Today’s topic is inspired by Solar Today magazine. “Scrubbing Carbon from the Breeze” was written by Rona Fried, Ph.D., president of SustainableBusiness.com in the May/June 2008 issue. Unfortunately this particular article is not available online.
As climate change become a more central issue for people and governments around the globe, a lot of people are looking for solutions – fast solutions. If there were a quick and inexpensive way to dramatically reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, we should go for it right? Well a number of “quick fix” solutions, which have centered around hacking the environment to fight climate change, have been floating around for years. One strategy is to capture the CO2 with plankton and bury it in the ocean (which is much easier and cheaper than pumping it into the ground). Another is to change the composition of our atmosphere to reflect sunlight. Others tend to be more sci-fi and outlandish – but all of them might just turn out to be disastrous.
Even with more realistic alternatives, like carbon capture and sequestration from coal plants, have drawn criticism. But that hasn’t stopped some of the world’s wealthiest and most outspoken environmentalists from offering millions of dollars for a feasible and fast solution that captures CO2 out of the air after it’s released.
No wonder some are trying to use technology to solve our CO2 problem. While renewable energy and energy efficiency help prevent more CO2 pollution, several companies are looking to make money off off the inert gas. Not to be confused with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), these focus on the technology and economics of only capturing CO2. What we do with the carbon next is an open question. Fortunately “CO2 is the 19th largest commodity chemical in the United States”, according to the DOE, with numerous industrial, agricultural, and everyday uses – you can even make fuel out of it. So whoever first manages to harvest it cheaply could make a lot of money, even without millions in prize money.
Universities and academic collaborations compete with scientists and businesses to reach this goal. The Green Options network has featured promising technologies from Sandia National Labs before. While many are still in design or prototype stages, others are already being commercially demonstrated. Dr. Rona Fried points out in her Solar Today article that the technology is not new. Submarines and spacecraft use scrubbers and filters to protect their crews from their own exhalations. There’s even a famous scene in the movie Apollo 13 about repairing one such device in 1970.
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A better way to absorb CO2 on a larger scale is to use chemicals called sorbents. They soak up carbon dioxide on contact like a plant or sponge; then the CO2 can be separated from the sorbent and used. The trick is to build a machine that can do both without requiring excessive operation costs. If it needs too much energy, maintenance, etc., it simply won’t be profitable.
A company called Global Research Technologies (GRT) believes they have designed a viable system in that works at ambient temperatures (no cooling required) and uses about the same amount of energy as a power-plant flue scrubber – the type already available to clean power plant emissions. They call it the ACCESS (Atmospheric Carbon CapturE SystemS) device, which has already been demonstrated, and it’s exciting because it could be located almost anywhere. They could line our highways, form rows like wind farms, or be installed near industrial facilities that use or produce CO2. Better yet, the technology is scalable, so the larger you build them the more CO2 they collect. One such ACCESS device the size of a tree could capture 1,000 times more CO2 than a tree. Global Research Technologies even claims that 250,000 such models, each about the side of a wind turbine, would neutralize the CO2 we’re currently emitting. GRT hopes to produce 100 of these devices within 5 years. Unfortunately they’ll be expensive, about $250/ metric ton of CO2 captured, but like any industry, economies of scale could dramatically reduce that cost to $30-$50 per ton. GRT hopes their technology will be competitive on the carbon offsets market.
Klaus Lackner, a professor of geophysics at Columbia University, helped found GRT and design the ACCESS device. From the article: “Lackner outlined the potential of carbon capture as one piece of the portfolio of carbon reduction strategies”, which means of course that this is not THE ANSWER to climate change. We cannot and should not rely on this or any one solution to “solve” our CO2 problem. We still need to increase our energy efficiency, invest in renewable technologies, and work towards more sustainable lifestyles. But with all the depressing facts, figures and discussions surrounding our rising CO2 emissions and climate change, this is one technology among many that provide a ray of hope. Maybe, just maybe, with the plethora of resources at our disposal, we can begin to build a technological infrastructure that will not come back to haunt us with half-acknowledged or poorly understood consequences of unbridled development.
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I'm an environmentalist who loves to write. I grew up across the southeastern U.S.A. and especially love the Appalachian mountains. I went to school in the north east U.S.A. in part to witness different mindsets and lifestyles than those of my southern stomping grounds. I majored in English Lit. and Anthropology. I've worked as a whitewater rafting guide, which introduced me to a wilderness and the complex issues at play in the places where relatively few people go. I also taught English language in South Korea for a year, which taught me to take nothing for granted. Currently I'm applying for grad school to study international environmental policy.