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Biomimicry Plastic "tree"

Published on August 13th, 2011 | by Silvio Marcacci


Plastic “Tree” Uses Biomimicry to Convert Atmospheric CO2 into Green Gasoline

August 13th, 2011 by  

Plastic "tree"

Biomimicry could convert CO2 into green gasoline

Recycling has always meant reusing materials like glass or plastic, and reducing atmospheric carbon has traditionally meant cutting emissions, but what if the two could be combined and make combating climate change profitable by recycling carbon out of the atmosphere?

EnergyNOW! correspondent Josh Zepps looked into a new technology that could pull a thousand times more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than trees and could one day power our cars and trucks with green gasoline. The full video is available below:

Most efforts to capture and sequester (CCS) carbon focus on smokestack emissions, but prohibitive costs and unproven technology make this type of carbon reduction unlikely to succeed. In addition, CCS technology can only cut back on new pollution, which fails to address the billions of tons of carbon already in the atmosphere.

These problems need to be solved quickly in order to slow the effects of climate change and move to a clean energy economy. “We know the Earth is getting hotter, the ice caps are starting to melt, the weather patterns are changing,” said Ken Caldeira, an atmospheric scientist with the Carnegie Institution at Stanford University. “This transition to a renewable or carbon neutral energy system could easily take 50 or 100 years, even if we started working on it hard today, which we’re not doing.”

To solve this quandry, two scientists from Columbia University’s Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy took inspiration from trees and invented a plastic “tree” that absorbs carbon at a much higher rate than Mother Nature.

The idea employs biomimicry by deploying small-scale units of “trees” to soak up more CO2 than real trees, wherever you might need them. “You can remove CO2 anywhere you want, and it can deal with emissions from anywhere else on the planet,” said Allen Wright, a scientist at the Lenfest Center. “There’s no real major discovery or invention that has to happen that would prevent us from deploying that technology tomorrow.”

But beyond just removing CO2 from the atmosphere, the new technology could also turn it into a valuable commodity. Carbon reduction methods often go hand-in-hand with an increase in costs, either through new equipment, or by assessing a fee on emissions. But what if captured carbon could become an economic benefit?

The new technology could serve the existing market for CO2, in enhanced oil recovery, to grow algae for biofuels, in plastic manufacturing, or even in soda – and it could also replace oil-based gasoline. “You can add hydrogen to those (captured) carbon atoms and re-create gasoline,” said Klaus Lackner, a scientist at the Lenfest Center. “It has a zero net impact on the environment because you’re taking the carbon out that burning the gasoline will put in.”

Lackner calls this approach closing the carbon loop because atmospheric carbon can be converted to gasoline, fuel vehicles without drilling for oil, and then collected once again by the “trees.”

But as with all potential energy breakthroughs, it faces two challenges: economics and regulations. The Lenfest researchers expect to be able to sell CO2 to industry for as little as $30 a ton, but they say a tax on carbon dioxide emissions would push up the price of gasoline by about 25 cents a gallon, expand the market for their product, and bring their invention from demonstration to deployment.

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About the Author

Silvio is Principal at Marcacci Communications, a full-service clean energy and climate policy public relations company based in Oakland, CA.

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  • Dave Wesely

    Closing the carbon loop is really the only long term solution. We need to pull the CO2 out of the atmosphere that has been previously added from fossil fuels to put our climate back into balance. Better efficiency and renewable fuels only slow down the release of CO2 into the atmosphere, they do not reverse it.

    An item overlooked in this article is the source of the energy needed to convert the CO2 back into a gasoline like liquid or carbon solid. And THAT energy is excess solar. The energy grid can only handle about 12% of its energy supply from direct solar or wind due to energy storage limitations. Instead of limiting the amount of solar energy we collect to match our power needs, we should be using the excess energy to “close the loop”. And in effect using a liquid hydrocarbon as the storage medium. I know it is not the most efficient use of the energy, and that ICE are not either, but it is better that not collecting the solar energy at all.

  • Esteban Sperber

    Very interesting, but I wonder why to use Hydrogen + co2 to make gasoline, it is not better that cars use directly hydrogen, like the only hybrid Hydrogen gasoline from BMW 7 active, I think the same hydrogen can be used to make gasoline can directly move any car with hydrogen, some countries in north Europe and Bavarian Police are using Hydrogen, not gasoline, so we don’t get any direct contamination from the cars. Thank You.

  • Elina

    This is only a closed loop as long as the capture and extraction of CO2 as well as the manufacture of the gasoline consume no energy or materials. Trees are still more efficient in the sense that they are fully powered by solar energy and they produce fuel directly. Also the point about NOx emissions is very valid.

  • Breath on the Wind

    If it were only so simple. We have been able to make gasoline for over 100 years using the Fischer-Tropsch process. It is only about 5% efficient and therefore costly. Only in South Africa where they had existing plants is the process used extensively. If this process were economical it might be beneficial to remove carbon at perhaps the most intense source: the smoke stacks of coal fired power plants.

    Much attention in the media is on carbon but just the operation of the internal combustion engine produces NOX no matter what fuel is used. This precursor to smog results from the atmospheric nitrogen being exposed to high temperature and compression. Sulpher dioxide is another pollutant resulting from internal combustion. The ICE engine and drive train is only about 15% efficient so the fuel we carefully make would be 85% wasted.

  • Anonymous

    “This transition to a renewable or carbon neutral energy system could easily take 50 or 100 years, even if we started working on it hard today, which we’re not doing.”

    If we worked hard on it we could move the world from fossil fuels to renewable energy in 20 years.


    This is a scheme to make liquid fuel which, according to its proponents, would work if gas was only a bit more expensive. Electric vehicles cost 25% or less per mile as liquid fuel vehicles.

    A move to 100% renewable energy and EVs could be accomplished with technology we have in hand, and in use, today. It’s all about political will, not the need for some breakthrough technology.

    • If CO2 could be captured and recycled into fuel, it could as well be used to make electricity to fuel electric cars. That would actually be a lot better than looping into the existing cycle: more efficiency, wider use and cleaner cities.

      You idea and theirs aren’t really incompatible.

      • The bigger issue is efficiency. With EVs being 90% efficient (tank to wheels) and overall efficiency 30-70% efficient (coal to PV sources) there is no way recycling CO2 to a liquid fuel will be anywhere as efficient as an EV is now. Maybe one day when we have unlimited Fusion power, the conversion cycle efficiencies won’t matter. But here in the real world, it will cost Waaaaayyy more to recombine hydrogen to CO2 to make liquid fuels, than competing technologies (which include simply drilling or even tar sands). The end result may be similar (less CO2 in the atmosphere), but the economics are hugely disparate.

      • Common sense

        To recycle CO2 into fuel, you need much more energy than you’ll receive from burning it. If you use fuel to produce electricity, and then more electricity to recycle CO2 into fuel, you have just wasted energy. –> Useless.

        This technology would only be usefull if all your electricity was created with nuclear or renewable energy. And that’s obviously not the case in a huge majority of countries.

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