Branson Adds Pickle

AP photo of Branson and GoreCalling all scientists and engineers. You’ll get a $25 million prize from Virgin’s Richard Branson1 if you find a way to extract greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Get to work!

Continuing his admirable campaign to do more useful things with his money instead of engaging in the (let’s face it) mostly silly stunts that used to characterize news stories about him, Richard Branson announced his new prize today in London (in the company of Al Gore) People are indeed working on this sort of thing, in case you’re wondering (see a post I did earlier, for example).

No, this is not a replacement for increasing our efforts to change our habits so as to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases we are dumping in the atmosphere. It’s an effort that is in parallel with those other efforts, and given where we are now (with the amount already in the atmosphere, the rate we are adding to it2, and the many huge populations around the world poised to develop further intense emissions activity, it is considerably secondary to the main concern of curtailing emissions. Nevertheless, it is certainly worth research effort.

There’s a BBC story on the press conference here. Al Gore’s comments in the news conference are a pleasure to listen to. Among the things he says:

“It’s a challenge to the moral imagination of humankind to actually accept the reality of the situation we are now facing. […] We’re not used to thinking of a planetary emergency, and there’s nothing in our prior history as a species that equips us to imagine that we, as human beings, could actually be in the process of destroying the habitability of the planet for ourselves.”

I’ve not a lot more to say about this beyond what I’ve already said in many posts (see for example the environment category in the archives, and the other Branson post). I’ll simply express again the hope that Branson is spearheading a new spending fashion in the billionaire club. Hopefully it will spread to lots of areas of scientific research, although I’d be quite happy to see the focus stay on the environment for as long as it takes.



  1. Sorry, I could not resist the pun. I don’t know how many this side of the Atlantic will get it. [return]
  2. Here, I can’t resist drawing your attention to the Onion article I pointed out earlier though, particularly the closing line:

    “Branson also reportedly plans to invest billions more on a time machine that would enable him to prevent the creation of Virgin Airways, reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by some four percent worldwide.”

    It’s a bit mean, but I’d imagine he’d have a sense of humour about it. [return]


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17 Responses to Branson Adds Pickle

  1. Bee says:

    this is weird. I’ve been telling people since a decade this should be possible and why isn’t anybody working on that. the biggest problem I’d think is not technical, but one of efficiency? I keep wondering though whether the most efficient solution isn’t just planting trees, since nature has worked on the problem for some million years. Thus, shouldn’t we just get biologists to come up with fast and easy growing green stuff that we can clutter all over houses and dead plains? – B.

  2. Clifford says:

    I’m not sure nature had to deal with the huge jump in production that took place as we industrialized though, even if we had not deforested as much as we did. I wonder what the numbers are on the rate at which greenery removes CO2? One envisions us maintaining vast floating clumps of green stuff in the oceans…. Hmmm…..


  3. candace says:

    Nice pun!
    I also don’t think biomass photosynthesis could keep up, but I’m wary of carbon sequestration, too. Hm…

  4. Mary Cole says:

    My first reaction was also that the obvious thing to do would be to plant lots more trees! I’m not saying this would be the solution given the quantities of carbon dioxide involved, but it’s got to help. I don’t know enough about this, but I wonder if there are any types of (preferably fast growing) trees which are super efficient at absorbing and processing CO2. Could this be genetically engineered? I have no expertise in this area so I’m probably way off the mark here!

  5. Elliot says:

    Hybrid poplars grow very quickly. Easy to plant and maintain. (they’re basically weeds) An acre will sequester approx 10 tons of carbon per year.

    I do think the answer is in genetic engineering but it might not be trees but perhaps algae or some type of fungus.

    I have always been amazed at how Mushrooms “sprout” up overnight.

    I also wonder if a GMO (genetically modified organism) might “live” in the smokestacks and thrive in a high CO2 environment.

    but oops maybe I should keep quiet and get to work 😉


  6. Clifford says:

    I’ll take a finder’s fee from your prize money, ok Eliiot? For helping motivate your research by pointing to the article. 😉


  7. andy says:

    It is very easy to remove CO2 from the atmosphere with compression and liquification. It would be easy to figure out how much energy it would take to do this and you’d most likely find that you’d burn more fuel doing the work than you’d compress out of the atmosphere. The real problem is storing carbon. It will corrode (oxidize) or catch fire if stored as graphite and if you store it as liquid CO2 then you have to keep it under pressure forever. Literally, forever.
    And BTW there is active work funded by the DOE and NSF on “carbon sequestration.”

  8. andy says:

    Also I’d like to note that I love Al Gore and I hope he runs again. Him or Barak Obama in ’08!

  9. Clifford says:

    Well, you’ll like my next post then…


  10. Elliot says:


    If I win the prize you are definitely in for a finders fee.

    Andy I agree that Gore or Obama would make great presidents.


  11. Pingback: Fresh Air From Gore - Asymptotia

  12. Nigel says:

    9% of the greenhouse effect is due to methane. Since methane is (by mass) 10 times more effective as a greenhouse gas than CO2 and even more so for H2O, all you need to do to ultimately get an ~8% reduction is to burn all the methane, each molecule burned producing one molecule CO2 and two molecules of H2O.

    To do this, just invent a simple methane burner which can be surgically fixed to the asses of cattle, sheep, and the larger and more polluting of wild animals. Each of these devices could store up methane gas until the pressure triggers an automatic flint sparker.

