Scientists are looking at ways to lower the global temperature by removing greenhouse gases from the air. Could super-absorbent fake leaves be the answer?
It may be a colorless, odorless and completely natural gas, but carbon dioxide is beginning to cause us a lot of problems. It only makes up a tiny fraction of the atmosphere (0.04% of all the gas by volume – or 395 parts per million) but it has a huge effect on the Earth’s temperature. That's because unlike nitrogen or oxygen, carbon dioxide molecules absorb the Sun's heat rays even though they let light rays pass through, like a greenhouse.
Scientists are looking at ways to modulate the global temperature by removing some of this carbon dioxide from the air. If it works, it would be one of the few ways of geo-engineering the planet with multiple benefits, beyond simply cooling the atmosphere. Every time we breathe out, we emit carbon dioxide just like all other metabolic life forms. Meanwhile, photosynthetic organisms like plants and algae take in carbon dioxide and emit oxygen. This balance has kept the planet at a comfortably warm average temperature of 14˚C (57˚F), compared with a chilly -18˚C (0˚F) if there were no carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
In the Anthropocene (the Age of Man), we have shifted this balance by releasing more carbon dioxide than plants can absorb. Since the industrial revolution, humans have been burning increasing amounts of fossil fuels, releasing stored carbon from millions of years ago. Eventually the atmosphere will reach a new balance at a hotter temperature as a result of the additional carbon dioxide, but getting there is going to be difficult.
The carbon dioxide we are releasing is changing the climate, the wind and precipitation patterns, acidifying the oceans, warming the habitats for plants and animals, melting glaciers and ice sheets, increasing the frequency of wildfires and raising sea levels. And we are doing this at such a rapid pace that animals and plants may not have time to evolve to the new conditions. Humans won't have to rely on evolution, but we will have to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on adapting or moving our cities and other infrastructure, and finding ways to grow our food crops under these unfamiliar conditions. Even if we stopped burning fossil fuels today, there is enough carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that temperatures will continue to rise for a few hundred years. We won't stop emitting carbon dioxide today, of course, and it is now very likely that within the lifetime of people born today we will increase the temperature of the planet by at least 3˚C more than the average temperature before the industrial revolution.
The problem with removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is that it’s present at such a low concentration. In a power plant chimney, for instance, carbon dioxide is present at concentrations of 4-12% within a relatively small amount of exhaust air. Removing the gas takes a lot of energy, so it is expensive, but it’s feasible. To extract the 0.04% of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would require enormous volumes of air to be processed. As a result, most scientists have baulked at the idea.
Klaus Lackner, director of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy at Columbia University, has come up with a technique that he thinks could solve the problem - Fake plastic trees. Lackner has designed an artificial tree that passively soaks up carbon dioxide from the air using “leaves” that are 1,000 times more efficient than true leaves that use photosynthesis. "We don't need to expose the leaves to sunlight for photosynthesis like a real tree does," Lackner explains. "So our leaves can be much more closely spaced and overlapped – even configured in a honeycomb formation to make them more efficient."
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.
Lackner calculates that his tree can remove one tonne of carbon dioxide a day. Ten million of these trees could remove 3.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year – equivalent to about 10% of our global annual carbon dioxide emissions. "Our total emissions could be removed with 100 million trees," he says, "whereas we would need 1,000 times that in real trees to have the same effect."
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