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by Joe Piaskowy
Oct 02, 2009

World leaders at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh debated curbs in carbon dioxide emissions but scientists such as Klaus Lackner are pioneering solutions to capture the powerful greenhouse gas that is warming the planet.

Significant emissions cuts would have to be undertaken immmediately to make a dent in global warming, experts contend. Innovation has to be part of the equation.

Lackner is an inventor and the Ewing-Worzel Professor of Geophysics in the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering at Columbia University.

Klaus Lackner/Columbia University Computer generated image of Lackner's synthetic "trees".
Klaus Lackner/Columbia University
Computer generated image of Lackner’s synthetic “trees”.

He was the last to speak at this years’ Comer Conference on Abrupt Climate Change, held at a hilltop retreat in Wisconsin.

Lackner stepped up to the podium after two days of scientific debate on the forces of climate change and the many natural climate cycles of the planet. But everyone recognized the human-generated emissions that now threaten the Earth with dramatic global warming as carbon dioxide levels increase. And regardless how climate change occurs, Lackner offered a potential way to clean up the carbon.

“I am working on capturing CO2 from the atmosphere” Lackner said. “You have heard a lot today about what the problem is. I am interested in the solution to that problem. I would argue that one of the important things we can do is capture the carbon dioxide and store it.”

Most world leaders, including President Obama, agree that high levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are leading to higher ocean levels, inland drought and unstable food supplies. They agree in principle that something must be done but carbon dioxide levels continue to grow.

While the current climate bill slowly billows through Congress, greenhouse gases are accumulating in our atmosphere at rates faster than human civilization has ever seen. 

Lackner and a small team of engineers, who make up Global Research Technologies in Tucson, designed and produced a prototype machine that mimics a tree in taking CO2 out of the atmosphere. After sequestering the carbon dioxide, the machine releases it and turns the CO2 into a liquid that can be stored and managed.

Jasmin Shah/CSEF Klaus Lackner demonstrates rising CO2 levels to attendees of this year's Comer Conference on Abrupt Climate Change.
Jasmin Shah/CSEF
Klaus Lackner demonstrates rising CO2 levels to attendees of this year’s Comer Conference on Abrupt Climate Change.

“We believe the synthetic trees we are building are about 1,000 times as efficient as pulling CO2 out of the air than a normal tree. They are built to capture CO2 from the air and do nothing else,” Lackner said.

Lackner emphasizes that, because carbon dioxide mixes with the air so quickly, his machines do not have to be planted at points of emission. They can, in effect, be placed anywhere in the world and successfully sequester CO2 from the atmosphere.

“In a way air capture is a method of last resort,” Lackner said. “You can capture CO2 regardless of where it is emitted and, for that matter, when. You could imagine having a car, which in its lifetime will emit 100 tons of CO2, and before you even buy that car you put 100 tons away. So in a sense you create a sink where you can put that CO2 over the next 10-15 years.”

While each CO2 “tree” is effective at capturing CO2, Lackner estimates that we will need around 1 million machines operating around the world and each collecting 1 ton of CO2 a day for them to bring emissions down to an acceptable level. He estimates that this artificial forest would saok up about 30 gigatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Lackner and his team have an edge. A huge benefit of the technology they want to deploy is that the carbon can be captured anywhere. Lackner says that it makes sense to capture the carbon close to where you will be storing it. This way you can eliminate the burning of additional fossil fuels or having to build a pipeline to transport the liquid.

A current flaw in the implementation of the design is that it runs on electricity. Electricity is produced by coal burning power plants, which are a primary source of carbon dioxide emissions.

Lackner says that, to be most effective, his CO2 machines will have to run on renewable energy sources such as solar.

Jasmin Shah/CSEF Klaus Lackner talks with glacier specialist Aaron Putnam from the University of Maine.
Jasmin Shah/CSEF
Klaus Lackner talks with glacier specialist Aaron Putnam from the University of Maine.

There are still many difficulties on the horizon for Lackner and his team, including obtaining the funding to build enough machines to make this technology effective. 

“We need to raise support for developing these tools,” Lackner said. “And we need to figure out how to move from trying out new ideas to manufacturing of real devices.”

For Lackner’s machine to get to the point of manufacture, his team needs to raise around $20 million in venture capital. Once the capital is raised, his team will need about two years of intensive design work followed by 20 years of production.

Lackner would also undoubtedly benefit from a carbon tax or a cap and trade policy that would make it economically beneficial for companies and manufacturers to curb their carbon emissions.

“I’d like to see a price on CO2,” he said. “And regulations that make it possible to solve the problem with capture and storage.”

Lackner and his team have a long road ahead of them, a daunting task but one Lackner and his colleagues deem absolutely necessary.

“It is time to do something about the CO2 levels in the atmosphere,” Lackner said.

Related Links

Global Research Technology Homepage
Klaus Lackner Columbia University Bio

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