Researchers outline vision for profitable climate change solution

Counter-intuitive climate change solution
A conceptual drawing of an industrial array for converting methane (CH4) to carbon dioxide (CO2) using catalytic materials called zeolites (CUII and FEIV). Credit: Jackson, et al. 2019 Nature Sustainability / Artist: Stan Coffman

A relatively simple process could help turn the tide of climate change while also turning a healthy profit. That's one of the hopeful visions outlined in a new Stanford-led paper that highlights a seemingly counterintuitive solution: converting one greenhouse gas into another.

The study, published in Nature Sustainability on May 20, describes a potential process for converting the extremely potent methane into dioxide, which is a much less potent driver of global warming. The idea of intentionally releasing carbon dioxide into the may seem surprising, but the authors argue that swapping methane for carbon dioxide is a significant net benefit for the climate.

"If perfected, this technology could return the atmosphere to pre-industrial concentrations of methane and other gases," said lead author Rob Jackson, the Michelle and Kevin Douglas Provostial Professor in Earth System Science in Stanford's School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences.

The basic idea is that some sources of methane emissions—from rice cultivation or cattle, for example—may be very difficult or expensive to eliminate. "An alternative is to offset these emissions via methane removal, so there is no net effect on warming the atmosphere," said study coauthor Chris Field, the Perry L. McCarty Director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

A problem and a possible solution

In 2018, methane—about 60 percent of which is generated by humans—reached atmospheric concentrations two and a half times greater than pre-industrial levels. Although the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is much greater, methane is 84 times more potent in terms of warming the climate system over the first 20 years after its release.

Most scenarios for stabilizing average global temperatures at 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels depend on strategies for both reducing the overall amount of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere and removing what's already in the atmosphere through approaches such as tree planting or underground sequestration. However, removing other greenhouse gases, particularly methane, could provide a complementary approach, according to the study's authors, who point to the gas's outsized influence on the climate.

Most scenarios for removing carbon dioxide typically assume hundreds of billions of tons removed over decades and do not restore the atmosphere to pre-industrial levels. In contrast, methane concentrations could be restored to pre-industrial levels by removing about 3.2 billion tons of the gas from the atmosphere and converting it into an amount of carbon dioxide equivalent to a few months of global industrial emissions, according to the researchers. If successful, the approach would eliminate approximately one-sixth of all causes of global warming to date.

Methane is challenging to capture from air because its concentration is so low. However, the authors point out that zeolite, a crystalline material that consists primarily of aluminum, silicon and oxygen, could act essentially as a sponge to soak up methane. "The porous molecular structure, relatively and ability to host copper and iron in zeolites make them promising catalysts for capturing methane and other gases," said Ed Solomon, the Monroe E. Spaght Professor of Chemistry in the School of Humanities and Sciences.

The whole process might take the form of a giant contraption with electric fans forcing air through tumbling chambers or reactors full of powdered or pelletized zeolites and other catalysts. The trapped methane could then be heated to form and release carbon dioxide, the authors suggest.

A profitable future

The process of converting methane to could be profitable with a price on carbon emissions or an appropriate policy. If market prices for carbon offsets rise to $500 or more per ton this century, as predicted by most relevant assessment models, each ton of methane removed from the atmosphere could be worth more than $12,000.

A zeolite array about the size of a football field could generate millions of dollars a year in income while removing harmful from the air. In principle, the researchers argue that the approach of converting a more harmful greenhouse gas to one that's less potent could also apply to other greenhouse gases.

While reducing in the atmosphere to pre-industrial levels may seem unlikely in the near future, the researchers argue that it could be possible with strategies like these.

Explore further

Bacteria that oxidizes methane found in common soil

More information: R. B. Jackson et al. Methane removal and atmospheric restoration, Nature Sustainability (2019). DOI: 10.1038/s41893-019-0299-x
Journal information: Nature Sustainability

Citation: Researchers outline vision for profitable climate change solution (2019, May 20) retrieved 21 August 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

May 20, 2019
madness , too funny

May 20, 2019
Not sure I see the value in this. Yes, converting methane to CO2 can cut the overall potency of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but methane is removed from the atmosphere in mere decades, while it takes centuries to get rid of CO2. So it seems like this is making the short term better while making the long term situation worse. Kicking the can not too far down the road, if you will. Unless something more useful is done with the captured methane than to simply release CO2, this really is not much of a solution.

May 20, 2019
The earth is more healthy with a 500 ppm CO2 level than where it was prior to the use of fossil fuels.

