Field Re-mediations: Carbon

Contributed by Karolina Sobecka and Jamie Allen, Swiss-based artists-researchers behind the Field Remediations: Carbon project

  Image: Carbon Collextion at CAC

Image: Carbon Collextion at CAC

Field Remediations: Carbon explores human and technological interactions with the carbon cycle, sampling the spectrum of material practices, opportunities and challenges associated with development of remission and Negative Emissions Technologies (NETs). The goal is to align the science-fiction of carbon capture with the science-fact of its current research and implementations. The fieldwork conducted in Switzerland, Canada and in Shanghai also populated the CARBON Collection of the Field Remediations Library, which was installed for the Machines are not alone exhibition at Chronus Art Center.

The project was enabled by generous strategic support from swissnex. Our enormous thanks go to Felix and Rahel for providing us in the last minute with a means of transport for our group and a fantastic driver who expertly delivered us to every fieldwork location (a task not to be taken for granted in Shanghai). The project couldn’t have happened without it, plus we got to meet the wonderful swissnex team.

One of the highlights of our field visits in Shanghai was a visit to Professor Zhu Xinguang’s lab, and the Plant Systems Biology Group at the Chinese Science Academy, where we learned about their efforts to engineer more ‘efficient’ rice. These and related bioengineering initiatives are designed to significantly increase agricultural crop yields, making them into ‘better’ carbon sinks. Dr. Xinguang is involved in a number of international collaborative research projects, in the works for years, that are showing promising, ifn tendentious, results. If we were to similarly engineer all industrial and large scale crops, they could create a global drawdown of carbon that would sequester much more atmospheric CO2 than currently, transforming the climate and its changes.

While in Shanghai our team also visited Shanghai Baosteel, one of the largest steel enterprises in the world, which is working to lower its CO2 emissions. Because of the chemical processes at the heart of steelmaking, the plant cannot completely cut its emissions, so it faces a dilemma that we all face on a planetary scale. In order for the plant to be ‘carbon neutral’, and in order for global CO2 emissions to reach net zero negative emission technologies are a necessity.

One less controversial negative emission technology is a technique developed by a Swiss startup Climeworks, which we visited before our trip to China. The technique they use is known as Direct Air Capture (DAC), which is the extraction of CO2 from ambient air. Carbon dioxide in the air is very dilute (there are only around 400 molecules of CO2 in a million molecules of air), so extracting it was thought too costly to make these kinds of DAC techniques realistic. Today, several demonstration plants are in operation, and Climeworks is expecting to commercialize the technology, aiming to capture 1% of global carbon emissions by 2025.

We visited a coal-fired power plant with one of the first Carbon Capture demonstration plants. We learned about the carbon markets from the designers of Chinese carbon market standards, and from ‘carbon accountants’ who are working to develop emissions inventories. At the Carbon Capture and Storage Research Center at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University we learned about the recently opened Low Carbon College, which centers its education on low-carbon industry on three directions, low carbon engineering, carbon policy and carbon finance. This interdisciplinary approach follows from understanding of the technology as a complex sociotechnical system, which is exciting to see and learn from this experiment in structuring truly interdisciplinary, problem-led, technical education.

Our next phases include organizing, activating and expanding all the fascinating material collected, relationships developed and paths forged for new ways of thinking about the carbon cycle, with Chinese partners, and in China.

  Image: Professor Zhu gave us a tour of his lab and discussed the benefits of engineering C4 into rice. One way he sees his work is as a kind of deep-time realignment of the of plants with the environment. Most earthly plants evolved when atmospheric conditions were very different, and we can now design a more optimal photosynthesis machine for today’s environment. The demand for crop productivity is projected against continuous population growth and changes in diet. “We need 50% more productivity,” he says. This is a promise that has purchase with Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other funding agencies. The project is a multinational collaboration developed spanning the last 10 years and funded by both private and state funds.

Image: Professor Zhu gave us a tour of his lab and discussed the benefits of engineering C4 into rice. One way he sees his work is as a kind of deep-time realignment of the of plants with the environment. Most earthly plants evolved when atmospheric conditions were very different, and we can now design a more optimal photosynthesis machine for today’s environment. The demand for crop productivity is projected against continuous population growth and changes in diet. “We need 50% more productivity,” he says. This is a promise that has purchase with Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other funding agencies. The project is a multinational collaboration developed spanning the last 10 years and funded by both private and state funds.

  Image: The lab is trying to genetically engineer a C4 metabolic pathway into C3 plants, beginning with rice as a pilot plant species.

Image: The lab is trying to genetically engineer a C4 metabolic pathway into C3 plants, beginning with rice as a pilot plant species.

  Image: On the lab’s farm outside Shanghai, the different tests can be scaled up to field experiments.

Image: On the lab’s farm outside Shanghai, the different tests can be scaled up to field experiments.

  Image: Climeworks collectors in Switzerland, atop Hinwil waste recovery plant in Zurich.

Image: Climeworks collectors in Switzerland, atop Hinwil waste recovery plant in Zurich.

  Image: Lab setup at SJTU, Jiao Tong University, demonstrating three different mechanics of isolating CO2 form emission stream. The valve is our collection was part of this complicated setup that the PhD students were putting together.

Image: Lab setup at SJTU, Jiao Tong University, demonstrating three different mechanics of isolating CO2 form emission stream. The valve is our collection was part of this complicated setup that the PhD students were putting together.

  Image: Dr Zhang Yongjie of Boasteel’s research division, describing a heat recovery prototype, one of the 7 approaches in which the plant can reduce its energy use. With its Paris Agreement commitment to lowering emissions, China started putting in place policies that put pressure on the industry to make improvements in efficiency. Baosteel’s average total CO2 emissions are 35.83 million ton/year. Its current mandate is to reduce emissions to 90% of this number by 2020.

Image: Dr Zhang Yongjie of Boasteel’s research division, describing a heat recovery prototype, one of the 7 approaches in which the plant can reduce its energy use. With its Paris Agreement commitment to lowering emissions, China started putting in place policies that put pressure on the industry to make improvements in efficiency. Baosteel’s average total CO2 emissions are 35.83 million ton/year. Its current mandate is to reduce emissions to 90% of this number by 2020.

  Image: The entrance to the Baosteel power plant, north of Shanghai.

Image: The entrance to the Baosteel power plant, north of Shanghai.

  Image: The CO2 captured at the Baosteel site is ‘food grade’ quality, which means over 99% pure CO2. It is reused in the beverage industry - pumped into soda drinks that are bottled in Shanghai and sold all over Asia.

Image: The CO2 captured at the Baosteel site is ‘food grade’ quality, which means over 99% pure CO2. It is reused in the beverage industry - pumped into soda drinks that are bottled in Shanghai and sold all over Asia.