Columbia geophysics professor Klaus Lackner is building a device that can take carbon right out of the air. The machine, which is often described as looking like "a goal-post with Venetian blinds," counteracts climate change in the same way trees do: by collecting carbon to keep it out of the atmosphere. But his devices are 100 times better at it and could address climate change without disrupting infrastructure, industry, or productivity. Lackner claims that "with the best technology currently available, I can get about a ton a day, maybe a little more, with a unit that can fit in a standard shipping container." These air capture devices could also be set up anywhere—from Antarctica to the Sahara. It doesn't matter because, as Lackner points out: "You can have a car in San Francisco producing CO2 and a collector in the desert of Australia taking it back. It's all the same CO2." Once the machines are set up and plugged in (they do require some electricity) they are essentially passive, just collecting carbon dioxide as air flows across their "blinds," which are strips of a special material developed by Lackner and his colleagues for grabbing CO2. And even with current "dirty" electricity, these machines are 80 percent efficient: Only 20 percent of what they sequester is cancelled out by their electricity use. After they collect the carbon, Lackner and his team can go in one of two directions. They can either incorporate the CO2 into stable carbonates and bury it in the ground, or they can combine it with water to make synthesis gas: the precursor to synthetic gasoline and oil. This solution is especially promising because it could create a closed cycle of energy in which carbon dioxide is captured and re-emitted with no net increase in harmful greenhouse gasses. Of course, one machine tree isn't enough. We would need a million of them to mitigate climate change and up to 10 million to return to pre-industrial carbon levels. Surprisingly, this is feasible. As with cars, building just one air capture device would be extremely expensive, but mass-producing them in a streamlined system is 10 times cheaper. "To put that in perspective," Lackner says, "the world produced 73 million cars in 2006 so several million air capture units is not unreasonable." "And," he adds, "we clearly have enough room to park 10 million cars." Lackner is currently raising money to construct a full-scale prototype of his air capture device, which he estimates will cost about $200,000. Though this seems a high price, Lackner is confident that it will eventually fall to car-level: about $20,000. "We could actually collect carbon without ruining the world economy or changing how things are done," he says. "With 3 or 4 factories, we'd be in the game." The air capture industry could also scale up just as the automobile industry did—starting out with small niche markets and higher prices and then, as manufacturing becomes more efficient, lowering costs and expanding into wider and wider markets. There are, in fact, a number of industries, including soft drink production and sanding equipment manufacturing, that must purchase large quantities of concentrated carbon dioxide to produce their goods. "That gives us a leg up," says Lackner. "We can start with a few tons of CO2 in one location, and as we gain experience we can build more units that are cheaper, and our potential market will get larger." Air capture is unlike other climate solutions in that it addresses the problem directly and won't require an overhaul of infrastructure or policy. Switching to electric cars, for example, would require a completely new and highly convenient refueling system, and would have a huge impact on trade and trade relations. Because Lackner's devices are modular and can be installed anywhere, they don't require that we develop a new transportation system or change the way we do things. Also, air capture is an ideal fit for the cap-and-trade system already in place because it collects carbon in a precisely quantifiable way. When asked about his efforts to generate political interest for his work, Lackner laughs, "Well, we're talking about it right?" It takes time to convince people that a technology is real and viable, he says, and it takes time to convince people it has policy implications. "It [climate change] also has to hurt before people will act, and we could well be too late by that time." Still, Lackner sees a bright future for climate and energy research. "Business as usual manifestly does not work, but we desperately need the energy," he says. "So to me, this is one of the most exciting fields to be involved in." A solution to climate change is about more than just science—it's about economics and politics as well. "This field will not succeed," he says, "unless it combines the restraints of all fields into one way to think about the problem."
Columbia Spectator Staff