State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Artificial Trees: Giving Us Time to Act?

By Derek Sylvan

Klaus Lackner in the laboratory with students
Klaus Lackner in the laboratory with students

Throngs of spectators gathered in London in 1831 for a demonstration of Michael Faraday’s early electric motors. At the time, those electric rotary devices were high-minded novelties, too complex and expensive to mass-produce. Within a few decades they were everywhere, having ushered in the era of electricity.

Ever since then, power plants around the globe have been pumping out electricity, and with it, carbon dioxide. The air in London today contains about 40 percent more CO2 than it did at the time of Faraday’s demonstrations, and scientists around the world have sounded alarms about how this will affect the planet’s climate and ecosystems.

Some of today’s inventors have responded. Soon after Klaus Lackner met Allen Wright at Biosphere 2 in Arizona, they began dreaming up a way to pull CO2 out of the air. After years of work, the two, now based at the Earth Institute’s Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy, have come up with a working laboratory-scale prototype of a potentially major innovation – an artificial tree.

The white, paper-thin material making up these ”trees” can rapidly absorb CO2 from ambient air, and that CO2 can be separated away for sequestration or recycling using only water. If artificial trees were mass-produced and erected on roughly four percent of the Sahara desert, they could effectively cancel out all of the carbon emissions from the world’s cars, planes, and power plants. Like Faraday’s electric motors, these artificial trees might be the next invention that allows us to use all the electricity we want.

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers, based in London, is the latest of many groups to laud artificial trees as a potentially revolutionary invention. They will convene Air Capture Week, Oct. 24–28, in conjunction with the Lenfest Center. On Oct. 26, another crowd of onlookers will attend a public demonstration of the technology at the institution’s headquarters. If you can’t make it to London, you can listen to a broadcast of Lackner’s demonstration and see his slide presentation via this live link. Note: Webcast will go live at 1:00 p.m. EST on Oct. 26, 2011.

Derek Sylvan is an MPA candidate studying energy and environmental policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs

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Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

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