The Azimuth Project

In the news recently, there was discussion of using helium balloons for geoengineering, as a method for dispersing aerosols or cloud-nucleation droplets into the atmosphere. (The proposal was critiqued here by George Monbiot). This idea is just the latest in growing field of science-based speculation on active climate system intervention, some of which has been discussed previously on BNC. However, this website, being a blog and discussion site, cannot hope to serve as comprehensive resource for technical evaluations. That is where The Azimuth Project looks to be extremely useful.

The website, a wiki of sorts, was established in late 2010 by mathematical physicist Dr John Baez, and is already a massive compendium (John also runs a blog). The motivation and goal is summarised as follows:

Welcome to the Azimuth Project!

The Azimuth Project is an international collaboration to create a focal point for scientists and engineers interested in saving the planet. Our goal is to make clearly presented, accurate information on the relevant issues easy to find, and to help people work together on our common problems.

Saving the planet

“Saving the planet” may sound pompous. But the very health of the planet is in peril because of the actions of humankind. Whether it is global warming, mass extinction, peak oil, or other problems, we need to be prepared on many fronts for an uncertain future.

Our goal is not to replace or compete with existing sources of information, but to provide a bird’s-eye view of the information that already exists. We want to make it easy for any scientist or engineer to understand the whole problem and understand specialist literature in many subjects outside their particular domain of expertise.

More explanation of the goals of the project, and how you can help out, is given here. There is also a discussion forum. I’d encourage you — especially if you’re technically inclined — to check it out.

I’ve already found The Azimuth Project resource to be highly useful. For instance, regular BNC commenter and SCGI member Graham Cowan (who promotes the idea of boron-fuelled vehicles), has often talked about enhanced weathering as a potentially effective way to draw down CO2 that is already airborne (as opposed to capturing it at source, or intervening in other ways to cool the planet). After reading the AP page on the idea, I have a much better understanding of what he’s driving at. There are similarly useful pages on everything from peak oil (and peak uranium) to sea level rise, to solar breeders, to me (!).

Projects like Azimuth will obviously work best with ongoing participation from a worldwide retinue of contributors. Why bother? Because if done credibly, it may well be that resources like this will become one-stop-shops that you can recommend to your family, friends, business associates or even politicians, to make informed rather than evidence-free choices about our future options.

Do you know of any similar resources that you’d recommend as core information sites? If so, let us know in the comments. A few others that I regularly direct people to are Sustainable Energy — Without the Hot Air, The Discovery of Global Warming, The World Nuclear Association Information Service, Skeptical Science, and my own efforts (e.g., TCASE and IFR FaD).

Changing topic, I also wish to point out a new study by the WNA on life-cycle emissions from different electricity generation technologies, which complements (and is in general agreement with) the meta-review data I reported in TCASE 13. The following chart was particularly interesting, as it shows the similarities and differences between LCA estimates from university, industry and government-based researchers. The biggest differential seems to be for natural gas, but surprisingly, the industry estimate was the highest!

Anyway, more on models of population control in the next post. It also looks like a new Open Thread will need to be opened up soon, at the rate the current debate is ensuing!


By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

37 replies on “The Azimuth Project”

Do you see renewables believers as providing nothing more than green camouflage for an expanding gas industry? Well, here we go again.

Any action whatsoever, no matter how ineffective, that purports to remove carbon from the atmosphere, gives justification for big emitters to continue dumping carbon into it.

Conversely any method that really does remove carbon from the atmosphere, must be putting it somewhere else. Considering that there is precious little elsewhere to put it, today’s enthusiasts may be filling up a hole that a negative-emissions future may need for a greenhouse recovery.


Conversely any method that really does remove carbon from the atmosphere, must be putting it somewhere else. Considering that there is precious little elsewhere to put it, today’s enthusiasts may be filling up a hole that a negative-emissions future may need for a greenhouse recovery.

Hi Roger,
our depleted farmlands could do with some biochar.

2. What is IBI’s goal for carbon removal from the atmosphere?
IBI is focusing presently on the feasibility of one “wedge,” which equals one gigaton of carbon per year. The term “wedge” comes from an often-quoted analysis (Pacala and Socolow, 2004) showing a need to have seven gigatons of carbon per year (seven wedges) of reduced carbon emissions by 2054 to keep emissions at the 2004 level.

3. Is a one gigaton per year biochar wedge achievable by 2054?
Yes. In the four basic scenarios we have examined, we found several ways to create at least one wedge by 2054.

Click to access final_carbon.pdf

It enhances the soil, reduces nitrogen fertiliser requirements by about a third, prevents nitrous oxides leaving the soil (which are hundreds of times more harmful than Co2), and — almost as an afterthought — could possibly put a gigaton of carbon into our soils by 2054. What on earth could possibly be wrong with that?

