Back to the Stone Age, or everything I really needed to know about solving climate change, I learned from Fred Flintstone

July 12, 2021 |

As someone once observed, the Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones, and the Petroleum Age is not going to end because we ran out of petroleum. Rather, needs and technologies will change. In fact, they are already changing, or have changed, because of the unintended consequences — that is to say, your friends “energy dependence” and “climate change”.

The way out of our troubles? One option is to become modern Stone Age families. Yes, we’re the Flintstones, or might be. And Bedrock may well be the destination toward which our culture is marching. Let me explain.

As this IPCC chart reveals, even if we reach all or “Net Zero by (Fill in the Blank)” climate pledges, we are going to have to remove 50 billion tons of CO2 from our daily lives and 20 billion of that will have to come not from changing our habits, but capturing carbon.

I am sure you have heard that we are going to inject that CO2 into wells for enhanced oil recovery, Let me illustrate with some math. 20 billions tons of CO2, you could look it up, takes up 526 billion cubic maters of space, and the average enhanced oil recovery (there are 114 projects in the US) uses 500,000 cubic meters of CO2. So, we’d need to launch 7,000 times as many projects.  If all the gas you used in enhanced oil recovery was CO2, which it isn’t, and if it all would stay right where you injected it for all eternity, which it won’t.

In the end, what we’re going to have to do is make something that fulfills five conditions, it has to be:

1. Stable

2. Useful

3. Solid

4. Easy and cheap to make.

5. Uses a lot of CO2.

At this juncture, let me introduce our new best climate friend, limestone. A/K/A what shells are made out of, and lots of buildings. Biology knows perfectly well how to make it, and you don’t have to pay the oysters and clams for their time. 

Limestone is far more dense than gaseous CO2, but it’s 68 percent something else, by weight, than CO2. That’s the calcium and the extra oxygen in CaCO3, which is the chemical expression. Still, you can bundle 20 billion tons of CO2 into 62.5 billion tons of limestone, or 23 million cubic meters of it. That’s about 63 Empire State Buildings, by weight.

And, we have a lot of uses for limestone, as a building material or for concrete. or, you can just pile it up at the bottom of the sea, oceans don’t mind limestone one little bit. 

So, why isn’t this a climate no-brainer?

The problem lies not in the CO2, excepting of course that you’d want to capture it at source if possible because drawing CO2 down from the atmosphere via carbon capture is tough and expensive. No, it’s the calcium that’s the problem, actually.

You see, although calcium is the fifth most abundant mineral on earth, we generally get what we need by extracting it from limestone. Which doesn’t solve our problem. Actually, liberating calcium oxide from limestone causes a CO2 release. Yikes!

There are some other sources of calcium, but most of them are harder to find or involve elements like Fluorine that can have climate consequences all their own. There’s gypsum, which is readily mined, cheap enough, contains plenty of calcium and has no carbon content at all. 

Perfect? Not really. When you liberate calcium out of gypsum you’re left with sulfate, a pollutant. So, what do we do?

One possibility is to make a lot of Epsom salts, which you may have used as bath crystals after a tough workout or a long day. That’s Magnesium Sulphate (MgSO4), and yes, we have plenty of ways to extract all the magnesium we need from the ocean, where it is the third most abundant element in seawater and in fact generally we make magnesium from brine.

So, we have a circular economy in the making, Because desalination creates brine, and bine can be used as a source of sodium, chlorine and magnesium. So, desalination for brine, gypsum for calcium, and you make limestone. Sure, we’ll make a lot, and it won’t be the cheapest stone you’ve ever acquired if the only consideration you have is the direct cost of production. After all, you can just cut limestone out of the places where biology has already made it.

For the long-term, we might usefully reform our thinking and be more circular in our entire approach. We might take some useful lessons from the Flintstones, who wound every possible use for stone that you could possibly imagine.

Where today we think lightweight, tomorrow we’ll think “heavyweight”. Where we thought “metal” or “plastic”, think “stone”. Where we thought “flexible”, think “rigid”.

So, think brine, greenhouse gas, gypsum, salts. We have all these things, and any clam you meet knows quite a bit about making calcium carbonate. And never yet has an oyster presented a bill for the service, not even for the pearl.

Our problems must be our opportunities, just as our opportunities always come with problems. And the most important five letter word in our future vocabulary may not in the end be Tesla, or Apple. It may well be:

“Wilma!”

To which I would add, in conclusion, only these most wise words: 

Yabba Dabba Doo.

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