    If you actually want to remove existing greenhouse gases, for example John Gribbin (then a New Scientist writer) in 1989 suggested adding iron to the oceans to fertilize them, causing plankton blooming and sucking in CO2:

    “John Martin suggested that iron availability limited phytoplankton growth in the Southern Ocean, and that this could play a role in glacial-interglacial changes in atmospheric CO, (Martin and Fitzwater, 1987). In 1988, John Gribbin proposed that fertilization of the ocean could be used “to alleviate the anthropogenic greenhouse effect” (Gribbin, 1988). John Martin began to promote the idea vigorously (Andrew J. Watson, pers. comm., 2002). Most famously, at a lecture at Woods Hole in 1993, Martin made his remark “Give me half a tanker of iron and I’ll give you an Ice Age,“ reportedly in a mock-Strangelove voice.”

    – Simulating Fertilization of the Ocean as a Carbon Sequestration Strategy: Effectiveness and Unintended Consequences,

  13. Plato says:

    In regards to planting trees.

    I spoke on that in previous articles of yours Clifford in terms of silviculture, and the ways, replanting had to be done. The effects of “beetle infestation” and a common link to propagation of the species and it’s inherent destruction of the “lodgepole pine” because of temperatures.

    Well this cycle was there even before our attention, how much more so this infestation since “the cold” has not been as forth coming as it should?

    In doing research of the effective attributes of science in this area the methods used were under tight control with the University of British Columbia. Those who want to check can look up Konishi with experimental research with Silviculture there. Between 1980 and 85 if I recall right.

    My personal concerns and research were on “how effective this might be” which lead to other research centres with regards to exposure to “strong magnetic fields.” How these were applied to seedlings with “specific probes.” I am sorry to say that these did not work according to enhancement of the species under the control methods used by the University of BC.

    Methods to determined superiority in tree seedlings were effectively found to be taken from the species whose characteristics were “much stronger” then other trees. I went on to explain how that was done.

    Sorry Elliot 🙂

  14. Nigel says:

    Plato, trees can burn, forest fires do occur! What you need to do is permanently send CO2 to the bottom of the sea, dude.

    The example I mentioned of spreading soluble compounds of iron on the ocean is experimentally verified. In the warm oceans where it would be used, there is a thermocline depth of 100-150 metres below the surface. In the 100-150 m layer from the surface down to the thermocline, the water is warmer and hence of slightly lower density than the deeper water, so it forms a stable pool “floating” on the colder water, and it traps soluble stuff in it.

    (This was first well proved after nuclear tests in 1954-6 in the Pacific, where all the soluble fallout was uniformly mixed in the top warm mixed layer above the thermocline.)

    There is hardly any iron dissolved in sea water, because most of the iron that enters oxidises to form dense insoluble particles that sink to the bottom. The plankton need iron, it is a limiting factor for its growth in the ocean. So it is possible to massively reduce the CO2 in the atmosphere by fertilizing the top layers of the oceans with soluble iron compounds, and you don’t need to add much to get a massive blooming. Fish eat it, the CO2 is then converted to CaCO3 when it enters fish bones, and when the fish die the CaCO3 sinks to the bottom of the ocean. Voilà, Branson’s solution is accomplished.

    Eventually the CaCO3 on the ocean floor will be subducted into the earth’s mantle and the CaCO3 will then be reduced by the heat, with some CO2 possibly being released from volcanoes. But that will be spread out over many thousands or millions of years, and isn’t a real problem. The burning of forests started by lightning is likely to be more of a risk of releasing trapped CO2 on land.

  15. Elliot says:


    So which soluble iron compound do we use?


  16. Nigel says:

    FeCl2 and FeSO4 (which has been field tested for this CO2 reduction role with good results, see below) are both water soluble. The small amount of dissolved iron normally present is a hydroxide, Fe(OH)2+. See

    Another option is to use a complex chelating agent to hold iron until it enters the biosystem:

    “While several essential metals may be involved in the limitation of growth in HNLC areas, iron has been shown to be the major micronutrient. Generally, 100,000 moles of carbon biomass require 16,000 moles of fixed nitrogen, 1,000 moles of soluble phosphorous and one mole of available iron. The main difficulty is the iron. Since surface ocean waters are highly oxygenated, any soluble iron is converted to Fe+++ with a half-life of about one hour and precipitates as Fe(OH)3. A shovel full of earth is about 5.6% iron on the average. The ocean, on the other hand, has 0.0000000001 or less moles per liter of iron, too little to sustain plant growth. The first problem, then, is how to add iron to the ocean so that it will be available to the phytoplankton (plants). The phytoplankton themselves exude organic chelating compounds into the ocean that protect some of the iron that is there from precipitation. Adding iron in the form of a chelate so that it does not precipitate but remains available for plant fertilization can mimic this natural process.” (p3 on document page numbering, p4 as per PDF reader pagination).

    “… ocean voyages were started in 1993 to determine the response. The first voyage in the equatorial Pacific, IronEx I, spread 880 lbs. of Fe as FeSO4 on a 25 square mile patch resulting in an increase in phytoplankton, but no measurable decrease in the CO2 content of the water. This was due to the sinking of the patch under an intrusion of barren warmer water. A second voyage in the same area of the equatorial Pacific, IronEx II, spread 990 lbs. of Fe as FeSO4 on 28 square miles of the ocean surface.11 In order to mitigate the effect of iron precipitation, the iron was added in three infusions, half on day zero, one-fourth on day three and one-fourth on day seven. This resulted in a bloom of diatoms. The chlorophyll increased by a factor of 27 times, while the CO2 partial pressure was reduced by 90 μatm in the patch.” p4 on document, p5 as per PDF reader.

  17. Elliot says:

    This is extremely interesting. (prize aside) It certainly is a potential solution/partial solution (no pun intended) to the problem. If I am reading your comment above correctly, the issue is really an engineering problem of keeping the iron from sinking before it has its fertilization effect. Correct?

    I guess I am surprised why this approach is not being explored more aggressively? Politics? Stupidity? or is the engineering sufficiently complex to give people pause…

    Thanks Again,