The indices of Climate Change have been growing in the past few decades, culminating in some serious trends that have left the scientific community worried and the general public far from calm. In addition to Arctic sea ice levels reaching a record low and record high temperatures being set during the summer, North Americans also experienced the worst wildfire season in recorded history. Over a million acres of forest burned up in the US alone, but the extended range of the fires reached from as far south as Texas to as far north as Nunavut.
For many years now, those on the forefront of climate science have been arguing that things will get a lot worse before they get better, and argue that some drastic geoengineering projects might be the only way to avert disaster. Many of these involve advanced climate science, such as evaporating more water around the mid-latitudes or “capturing” carbon in the upper atmosphere and converting it to harmless compounds. But as Gaia Vince, a science writer from BBC’s Future pointed out, the solution may be as a simple as improving upon an existing “carbon capture” technology, otherwise known as the Tree.
For some time now, climatologists and naturalists have understood the role that trees, plants, algae and plankton play in the carbon cycle. Unfortunately, the long life-cycle of trees, and the various ecological issues surrounding the artificial stimulation of algae and plants, make this aspect of ecoengineering somewhat impractical. What’s more, the growing demand for agricultural space is also putting pressure on existing green spaces. As our population continues to grow and more farmland is needed to provided for them, simply planting plants and trees more may not even be an option.
Luckily, there is an invention that takes all this into account and provides a possible solution: the artificial trees. Designed by Klaus Lackner, director of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy at Columbia University, this “tree” is capable of absorbing CO2 from the air using “leaves” that are 1,000 times more efficient than the real thing, but at the same time does not require exposure to sunlight in order to carry out the process.
As Vince himself describes them: “The leaves look like sheets of papery plastic and are coated in a resin that contains sodium carbonate, which pulls carbon dioxide out of the air and stores it as a bicarbonate (baking soda) on the leaf. To remove the carbon dioxide, the leaves are rinsed in water vapour and can dry naturally in the wind, soaking up more carbon dioxide.”
Based on Lackner calculations, a single tree would be capable of removing one tonne of carbon dioxide from our atmosphere in a single day. By that reckoning, a forest of ten million would be able to remove 3.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in a single year, the equivalent of about 10% of our global annual carbon dioxide emissions. One hundred million would solve our emission crisis altogether!
As for the resulting mass that the process creates, Lackner claims that could be turned into liquid fuels to power vehicles. In fact, when CO2 and water are combined, the end result is what is known as syngas, a fuel that is easily converted into methanol and diesel. So basically, while the artificial trees are scrubbing the air of fossil fuel emissions, they are also actively creating the means to generate more fossil fuel. Might seem ironic, but this in turn will allow humanity to keep using their carbon engines, all the while knowing that they are producing less than the trees are extracting. This will give the scientists of the world more time to invent a clean alternative to the fossil fuel engine, and that by the time they do it won’t already be too late.
Although some question the viability of this entire process, mainly where the issue of total cost is concerned, Lackney stresses that as global fuel supplies dwindle, fuel companies will see the wisdom in buying into this process, mainly because it offers them the possibility of fuel retention. Yes, by investing in artificial trees, oil and gas companies will be able to turn their own carbon emissions back into hydrocarbon fuel. Which will come in handy if the oil runs out as quickly as some analysts say it will. In addition, us consumers can expect a break the pump if it all goes well!
Does this strike you as ironic, or just a weird and interesting take on recycling? Who knows? All that is certain is that the technology is making some pretty bold forecasts, and if it should prove successful, we are likely to see a great deal of investment towards this new method. I can see it now, countless roofs and skyscrapers with fields of artificial trees lining their roofs. Water circulation systems that capture the CO2 once its sucked off the leaves and then channeled down to the fuel cells in the basement. And the rest trucked off by trucks that bear the logo of Haliburton, Shell, and Petro Canada. And for once, the drivers won’t feel a lick of shame!