Because I don’t have enough hobbies, I participate in a program called Innocentive, which is a forum on which companies and other entities can post their problems to a community of “solvers.” It’s a way to solicit ideas from an outside perspective, from people who are not the standard research and development team, and for solvers to find interesting problems to tackle. Most of the challenges, as they are called, include some kind of prize money for a few of the winners, and they come in all different forms: ideation challenges are just white papers, while other types of challenges require working prototypes and full reports. I recently saw a challenge posted for eliminating tailpipe emissions from internal combustion engines, and it set me to thinking.
Well, most things set me to thinking, but that’s beside the point. My first thought was to connect the challenge with a research paper I read a few days ago that sought to identify and study the proteins which human bodies use to bind carbon dioxide and remove it from the system. Perhaps those proteins could be used to bind to the carbon dioxide emissions. Then, as I thought about the other emissions the seeker was attempting to eliminate, it occurred to me that I was being hasty: what makes us so certain that these molecules and compounds are pollutants in the first place?
To the best of our experimental knowledge and understanding, the universe is a conservative place. In any closed system, quantities must be conserved. Thermodynamics inform us that energy is conserved. Linear and angular momentum are both conserved, whether we’re looking at billiard balls in a Newtonian paradigm, or photons in a quantum system. Special relativity expands conservation even further to the equivalence between matter and energy. In a closed system, where nothing can escape, quantities are inevitably conserved.
What is sometimes missed in conversations about “greenhouse gas” emissions and climate change is that all of these gases have (more or less a small margin of error for more recent extraterrestrial acquisitions via meteor impacts or baryonic accumulation) been here for most of Earth’s history, and certainly for the brief period in which life evolved. While there is some interchange between Earth and the interplanetary medium (and it is mostly a loss to Earth), the Earth can, for most intents and purposes, be treated as a closed system plus solar effects. The problem, if indeed we can so cavalierly call it a problem, is the conversion process, the forms in which these pollutants are presently existing.
Yet they are still part of their cycles. There have been periods in Earth’s past when massive volcanism is thought to have produced greenhouse gas emissions on a scale to dwarf anything humans have achieved. Indeed, this is one of the hypotheses for how the perpetuated cycle of “Snowball Earth” was broken. Periods of greater atmospheric greenhouse gasses were characterized by proliferation of the very organisms that eventually became today’s “fossil fuels.”
To return to the initial conversation about internal combustion engines, it occurred to me as I was thinking about the problem that perhaps thinking about emissions and pollutants was the wrong perspective. Instead, I tried looking at the car as a system. In that paradigm, these pollutants and emissions are really just waste products, examples of inefficiencies that escape the system. Rather than pursuing the false panacea of total electrification of everything, a more productive avenue to explore might be utilizing these “waste products.” After all, a waste product is really just a substance for which we have not yet found a use.
Another research paper I read recently referred to a chemosynthetic process for the artificial production of starches from carbon dioxide and hydrogen. With the use of catalysts and other inputs, the process was able to generate more than eight times as much starch per unit time as the natural starch creation process that occurs in maize. Yet another referred to an enzymatic process in cells that fixes certain rare contaminants and disposes of them, and in another there were featured engineered bacteria that NASA was seeking to use to mine asteroids for in situ resource utilization.
Whether the cycle occurs naturally, over a protracted period of time, or we take advantage of these “waste” products to perform useful tasks in a shorter time, the fundamental conservative laws will continue to operate, and the cycles will perpetuate as a result. A mentor of mine has a saying: “there are no problems, only solutions.” While that it antithetical to my own saying “there are no right answers, only wrong answers, and our goal is to find the less wrong answers,” I’ve found that using it as a starting point can help reach those less wrong answers. Sometimes, the solution to a problem is to determine that it’s not a problem at all.