What’s that, you ask? What have I been up to all day? Well today, I got a chance to sneak a peek at one of the coolest technologies ever invented. Ambitious claim, I know, but don’t believe me, ask the BBC. On the 10th floor of an unimposing brick building in New York City’s Columbia University, physicist Klaus Lackner and engineer Allen Wright have been working on a technology that can capture carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere. While the method in itself is absolutely brilliant, what blew me away was its inherent simplicity.
It begins with a treated plastic that comes in a dozen different forms. Wright holds up first a sheet of the plastic, which looks almost like wallpaper, then a small corrugated roll that looks like cardboard, followed by beads, powder, and a brush. Though varied in shape and style, they are all different versions of the same thing. The plastic is a sponge of sorts; when dry, it has only one thought on its mind: to grab as much CO2 as possible. Even left on the countertop, a plastic ‘brush’ is soon full to capacity. Then comes the harder part: how do we get the carbon off? Not to worry. It turns out that the plastic and CO2 have a bit of a love-hate relationship. When wet even slightly with water, the plastic quickly releases its carbon. The CO2 can thus be collected, and the plastic dried and reused. Lackner and Wright have been using the same plastic for years, and it’s still just as effective as ever.
On a larger scale, this technology could be adapted into carbon-collecting ‘trees’ of sorts. These trees would work optimally in dry locations, ‘sucking up’ as much CO2 as they could hold. A simple rinse with water vapor and a little time spent drying in the sun would be enough to recharge the filters. The carbon dioxide could then be injected underground for permanent storage. Since the location of the trees is not important, they could be placed right above underground reservoirs, thus avoiding the need to transport the captured CO2. (Stay tuned for a more detailed examination of carbon storage options!)
While Lackner and Wright’s technology holds a great deal of potential, it is currently in its infant stages. It has been proven time and time again in the lab, but a full-scale model has yet to be built. The main barrier is, of course, the economics. With few financial incentives currently on the table to support carbon capture, the technology remains a distant dream at best. But as climate change begins to play a more important role in political and economic decision-making, direct air capture may yet offer a potent solution to global warming.
I’d love to know what you think! Is carbon capture and storage the way to go, or are we taking attention away from clean energy sources? Is it possible to cut our dependence on fossil fuels within the next century, or should we start thinking about ways to remove and store carbon? Please share your thoughts by commenting below!