Click to access final_carbon.pdf


The LCOE table does not seem to include standby costs or getting to say 85% firm capacity. That gives wind power a totally different rank

Click to access Cost_Generation_Commentary.pdf

I think geo-engineering has to be on the table. I’m dubious about enhanced carbon sinks so maybe changing albedo will have to be tinkered with. I think we’ll dig up every ounce of coal that is energy profitable to so. For example Germany will burn lignite because it’s not nuclear and Victoria Australia will do the same as it’s by far the cheapest energy source. There’s some kind of Western guilt thing about criticising increased coal burning in China and India. Therefore we’ll burn the lot then we’ll need those balloons.


Oops the WNA table is GHGs by generation type, not cost. However perhaps it could include CO2 from auxiliary generation needed to meet a standard output.


If the Chinese economy holds up then I think nuclear is well on its way to becoming the cheapest source of energy. Once they have all those component factories up and running, their own version of the Westinghouse AP1000 (at 1400 MWe with plans for 1700 MWe and maybe even 2100 MWe — from WNA), I think the price is going to start falling rapidly.


SteveK9, on 24 September 2011 at 9:03 AM — The Chinese CPR1000 series is a Gen II+ esign derived from an older Areva design; Areva transfered the technolocy and the chinese scaled up. This is completely independent of the Westinghouse desing despite the similar names.


David: China completed a technology transfer agreement with Westinghouse at the time of the contract for the 4 units at Sanmen and Haiyang. The CAP1400 Chinese variant of the AP1000 will break ground in 2013 (scheduled). The CPR1000s are as you described. These will be superceded by new designs in the near future. In fact policy makers have been urged to accelerate this change.


An essential characteristic of “offsets” arguments such as geo-engineering is to gloss over the size of the carbon overload in the atmosphere relative to anything conceivably achievable in each proposed scheme. Allow me to review the facts….

As of August 2011, the seasonally adjusted CO2 content is 390.0 ppmv, having run away from the interglacial level of ~280 ppmv. Currently increasing at 2.0 ppmv/a, the rate of change itself has been increasing, from less than 1.0 ppmv/a in 1960 . That’s in (chemists’) jargon units.

In International Units, that amounts to 6.20 kg/m2 total CO2 in the air, of which 1.75 kg/m2 is excess, increasing at 32 g/m2/a.

When we need to speak in global terms those figures need to be multiplied by 514 Mm2, the total area of land and sea. Thus the atmospheric excess is 900 Gt, increasing at 16 Gt/a.

The rest of the 30 Gt/a or so goes into acidulating the sea surface. When totting it all up, we need to remember that the ocean is still absorbing, previously two thirds but now rather less than half the CO2 emitted. Any attempt to restore preindustrial CO2 levels would have to remove not just 1.75 kg/m2 from the air, but also a similar amount from the ocean surface, to a total excess of ~3.0 kg/m2.

Also, let’s not forget that the stuff has to be removed for thousands of years, not decades.


Thanks for the plug, Barry! We could really use help from your gang, and I hope we can help you, too.

I’m sorry we failed to talk when you visited Singapore.

By the way, I’d like to interview you for my column, This Week’s Finds. I like to do interviews by bouncing emails back and forth – it seems to work well.


The basic problem that bugs me about the helium balloon aerosol disperser is that the individual droplets will coalesce with each other and with the walls, and never make it to the top of the pipe, instead just refluxing down the interior walls and dripping out the bottom. I can’t see a mist pumped in at the bottom of the pipe withstanding 1 km of turbulent flow without total coalescence.

I don’t think anything will come out the top of this pipe.


The second problem with aerosol stabilization is Ostwald ripening – small droplets have higher vapor pressures than large droplets, so smaller drops tend to evaporate while larger drops grow, and eventually rain down or plate out on the pipe surfaces. The aerosol is unstable. I just don’t think you can pump an aerosol along this length of pipe.


On the contrary, EN , it is charcoal that lasts for thousands of years, not biochar.

Consider that every one of us already understands what charcoal is. So why then do the salesman insists on giving it a different name? It is because their intention is to cheat us into thinking we’re getting charcoal when in fact we’re getting something much nastier.

Biochar is industrial waste. It is the waste left behind after somebody has inefficiently extracted the easiest fraction of gas from wood. If they could persuade somebody to remove their waste for them, they will be justified in demanding more and more biomass from a landscape already low in nutrients and humus.

Far from being permanent, biochar is composed of largely unstable pyrolysis products, every one of them in some process of oxidation or hydrolysis. And let’s not fall for the line about “fixed carbon”, that isn’t charcoal, any more than “fixed nitrogen” is a forever job. Maybe some minority of it is charcoal, but the rest is transient. Ask for the half-life and you will get “decades” from the more respectable afficionados (“80 years” from EN’s link ) and “difficult to establish ” from the scientists.


Roger Clifton, on 25 September 2011 at 10:21 AM — Charcoal is one form of biochar and is a product of pyrolysis. How long any particular form of biochar lasts in the soil depends upon many factors. In any case, applying some biochar is a benefit to agricultural practice. There are many web sites deveoted to biochar; here is one:


I just found some more detail on the stratospheric particle injection proposal and it doesn’t look like they’re contemplating direct aerosol pumping (though they do allude to a ‘two phase’ concept). Instead they’re pumping liquid up to some aerosolization head. But I don’t know if this makes it any easier.

