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University researchers behind new push for "mechanical trees" to help capture CO2

Posted: 3:56 PM, Jun 11, 2019
Updated: 2019-06-11 22:20:16Z

One of the primary objectives of this week's Denver Ideas Summit is the launching of a national climate initiative – a chance for lawmakers and scientists to look at some of the best approaches to stop and even reverse climate change. In Denver, we know all too well the impact carbon dioxide can have on our quality of life and the quality of the air we breathe. But in Arizona, an idea has emerged that could take the national climate initiative to the next level.

Arizona State University is leading the way in developing carbon capture technology known as mechanical trees.

This is around the time of year when carbon dioxide levels peak but this time we're taking it to a whole new level. It's not just the highest we've seen in recent years; it's the highest we've seen in over two million.

Of course, we've seen natural variations throughout Earth's history, but according to Dr. Klaus Lackner, with the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at ASU, we're heading off the charts.

"Quite frankly we have put so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that we have to clean up after ourselves," said Lackner.

Carbon dioxide is a clear, odorless gas which is a byproduct of burning fossil fuels and other natural processes like erupting volcanoes which can have a significant impact on our climate.

"The sunshine comes in, and it heats the floor," explains Lackner. "The heat is trapped and cannot get out because of the extra CO2, so the planet gets warmer."

Dr. Lackner’s mechanical tree may be the answer. It may not look like a tree, but the tower of sorbent material wicks the carbon right out of the air.

The mechanical trees can be a thousand times more efficient at getting CO2 out of the air than their living counterparts, and once the CO2 is out of the atmosphere, it can be recycled or put back underground.

"A fraction of it we will have to dispose of it safely and permanently, and there are many options," said Lackner. "One is to inject it underground."

It's estimated that humans pump more than 30 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. After a successful pilot program at ASU, it's believed a full-scale mechanical tree farm could remove about 3.8 million tons of CO2 annually. We'd need thousands of the mechanical trees to balance the scales, but Dr. Lackner says it's a start.

"In the end, there is a business model here which says you have a problem with CO2, we'll take your CO2 back for a fee," said Lackner.

ASU has partnered with Silicon Kingdom Holdings, a Dublin company, that plans on taking this technology to scale. Dr. Lackner believes significant strides will be made in the next five to ten years.