essence of carbon capture is in the scrubbing of the carbon dioxide from the flue gas at fossil fuel plants, particularly coal, via absorption (currently the dominant method), adsorption or membrane gas separation. Once the carbon dioxide has been captured, it can be transported and stored where it cannot enter the atmosphere.

While the initial costs of carbon capture are high and raise the energy needs of plants, it has been believed that investment in the technology will eventually lead those plants making use of it to save money.

In a new report published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, however, Professor Hughes says that, in practice, the claims of quickly falling costs are unlikely and even if true, are probably going to be undermined by the total investment.

“We have spent countless millions trying to get carbon capture to work for coal-fired power stations,” said Hughes. “But in the future coal will mostly be used in the developing world, where CCS is going to be too expensive. Everyone else is moving to gas, for which CSS isn’t yet an option.”

The report even goes so far as to say that making carbon capture technology work for natural gas, which already produces at least 5% less CO2 than is found in coal flue gas, “would make renewables and nuclear look cheap”. In no small part, this is due to a lack of connected policy when it comes to the technology and its place alongside other energy ventures. With the majority of attention being on expanding renewables, there’s simply not the focus to make CCS work.

“Successive governments haven’t thought their policies through,” Hughes elaborated. “The focus on renewables is making CCS – already a marginal technology – even less viable. A coherent strategy could reduce carbon emissions at a fraction of the current cost by switching to gas with the option to install CCS if/when it makes economic sense.”

The report highlights the fact that while the International Energy Agency and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have noted carbon capture technologies as crucial to meeting the emission pledges of the Paris Agreement, the lack of investment in the technology in favour of renewables has drastically slowed development. While the claims as to CCS’ potential are not completely outlandish, they appear to be reliant on an investment that simply does not exist.

Soviet report detailing lunar rover Lunokhod-2 released for first time

Russian space agency Roskosmos has released an unprecedented scientific report into the lunar rover Lunokhod-2 for the first time, revealing previously unknown details about the rover and how it was controlled back on Earth.

The report, written entirely in Russian, was originally penned in 1973 following the Lunokhod-2 mission, which was embarked upon in January of the same year. It had remained accessible to only a handful of experts at the space agency prior to its release today, to mark the 45th anniversary of the mission.

Bearing the names of some 55 engineers and scientists, the report details the systems that were used to both remotely control the lunar rover from a base on Earth, and capture images and data about the Moon’s surface and Lunokhod-2’s place on it. This information, and in particularly the carefully documented issues and solutions that the report carries, went on to be used in many later unmanned missions to other parts of the solar system.

As a result, it provides a unique insight into this era of space exploration and the technical challenges that scientists faced, such as the low-frame television system that functioned as the ‘eyes’ of the Earth-based rover operators.

A NASA depiction of the Lunokhod mission. Above: an image of the rover, courtesy of NASA, overlaid onto a panorama of the Moon taken by Lunokhod-2, courtesy of Ruslan Kasmin.

One detail that main be of particular interest to space enthusiasts and experts is the operation of a unique system called Seismas, which was tested for the first time in the world during the mission.

Designed to determine the precise location of the rover at any given time, the system involved transmitting information over lasers from ground-based telescopes, which was received by a photodetector onboard the lunar rover. When the laser was detected, this triggered the emission of a radio signal back to the Earth, which provided the rover’s coordinates.

Other details, while technical, also give some insight into the culture of the mission, such as the careful work to eliminate issues in the long-range radio communication system. One issue, for example, was worked on with such thoroughness that it resulted in one of the devices using more resources than it was allocated, a problem that was outlined in the report.

The document also provides insight into on-Earth technological capabilities of the time. While it is mostly typed, certain mathematical symbols have had to be written in by hand, and the report also features a number of diagrams and graphs that have been painstakingly hand-drawn.

A hand-drawn graph from the report, showing temperature changes during one of the monitoring sessions during the mission

Lunokhod-2 was the second of two unmanned lunar rovers to be landed on the Moon by the Soviet Union within the Lunokhod programme, having been delivered via a soft landing by the unmanned Luna 21 spacecraft in January 1973.

In operation between January and June of that year, the robot covered a distance of 39km, meaning it still holds the lunar distance record to this day.

One of only four rovers to be deployed on the lunar surface, Lunokhod-2 was the last rover to visit the Moon until December 2013, when Chinese lunar rover Yutu made its maiden visit.

Robot takes first steps towards building artificial lifeforms

A robot equipped with sophisticated AI has successfully simulated the creation of artificial lifeforms, in a key first step towards the eventual goal of creating true artificial life.

The robot, which was developed by scientists at the University of Glasgow, was able to model the creation of artificial lifeforms using unstable oil-in-water droplets. These droplets effectively played the role of living cells, demonstrating the potential of future research to develop living cells based on building blocks that cannot be found in nature.

Significantly, the robot also successfully predicted their properties before they were created, even though this could not be achieved using conventional physical models.

The robot, which was designed by Glasgow University’s Regius Chair of Chemistry, Professor Lee Cronin, is driven by machine learning and the principles of evolution.

It has been developed to autonomously create oil-in-water droplets with a host of different chemical makeups and then use image recognition to assess their behaviour.

Using this information, the robot was able to engineer droplets to have different properties­. Those which were found to be desirable could then be recreated at any time, using a specific digital code.

“This work is exciting as it shows that we are able to use machine learning and a novel robotic platform to understand the system in ways that cannot be done using conventional laboratory methods, including the discovery of ‘swarm’ like group behaviour of the droplets, akin to flocking birds,” said Cronin.

“Achieving lifelike behaviours such as this are important in our mission to make new lifeforms, and these droplets may be considered ‘protocells’ – simplified models of living cells.”

One of the oil droplets created by the robot

The research, which is published today in the journal PNAS, is one of several research projects being undertaken by Cronin and his team within the field of artificial lifeforms.

While the overarching goal is moving towards the creation of lifeforms using new and unprecedented building blocks, the research may also have more immediate potential applications.

The team believes that their work could also have applications in several practical areas, including the development of new methods for drug delivery or even innovative materials with functional properties.