For the 1 km test system the pumping pressure is estimated to be 120 bar. Hydrostatic head of a 1 km water column is 100 bar, so I guess thats 20 bar pumping loss for a stated 3 kg/min flow. Both these scale with length and the target is a 25 km pipe, so that’s 3000 bar pumping pressure for a single water column, or 300 MPa.

So you either need a 25 km pipe that can handle up to 300 MPa at its base that is still light enough to be suspended by balloon, or a multi-section pipe with powered pumping stations along the way, also low mass.

This pipe

.. will be up to 25km long, subject to high tensile and bursting pressures. It will be a sealed unit, abrasion resistant, insulated to prevent freezing and made of a braided or filament wound fibre composite.

We will investigate deployment and recovery of the balloon and pipe, pipe and balloon dynamics in response to extreme weather conditions, using methods established for the analysis of oil riser dynamics (Low and Langley, 2008)The WP will investigate high-pressure pumping and the delivery of a fluid (possibly two-phase) into the pipe, nozzle design for a stable plume and safety and emergency situations. WP2.1 will advise WP2.2 with regard to the deployment of a 1km test pipe and the design of the complete 20-25 km delivery system. Instrumentation on the test pipe will be used to validate the model for balloon and pipe dynamics. In WP2.1 (b) we will evaluate complex issues regarding pipe construction: embedding fibres in resin, variation of filament lay angle with height, end construction and choice of fibre such as CFRP, aramid (e.g. Kevlar/Twaron/Technora) and PBO. For PBO it will be necessary to conduct stress tests at elevated pressure and temperature using established techniques (Alwis and Burgoyne 2005). Aramid fibres have adequate properties for the tether of the 1 km trial, but the time/temperature properties of the higher performance fibre PBO may be needed for the full-scale pipe.

Reading this makes railgun launching of space sunshades look favorable.


The discussion demonstrates how environmentally concerned teckos can be distracted by loony schemes. After all, if we really wanted to pollute the stratosphere with long-lasting aerosols , we would fuel the world’s airliners with high-sulphur fuel. But we don’t.

Surely, we do want to be reversing the flow of waste CO2 into the atmosphere on the scale of gigatons per annum. Although the post invites us to find “geo-engineering” that does anything like that, there is no comment showing any such prospect. Never mind spreading biochar on the compost heap. These red herrings waste our time, waste the energy of environmentalists, waste the sincerity of reformers and waste the attention span of a newspaper-reading public. Just what the spin doctors want.

There is only one “offset” scheme that could possibly make a dent on the problem of waste CO2. Does anyone know what it would take to classify or interpret nuclear electricity as a viable alternative “offset” in the Kyoto Protocol?


I think we have to stop kidding ourselves; Australia is really doing just about everything possible to increase global GHG emissions
What will cause a slowdown is a recession due to unrelated issues or global coal peaking after about 2030, not because of empty talk.

Therefore I think we have to test these balloons and anything else that offers a quick fix. No doubt some weird frosts will decimate summer tomato crops and other strange outcomes. You get what you pay for.


Some interesting comments, particularly from John Morgan. Thank you.

Does anyone have any comments in relation to the potential peak helium/limited helium problem that Gene Preston alluded to above?


More insanity:

1. Hydraulic hydro storage:

2. nano tube energy storage technology

3. crushing rocks and spreading rock dust to sequester CO2

4. Carbon capture and storage at the scale required

5. Risking plouting the water suppluy in the Great Artesion basin with coal seam gas extraction

6. Solar, wave, tidal and wind energy (except for off-grid applications)

7. regulating to make nuclear non viable.
(deleted 8 as OT)


Helium arises from alpha decay so any gas trap accumulates some helium, usually less than 1% by volume. Because it has a much lower critical point than all the other gases in a mainly-methane production stream, helium is routinely vented to the atmosphere rather than liquefied.

In past decades, helium’s main customer was the military as the only gas that could apply pressure to liquid hydrogen. When their ICBMs were reduced, the stockpile of helium was released to other users. The oversupply and consequently suppressed price demotivated gas (methane) producing plants from putting in a helium stage. Similarly, known smaller gas deposits with high helium content sit waiting for the market to rise.

The article referred to is quite clear on new development of helium production — it does not use the term “peak helium” at all. The title must have been put there by some cynical editor knowing how hysteria improves headlines.

Helium is needed by high-temperature gas reactors, as it has very high heat conductivity, very low chemical activity and zilch neutron absorption cross-section. Don’t waste it on balloons!


@ Roger Clifton,
yes, we’re all for nukes here. No, you don’t get to create a false dichotomy between being for clean nuclear power and also being for biochar and other coping mechanisms. It may already be too late. We may already have triggered various feedbacks. Natural feedbacks might be about to dwarf industrial emissions. We need a long hard look at every tool in the box, just in case the climate proves to be as sensitive as some of the more alarmed climatologists are warning.


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