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Ben there, done that

Are synthetic trees taking root?

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The effects of increased carbon dioxide in our air are cause for growing concern. No matter your stance or beliefs on the topic, irrefutable evidence reveals there is more CO2 in the air now than at any other point in modern history. 

In 2016, there was roughly a 33 percent increase of CO2 in the air from 1900. Any change this drastic will have an impact on the environment. In response, countless initiatives were developed to reduce CO2 emissions; however, we must ask if these initiatives are timely enough to prevent major changes to the environment? Do they address the CO2 already in the atmosphere? As well, many green initiatives are costly and harmful to business. What can be done?

A new process of removing carbon dioxide directly from the air might be something to think about. The process has already been carried out for many millennia right under our noses by virtually all plant life on earth. Until very recently, plants provided an adequate counterbalance to the CO2 we create; however, as we began to tap the vast reserves of carbon-based fuels under our feet, we changed the balance and level of CO2 in the atmosphere. Extensive research and development over the last several decades has been done to create a “synthetic tree” or device capable of direct air carbon capture. Many projects have been successful in achieving this; however, until very recently, none have been commercially viable. Once CO2 can be sequestered for less than $150 per ton, it becomes commercially viable. 

Some of the leading methods of direct air capture have been able to sequester CO2 for less than $100 per ton. A company by the name of Carbon Engineering, founded in 2009 with backing from Bill Gates and Norman Murry Edwards among others, has developed a commercially viable way of capturing and refining CO2 directly from the air. Their test plant, located in Squamish, British Columbia, only reached viability in 2017. In May of this year, the company announced plans to build its first full-sized plant in the Permian Basin, a major oil field in Texas. 

When completed, the plant is estimated to be able to capture and refine between 500,000 and 1,000,000 metric tons of CO2, per year. For reference, the average tree absorbs 48 pounds of CO2 per year, according to North Carolina State University. Judging by this metric the proposed plant would be able to do the work of tens of millions of trees while turning a profit.

Once we have sequestered all this carbon, what can be done with it? Well, that is where things get interesting. CO2 is an incredibly versatile and flexible resource. It is widely used as a gas-based fertilizer in commercial greenhouses and algae farms. With a bit of chemical engineering, this atmospheric gas can be turned into a very pure liquid fuel compatible with gasoline-powered engines, and it produces lower emission levels than traditional gasoline. On top of that, the CO2 released in burning the fuel can be recaptured and turned into fuel over and over again. 

Captured CO2 can also be used in concrete. The company Solidia has developed a special kind of concrete that injects CO2 into the mix while wet. This CO2 enhanced concrete dries in a fraction of the time and uses up to 70 percent less water. The CO2 used in the concrete gets mineralized, meaning even if the concrete is torn down, the carbon can’t escape into the atmosphere because it is a part of the concrete.

Much of our outlook on environmental issues these days is negative. It seems everywhere you look there is fear-mongering about climate change destroying the world. I wouldn’t be writing this if I thought there wasn’t cause for concern, but I think we often underestimate our ability as a species to innovate our way out of problems. We have overcome tremendous obstacles in the past on little more than the implementation of an innovative solution, and I don’t see why CO2 emissions are any different. It just might open up a whole new sustainable industry that can help power us long into the future.

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