Recycling the greenhouse effect: A Japanese institute is planning to convert excess carbon dioxide into useful chemicals, reports Michael Cross

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ALMOST everyone agrees we are producing too much carbon dioxide. But the suggestion that we should burn less fuel in order to combat the problem is rank defeatism, according to the planners of a research programme scheduled to begin in Japan this summer. They are working on ways to trap carbon dioxide in power-station flues and turn it into useful chemicals. And they hope to pump the excess CO2 down to the sea-bed.

The organisation conducting the programme, the Research Institute of Innovative Technology for the Earth (Rite), is likely to be taken seriously for two reasons: it has an annual budget, of pounds 36m and it is the brainchild of Miti, the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry, which shepherded the country's industry from wartime devastation to global dominance.

Miti's latest enthusiasm is for environment-improving technology, and Rite, founded with pledges of pounds 250m from the Japanese government and industry, is the largest and most ambitious research project the ministry has organised. A model in Rite's temporary headquarters in Kyoto projects a global undertaking, with fleets of tankers ferrying liquid CO2 extracted from the flue gases of power stations in industrial countries around the world. A pipeline carries surplus CO2 to the sea-bed, where the ocean's pressure holds it safely in place.

The vision is reminiscent of those that flooded out of Japanese companies during the Eighties boom, showing underground cities or hotels in space. The characteristic feature was optimism about technology's power to solve problems, an optimism that is perhaps uniquely unshaken in Japan.

But the origins of Rite owe at least as much to politics as to industrial policy. In the late Eighties, the then Japanese prime minister, Noboru Takeshita, decided that creating a research and development centre to deal with global environmental challenges would defuse criticism of Japan's impact on the environment and counter charges that the country was not pulling its weight in basic research. His successor, Toshiki Kaifu, presented the scheme - called The New Earth 21 (Action Programme for the 21st Century) - to fellow world leaders in 1990.

The biggest slice of Rite's budget is going towards finding ways of converting carbon dioxide more efficiently from the air using photosynthesis in the same way as trees. Researchers are screening micro- organisms for efficiency and developing ways to cultivate them.

Then there is 'chemical CO2 fixation and utilisation', a process that Tsutomu Yamaguchi, Rite's managing director, describes with disarming confidence. 'We gather CO2 , separate it, add hydrogen and change it to methanol or methane.'

But setting up such a cycle poses some enormous difficulties. The first is separating the CO2 from the nitrogen and other gases produced in the heat and pressure of a power- station flue. The second is creating a reaction between CO2 and hydrogen to produce useful fuels. But how do you make hydrogen without producing more CO2 ?

Rite has chosen solar-powered electrolysis - which involves breaking down sea water into hydrogen and oxygen - for the task. And because Japan is not a great place for sunshine, the institute has come up with the 'global CO2 recycling system'. The aim is to ship liquefied CO2 from industrialised, usually northern, countries, to what Mr Yamaguchi calls 'sunny, desert countries'. There, solar cells will generate electricity which electrolysis plants can use to separate hydrogen from sea water. The plants will then create a reaction between the hydrogen and CO2 to produce methanol.

In theory, this is the stuff of school chemistry. Developing an industrial-scale process that does not itself consume energy is another matter. Rite researchers at Tsukuba science city, near Tokyo, are trying to find the right catalyst for the reaction and develop a way of using liquids rather than gases for the process. The methanol produced will travel in tankers back to Japan, where it will be used in power stations and vehicles.

Privately, some Rite researchers are sceptical about the project's more grandiose aspects. A running joke is the mountain of expensive new equipment piling up at groups receiving Rite funds. 'Half of this stuff has never been switched on,' one chemist said, pointing to a roomful of hardware. For outside observers, the temptation is to choose between two facile judgements of Rite's value. The first is to see 'Mighty Miti' in action, with teams of scientific samurai beavering away in an all-out effort to overtake the West.

The other, perhaps more fashionable now that economic slump has revealed the weaknesses of 'Japan Inc', is to condemn Rite as an irrelevant gesture, motivated more by pork-barrel politics than by science.