Synthetic trees—our only hope for curbing climate change?


Are carbon scrubbers our only option? Wallace Broecker, a prominent climate scientist at Columbia University, thinks they might be. He envisions millions of carbon capture devices positioned, like trees, around the world to remove carbon from the atmosphere. While other technologies—such as fossil-fuel replacements, cleaner business practices, and electric cars—are slowly advancing, Broecker estimates that we’ll need something far more drastic to set the world back on a safe course. By his calculations, 60 million scrubbers would do the trick of removing the carbon dioxide currently produced by the world.

It’s both a doomsday scenario and a ray of hope, if the technology can be made to work. Using chemicals that can absorb CO2 from the air isn’t the hard part, it’s separating the gas from the substance it was absorbed by that can be energy intensive. Then the carbon has to be stored in some place or form, and likely needs to be transported a reasonable distance for disposal. There are a lot of steps to this process that would need some coordination.

Broecker is a known advocate of carbon capture technology—he’s an unpaid consultant at Global Research Technologies (GRT), a company that develops just that in Tucson, Arizona.

That company is developing a carbon capture technology based on research by Klaus Lackner, one of Broecker’s colleagues at Columbia. They expect to have a working model within two years, but it may be another decade after that before a commercially competitive synthetic tree can start counteracting the spewage of the world’s coal plants. Lackner’s company, GRT, is one of a few contenders that may have a shot at winning the Virgin Earth Challenge, Richard Branson’s $25 million prize for anyone who can remove at least 1 billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere in a year.

The Guardian recently ran a good description of the technical process of pulling CO2 from the atmosphere, and GRT’s FAQ also touches on a number of fundamental points.

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