May 20, 2019
And how do deal with the impending large scale emissions of methane gas from thawing permafrost in the Arctic latitudes? These are continental size permafrost areas ready to burst as warming continues. The fact is, There is no silver bullet here. Only a zero carbon economy and CO2 recapture have a fighting chance to prevent the worst consequences of climate change. And false hopes do not help.

May 20, 2019
What will it take to sequester methane and be able to simply BURY it? Using something simple/inexpensive like [kitty_litter + rust], or bubbling it into concrete or somesuch. I hear that we have time-limits to get ahead of the curve, because there are significant amounts of methane hydrates/clathrates in the permafrost and on various seafloors which will be "released" if/when the local temperature rises above some threshold...

May 20, 2019
Cows in Europe are being fitted with a large and ungainly soft plastic cylinder onto their back with one end of the long tube inserted into the poor cow's anus so that the Methane from its digestive tract can be collected into the cylinder to be used for, I suppose, beneficial purposes. Of course, the article I read didn't mention how the cows felt at this personal indignity, and nobody seems to care whether they are uncomfortable with this form of torture or not.

But cows and steers DO produce a lot of atmospheric Methane and something had to be done about it. Now, if they could also capture the Methane that is emitted from tundra and elsewhere, that would be a superb feat. Oil fields also produce CH4 with the gas being captured and stored.
Perhaps, in the future, Methane might become a good "rocket fuel" if combined with other volatiles that are presently used for liftoff.
Where there's a will, there's a they say.

May 20, 2019
Increased CO2 is a good thing for Earth. The alarmist crap calling it a pollutant is truly a sham.

May 20, 2019
What about soil erosion, river siltation, massive fishery, deforestation, coastal erosion, earth mass re-distribution due to mining and transportation, and numerous other non-GHG factors?

May 20, 2019
madness , too funny
I would never have believed it! I actually agree with you re the above claimed 'solution'. Who would have thought I would ever agree with you on anything, hey, @snoose? :)

May 20, 2019
@ rc , remember me someday when your ass is freezing

May 20, 2019
@ rc , remember me someday when your ass is freezing
I'm remembering you now, every time warming disasters strike back-to-back and getting worse; especially when it gets to 45-55 degrees C in many places in Oz which never had that so often before or at all. And if ever the planet starts freezing, we can then resume burning the Coal/Gas we leave in the ground now because of renewables needed to slow global warming. That is the best argument for NOT burning coal NOW that we don't need to...and leaving it where it is for any future 'global cooling' emergency situation, hey? :)

May 20, 2019
Well, the Unnatural Anthropocene Profligate Excesses to Natural Global Climate Change is a very complex series of problems that will only be mitigated with complex series of rational public decisions.

You can tell who are the denierbots of the russian/saudi axis black web.
All the looneyricks infesting this site, agitpropping against

Against Free Enterprise,
Personal Responsibility &
Personal Choice.
Against the honorable active practice of conservative principals.
Against the development of Science-based efficient &
pollution-suppressing technology.

May 20, 2019
Hmmmm. There has to be a better way to do this.

Fast, good, cheap. Choose two. This one chooses fast and cheap, which is also known as quick and dirty. Not enthusiastic.

May 21, 2019
Most of the methane from cows comes from their digestive system and passes through their mouths (they burp) not their rectums! So the ridiculous suggestion is not so peculiar after all, since the resting and cud-chowing bovines might have their burps concentrated instead. A better solution and one that is coming soon would be to eat synthetic meat. Already it has been tested by blinded participants and they cannot tell the difference between hamburgers made from beef and vegetables (synthetic beef) in that form.

May 21, 2019
It'd be neato to go synthetic for at least a part of our diet. However you have to convince a lot of people that,"Yes. You do mean them!"

I think there might be a moderate acceptance?
If you can convince people that there may be some gains in personal health issues.

& that synthetic foods don't have to be all tree-hugging boring!
Consider, public opinions are dominated by mass advertising campaigns.

To gain popular acceptance for synthesized foods?
Your advertising needs to be competitive with MickeyDee & the Colonel.

One important problem I foresee with syned-foods,
will be they are TOO healthy & sterile.

The flavors, smell & taste, that we omnivorous monkeys are programmed to be addicted to consuming?
Are mostly the result of enzymes breaking down tissues. I
Assisted by our own chewing & saliva.
In addition, we prefer our foods & drinks "ripened" by yeasts & other fungi, bacteria & a wild assortment of local micro-organisms.

May 21, 2019
soylent green ! ummm,

May 21, 2019
It's a pity the AGW Cult's bullshit is not even worth the paper it's splattered on, else, they could be billionaires.

May 21, 2019
well, auntieoral, your own infantile comments are unintentional proof of your own failed life.

May 22, 2019
You can take the monkey out the bush, but not the bush out the monkey.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more